Betsy Gidwitx Reports

In response to a question, Mr. Kantor said that most of the individuals who attend his programs are people whom he has met through his work at the Israel Cultural Center and at Beit Grand.  Many Jews, he continued, are searching for a spiritual framework, but find Chabad and other Orthodox practice unappealing.  Answering another query, Mr. Kantor stated that the cost of renting suitable premises for a more comprehensive Masorti program probably would be about $500 monthly.



16.  The Progressive/Reform movement has had a presence in Odesa since 2000, expanding significantly in recent years due to the acquisition of larger program space, frequent visits of a student rabbi, and a more active lay leadership.  The rabbinical student, a native of Odesa, is expected to become the fulltime rabbi of the congregation, Temple Emanu-El, when she completes her studies at the Reform seminary in London.


The writer spoke with Viktor Zonis, current lay head of the community.  Mr. Zonis had emigrated to Germany and spent 15 years in Dortmund.  He was a member of the local Orthodox congregation while there, but decided to return to the post-Soviet states and to embrace Progressive Judaism.  Progressive Judaism, he said, is a much more logical expression of Judaism for a population in which the majority of Jews are intermarried and few Jewish young people are halachically Jewish.


The Odesa congregation, continued Mr. Zonis, now has about 300 members, many of whom are employed in local cultural or intellectual institutions.  Members include Jews originally from Ukraine (including other cities), Russia, Belarus, Israel, and the United States.  In response to a question, Mr. Zonis said that about 35 people usually attend Friday evening Shabbat services.


The congregational Sunday school enrolls 17 youngsters and a Netzer youth group draws 20 to 25 adolescents.  An art studio for children and adolescents also is popular.  Emanu-El hosts adult classes in Hebrew, Judaism, and Jewish history, as well as literary and chess clubs for adults.  The congregation publishes a periodic newspaper, of which Mr. Zonis, a professional journalist, is the editor.  In addition to reaching Emanu-El members, the newspaper is distributed at kiosks in Sochnut, the Israel Culture Center, and  several other venues frequented by Jews.


Mr. Zonis described the congregation as strongly Zionist in orientation.  Many students from Emanu-El participate in Taglit/birthright tours, and the congregation enjoys excellent relations with the Jewish Agency, said Mr. Zonis.


In response to a question about relations with the two Orthodox chief rabbis, Mr. Zonis said that such relations are cool and correct, nothing more and nothing less.  When they see each other, they nod in recognition and usually say a few words in a perfunctory greeting.



The rented premises of Temple Emanu-El include two large halls.  At left is a reception hall that features work by local artists on its walls.  Through the arch on the right of the reception area is a room that doubles as sanctuary and classroom, as seen in the photo at right.  The premises also include offices, a small kitchen, and other workspaces. 

Photo: the writer.


To outsiders, it may seem quixotic, but Mr. Zonis is attempting to recover the Brodsky synagogue, a substantial structure dating from the nineteenth century that is now used as a Lutheran church with, said Mr. Zonis, support from the German government.  The synagogue is not related to the Brodsky synagogue in Kyiv; the name of the Odesa building derives from the hometown of many of its founders, Brody, a city in western Ukraine near Lviv.[33]




International Organizations



17.  The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI, Sochnut) maintains an office in Odesa that is managed by a non-residential director, Shlomo Azarov, who lives in Israel and commutes monthly for a 10-day visit to the city and the surrounding area, which includes Moldova.  The non-residential tenure permits JAFI to reduce expenses regarding housing and support for Mr. Azarov's family.  Five local individuals staff the office on a fulltime basis, each with responsibility for a particular JAFI program area.   Due to scheduling issues, the writer met separately with Mr. Azarov and with the five-person staff.[34]


The Jewish Agency staff estimated the Odesa Jewish population at 21,000 in a municipality of 1,029,000.  In the 19th century, they said, 60 percent of the entire Odesa population was Jewish, and 30 to 40 percent of the population was Jewish prior to World War II.  The next largest Jewish population centers in southern Ukraine are Mykolaiv (5,600 Jews)[35] and Kherson (3,500).  The Jewish population will be considerably smaller in ten years due to emigration of younger age cohorts and assimilation of those who remain, predicted the staff.


In 2012, reported the staff members responsible for aliyah, 205 Odesans emigrated to Israel, not including those who changed their status to new immigrant while visiting relatives in Israel, participating in MASA, or in Israel for another reason.  The number of Odesans currently enrolled in aliyah-related activity is 726.  Additionally, 60 Odesa young people currently are in Israel on MASA programs, and 63 have been in Israel or will visit Israel on Jewish Agency Taglit/birthright Israel tours in the near future.  The number of young people enrolled in JAFI Taglit tours actually has decreased in recent years due to competition from other Taglit providers.[36]


In the area of formal education, JAFI currently operates eight Hebrew-language ulpan groups in the Odesa region.[37]  It also assists four Jewish day schools (three in Odesa and one in Mykolaiv) with Hebrew-language instruction through the Heftzibah program, which pays the salaries of eight teachers from Israel in Heftzibah schools; in total, about 1,300 youngsters are enrolled in these four schools.  Additionally, JAFI operates small Sunday schools in both Odesa and Mykolaiv, reaching a total of 50 youngsters.


The Odesa regional JAFI office will sponsor a two-session summer camp in the summer of 2013, enrolling 115 youngsters between the ages of seven and 12 in one session and a similar number between the ages of 12 and 15 in the second.  In response to a question about winter camps and other summer camp follow-up activity, JAFI staff stated that it lacked funds to operate a winter camp or even a Shabbaton during the winter.  The JAFI office is too small to host activities for children or teens even for a period of several hours; its multi-purpose room actually is an expanded corridor that controls access to staff offices.


A JAFI student group holds about four meetings during the year, the frequency partially dependent upon finding low-cost or free meeting space.  Actually a project of the JAFI Hamama incubator project, the student club attracts veterans of Taglit and MASA.  Its mailing list includes 50 to 60 people, of whom about 30 are active; a large proportion of its members also are associated with Hillel and/or Moishe House, said a staff member.  Individuals on the mailing list are notified of upcoming activities through these and other organizations and on Facebook.[38]


The JAFI Hamama incubator project, which provides seed money for innovative projects in formal and informal Jewish education, involves about 120 young adults, said JAFI staff.  However, it is difficult to operate this program in Odesa because participants find it arduous to come to the inconveniently-located JAFI office for meetings and the office space is not conducive to deliberative activity anyway.


Whenever possible, said JAFI staff, JAFI conducts activities jointly with other organizations in order to advance Jewish communal collaboration and reduce expenses.  It co-sponsors Chanukah celebrations with the Migdal JCC and the ORT school; Jerusalem Week with Beit Grand, Migdal, JDC, and the ORT school; Israel Independence Day with MASA and Hillel; and Holocaust commemorations with the new Holocaust Museum.


[33] The Reform orientation of the synagogue is well-documented.  For a recent article (in Russian), see Олег Губарь, Бродская община и синагога, Морiя, № 13 (2012), cтр. 37-58. [Oleg Gubar, The Brodsky Community and Synagogue, Moriah, #13 (2012), pages 37-58.]  Moriah is the scholarly journal associated with Gennady Katzen, profiled on pages 19-20 of this report.

[34]  Mr. Azarov was in Moldova, participating in a Holocaust memorial observance and attending to other JAFI matters during one day of the writer's visit to Odesa.

[35] See pages 34-39.

[36] At least six organizations now provide Taglit tours from Ukraine.  The best known are Hillel, the Jewish Agency, and the Israeli government Nativ program.

[37]  JAFI includes significant Jewish-identity programming in its ulpans and requires a fee for participation.  The Israel Culture Center offers Hebrew classes without charge, but does not include Jewish-identity content.  

[38]  The writer attended a portion of a meeting of this group that was held in the conference hall of the Holocaust Museum.  (See pages 21-22.)  An orientation briefing was held, a tour was conducted, and participants gathered later for further discussion of the Holocaust.  According to JAFI staff, knowledge of the Holocaust varied significantly from student to student; some were well-informed, and others knew very little.  About 30 students attended, along with seven older adults who had not been invited, but had learned about the meeting/tour and just appeared.  It is not unusual for retired Jews in the post-Soviet states to attend events planned for other Jewish demographic cohorts.

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