Betsy Gidwitx Reports




Situated on both banks of the Dnipr River in the north central part of the country, the origins of Kyiv are lost in antiquity.  However, the Ukrainian capital is known as the “mother of all Russian cities,” long pre-dating cities in Russia itself.  Kyivan Rus – the city and territories around it - is considered the forerunner of the modern Russian state.  In 988, Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv designated Orthodox (Byzantine rite) Christianity as the state religion of Russia and established its seat in Kyiv.  Kyivan Rus attained its greatest powers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when it was a trading center between the Baltic and Mediterranean seas.  Sacked by Mongols in 1240, the lands of Kyivan Rus were successively under Tatar, Lithuanian, and Polish control from the fourteenth century and then annexed by Russia in 1686.  The third largest city in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Kyiv was occupied and almost completely destroyed by German forces between September 1941 and November 1943.  Historic buildings and monuments were reconstructed by the Soviet victors and the later independent Ukrainian state.

Now the capital of independent Ukraine, Kyiv is the political hub of the country and an important center of Ukrainian commerce, industry, culture, and education.  The city is known for its location on the Dnipr River, its historic buildings and monuments, and the Kreschatyk, the broad boulevard that is its main street.  By the time of the writer's visit in April 2015, the detritus of the previous year's violence had been cleared from the center of the city, including the famed Maidan (Independence Square) and Kreschatik.


Maidan Nezalezhnosti is bisected by the Kreschatik, a wide and long boulevard that is the main street of Kyiv.



Photo: . Retrieved April 7, 2016.



The general population of Kyiv includes about 2.8 million permanent residents and an unknown number of unregistered migrants.  The latter include internally displaced people from the east, people from less well developed parts of the country, and foreigners using the city as a transit point in attempts to move elsewhere.


Estimates of the size of the Jewish population of Kyiv range from 25,000 to 70,000, with most serious demographers agreeing on a number of about 35,000.  Unlike many other large Jewish population centers in the post-Soviet states, Kyiv lacks unambiguous Jewish leadership.  The chief rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, frequently is absent from the city, and no other individual has emerged as a credible leader of Kyiv Jewry.  The majority of Kyiv Jews remain aloof from organized Jewish activity. 



Jewish Education



56.  The Orach Chaim Jewish day school (School #299), operating under the auspices of Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, is the oldest of five Jewish day schools in the city.  Khariton Gilgur, its longtime principal, said that its current enrollment is 300 youngsters from preschool through grade 11.  This figure includes 40 girls in a machon and 40 boys in a cheder. Classes are coeducational in the regular day school through grade five and single-gender in grades six through 11. 


In response to declining enrollment in the day school, the number of Jewish studies classes (Jewish tradition and Hebrew language) was reduced to two lessons each day on Monday through Thursday and three lessons on Friday.  Another major issue in maintaining enrollment, said Mr. Gilgur, is Rabbi Bleich's insistence that all pupils be halachically Jewish; such a policy, Mr. Gilgur believes, is unrealistic in a country where the rate of intermarriage has exceeded 70 percent for several generations.


Through relationships that Mr. Gilgur has cultivated on a district council and that Rabbi Bleich has cultivated with the Lauder Foundation, Orach Chaim has obtained funds to install unbreakable windows, new break-proof doors, and security technology in its various buildings.  It is known, said Mr. Gilgur, that vandals approaching one of the structures were deterred by the sight of the new security cameras.  Such improvements in the school, Mr. Gilgur continued, are greatly appreciated by parents, who are alarmed by the "overspill" of the war in the eastern part of the country.   Certain volunteer militias include criminal elements, and weapons now are readily available outside the combat zone, he said.  It is, possible, Mr. Gilgur added, that some criminal incidents are "provocations" instigated by Russians or pro-Russians to spur unrest in Ukraine.


In response to a question, Mr. Gilgur said that antisemitism continues, but is not a major factor in the lives of most Jews.  To some degree, he stated, Russia has replaced Jews as the new enemy, but a difference exists in that people are afraid to antagonize Russia and are not fearful of insulting Jews.



Khariton Gilgur is the veteran principal of School #299, a Jewish day school in Kyiv.  He is apprehensive about the future of the school and the future for his own family in Ukraine.  The current situation, he said, is a "tragedy without end."



Photo: the writer.



Regarding the general mood (настроение) in Kyiv, Mr. Gilgur said that life in the city has become very difficult.  The economy appears near collapse.  Some banks have closed.  Inflation is very high.  Many institutions, including the Orach Chaim schools, and other community entities are not always able to pay salaries on time.  Crime has increased.  Thus, he concluded, many people are very tense.



57.  The Simcha-Chabad Jewish Academy was established in 1992 by Berel Karasik, then a Chabad-associated local leader in Kyiv. The two-building institution is located in the Dniprovskiy district of the city, on the east bank of the Dnipr River.  Simcha is affiliated with Tsirei Chabad (Young Chabad), an Israel-based faction of the Chabad movement. The school receives no financial assistance from Ohr Avner, the educational arm of the Chabad-controlled Federation of Jewish Communities.  The writer spoke with Rabbi Mordechai Levenhartz, director of Tsirei Chabad programs in Ukraine.


Rabbi Levenhartz said that the current enrollment at Simcha was about 300 youngsters, including 90 in a preschoool.  Approximately 20 pupils from internally displaced families from eastern Ukraine attended the school at one time or another in recent months, but 15 have left for Israel with their families and only five remain.  Five children from local families previously unknown to Simcha entered the school in 2014-2015, Rabbi Levenhartz said, because their parents liked what they saw when they came to the school complex to pick up matza in a welfare program.


The school curriculum includes seven class hours in Jewish studies each week. Four are in Hebrew language instruction, and three are in Jewish tradition.  An Israeli atmosphere pervades the school.  A notable weakness in its secular program is the absence of a high-quality science and technology program.[92]


Nineteen youngsters celebrated their bar or bat mitzvahs at Simcha this year, Rabbi Levenhartz stated.  A sponsor contributed funds enabling them to mark the occasion with a group tour to Israel.  However, only 13 were able to participate; the remaining six are from divorced families and were unable to obtain the permission from each parent that is necessary for minors to leave Ukraine.  A number of other students participated in a school Shabbaton that was held at the hotel in the complex controlled by Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich.[93]


Overall, enrollment in Simcha is declining, stated Rabbi Levenhartz.  Many families have left for Israel, more in the last six months than in the past ten years.  Due to the crumbling local economy, many have lost their jobs and some have lost money in banks that have collapsed.  They see no future in Ukraine for themselves or for their children.  Most of these departing families, Rabbi Levenhartz commented, have no family members already in Israel to welcome them.  Also, many teenagers have left the school on their own to join the Na'aleh high school in Israel program; he expects that 15 to 20 high school students will leave Simcha during the summer to enroll in Na'aleh.  It is possible, Rabbi Levenhartz continued, that Simcha will have to close a class because it will be too small to receive the government subsidy that is given to classes of a designated minimum size.


Rabbi Mordechai and Mrs. Devorah Levenhartz deliberately selected a poor area of Kyiv for their work.  They have been in Kyiv since 1998.


Photo: the writer.



Fundraising in the current environment, said Rabbi Levenhartz, is terrible (страшное); he has no local sponsors anymore.  Oligarch Vadym Rabynovch ceased support of security measures suddenly, without warning.  Now, they have only a "facade"  (фасадка) of security, said Devorah Levenhartz, wife of the rabbi.  So far, they have had no serious incidents, but some ne'er-do-wells just hang around the school and create an unpleasant atmosphere.


Inflation also is terrible, affecting everything that they need to buy.  A silver lining of sorts exists in that the dollar goes further than previously, but, of course, they need more international assistance.  They have cut back on the quality of food served in the school, stated Rabbi Levenhartz; for example, fresh fruit has become too expensive for them.


Speaking of the welfare service that Simcha operates in the neighborhood, Rabbi Levenhartz said that they feed approximately 100 poor elderly Jews every day.  Older people simply cannot live on their government pensions.  Some nearby people, including families, receive food parcels.  Simcha also sponsors celebrations for such holidays as Sukkot and Purim.  These events usually attract about 120 people, most of them poor and some who are chronically hungry.  Many attendees take home food from the festivities.  Their list of clients is coordinated with the local Joint Distribution Committee hesed[94] to ensure that the neediest receive assistance; JDC provides a subsidy for some of these programs, Rabbi Levenhartz said. 


Asked about the general mood (настроение) in the city, Rabbi Levenhartz said that is one of uncertainty.  Significant questions about politics and the economy mean that it is impossible to plan ahead.  No one knows will happen.  This lack of confidence in the future is spurring aliyah, he stated.  Even people in good professions requiring advanced education and training, such as doctors and dentists, are leaving; it is not just poor people who are going to Israel.[95]



58.  The ORT Kyiv Technology Lyceum was established in 2000 as a lyceum, an elite school with a competitive admissions policy.  It is located on the east, or less prosperous, side of the Dnipr River in a generally unattractive part of the city.  The school currently enrolls 398 pupils in grades five through 11, an increase of almost 15 percent from the previous year.  As an ORT school, its curriculum includes five to six class hours of technology weekly, along with afterschool technology clubs, said Principal Yuri Kinkov.  Students have done well in ORT technology competitions and the lyceum is accredited by Microsoft and several other IT companies for excellence in various IT disciplines.


The Lyceum standard academic curriculum also is strong, Mr. Kinkov stated; its students have done well in several city-wide high school competitions.  The Jewish studies component of the school includes a total of five weekly classes divided between Hebrew language and a secular approach to Jewish tradition.  ORT students have been successful in Jewish day school competitions, and the most gifted Hebrew students are rewarded with trips to Israel.  Some students in the upper grades participate in Holocaust-related trips to Lithuania and Poland, said Mr. Kinkov.  The school observes all Israeli holidays, he noted. 


Mr. Kinkov stated that some ORT Lyceum pupils transfer to ORT schools in Israel under the Na'aleh high school in Israel program.  He spoke with great pride of several Lyceum graduates being accepted by the highly regarded Technion in Haifa through a new Masa program designed to respond to the aspirations of gifted high school graduates from Russian-speaking countries; gaining admission through competitive examinations, participants are enrolled in a first-year preparatory curriculum including Russian-language courses in science, technology, and mathematics, as well as an intensive Hebrew course.  Prior to the development of this program, such an opportunity for Ukrainian students to learn at the Technion was only a dream, said Mr. Kinkov.


The next major step for the Lyceum is a much-anticipated move to a new facility in September.  Currently accommodated in two former kindergarten buildings designed to accommodate small children, Mr. Kinkov had spent many years petitioning municipal authorities for premises better suited to the needs of a technology-oriented school for older pupils.  The Lyceum now is scheduled to begin the 2015-2016 school year in a four-story building about 20 minutes away from the preschool structures.  The renovated building includes a sports hall and other facilities that the preschool lacks.


Yuri Kinkov, principal of the ORT Lyceum in Kyiv, was looking forward to beginning the 2015-2016 academic year in new, more spacious premises designed to fulfill the needs of a technology-oriented middle/high school.


Photo: the writer.



In response to a question about the general mood (настроение) among parents and teachers in the lyceum, Mr. Kinkov said than 90 percent of school families were in favor of current Ukrainian government policy, that is, a strong military rebuke to Russian and pro-Russian forces fighting in eastern Ukraine.  One teacher has been called up and is fighting in the east, and a number of other teachers and parents are doing various forms of volunteer work in support of Ukrainian troops.  Antisemitism is not an issue in Ukraine these days, he said.


[92] Simcha joined the ORT school network later in 2015, a step that should significantly improve its science and IT curriculum.

[93] See page 21.

[94]  See page 23.

[95] Rabbi Levenhartz observed that 15 new young adults recently had enrolled in the STARS (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers) program that he supervises.   He is certain, he commented, that all joined because they need the stipend that STARS provides; it is unlikely that any are interested in learning Torah or other Jewish content in the STARS course of studies.

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