Betsy Gidwitx Reports



68.  Rabbi Yonatan Markovich and Mrs. Ina Markovich are well known in Kyiv for the private Jewish day school and the school for autistic children that they operate.[100] However, they also lead a small Chabad synagogue with a modest welfare service.  The synagogue has acquired its own building from the city, said Rabbi Markovich, but this structure needs significant renovation.  They would like to open a traditional Chabad House within the building and to re-open a yeshiva that had functioned for several years in the recent past, but the financial situation precludes such investments for the foreseeable future.


In speaking about internally displaced Jews, Rabbi Markovich and his wife said that they had accommodated up to seven families at a time in a cottage that they had rented in a village outside Kyiv, where such an operation was less expensive than inside the city.  Each family was assigned to one of the seven rooms inside the structure.  Many of these people seemed ashamed to ask for the aid that they so clearly needed, said Mrs. Markovich.  Some of them also had psychological problems, she stated.  Rabbi Markovich said that about 90 percent of all of the Jewish IDP's had emigrated to Israel and the remaining 10 percent were split between those who went to Germany and those who had settled somewhere in Ukraine outside the combat area.


In addition to emigration by internally displaced people, Rabbi Markovich observed that emigration is depriving Ukraine of many of its most skilled citizens.  These are the individuals, said Rabbi Markovich, who are essential to the development of a true civil society within the country.  The government cannot buy a civil society, he said, referring to the pervasive corruption within Ukraine.


The Markoviches stand apart from other Chabad rabbis in Ukraine; they are associated neither with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine nor with Rabbi Asman of the Brodsky synagogue.  They have been criticized by some others affiliated with Chabad for their perceived aloofness, but it is likely that their higher education creates a barrier of sorts with other hasidic rabbis.  Rabbi Markovich is a graduate of the Technion in Haifa and spent many years as a computer specialist in the Israeli Air Force; Mrs. Markovich also is a college graduate.  They engage in substantial outreach, inviting local Jews to their home every Shabbat and also meet frequently with people of other religious backgrounds.



69.  Rabbi Reuven Stamov arrived in Kyiv in March 2012 to provide rabbinic leadership to a nascent Masorti/Conservative Jewish community that had existed for some years while receiving guidance from visiting Israeli mentors.  As their congregation has grown, the Masorti group has made several moves from one structure to another, although they remain in the Podil area, close to both Rabbi Bleich's synagogue complex and to the Reform/Progressive movement.  (See below.)  Rabbi Stamov was born and raised in Crimea; his wife Lena is a native of Rovno, a city well known in Jewish history, in western Ukraine. 


Rabbi Reuven and Lena Stamov are seen at right with the youngest of their three daughters.  They met and married in Jerusalem while Rabbi Stamov was studying for the rabbinate at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.  Mrs. Stamov has a strong background in art and in education.


Photo: the writer.



Between 30 and 40 people usually attend Masorti Shabbat services on Friday evenings, said Rabbi Stamov, and 15 to 20 come for mincha (afternoon prayer service) and havdala (end of Shabbat) on Saturday.  So far, it has been difficult to attract a regular minyan (group of 10 people) on Shabbat morning.  Sunday is a major program day, with various classes for both children and adults.  Three Hebrew ulpan groups for adults meet several times each week, along with an ulpan especially for children.  About 20 university students, some of whom are also active in Hillel, study Jewish tradition.


All Jewish holidays are observed.  A Chanukah Shabbaton attracted 40 participants, including families from Kyiv, Odesa, Berdychiv, and Chernivtsi.  The out-of-town guests stayed in private rented apartments in order to minimize expenses.


The congregation pursues a policy of joint programming with other Jewish groups.  For example, the Sholom Aleichem Museum has been very helpful in Jewish history education and cultural programs.  They also collaborate with the Jewish Agency, Hillel, Project Kesher, and Limmud.   Interaction with these groups brings new members into Masorti, noted Rabbi Stamov.


Masorti also operates three camps.  Camp Ramah Yachad, a summer camp for youngsters, was held in the Carpathian Mountains in far western Ukraine.  A family camp was convened in the Cherkasy area, south of Kyiv.  A student camp attracted 40 young adults to a site between Odesa and Mykolaiv.


The Masorti congregation also supports a small welfare assistance program.  They provide 50 households with holiday parcels containing staple food items and fresh fruit.  Most of the recipients are pensioners, said Mrs. Stamov, but a number of needy family units also receive these gifts.


Regarding fundraising, core financial support still originates abroad, said the Stamovs.  However, they have three local major donors who pay for the food parcels, certain furnishings and supplies, and various services, as well as other contributors who give smaller amounts.  Local donors provided funding for rental of a local hall and for amenities for a large Purim celebration.  They noted that they also received a grant from a local government body for training in team-building and strategic planning.  Further, the Stamovs said, their congregation includes several skilled craftsmen and teachers who either donate their skills or charge significantly lower fees than their usual com-mercial fees.


Asked about Masorti activity in other Ukrainian cities, the Stamovs said that a small community in Odesa, led by two local individuals, is growing from year to year.  Further growth would be aided by acquisition of permanent premises; unfortunately, a local businessman who had promised to obtain a facility for them, later reneged on his pledge.  They continue to move from place to place, renting cafés and other properties for their programs.   Lycée Sha’alavim[101] provides a small nucleus for a Masorti community in Kharkiv, stated Rabbi Stamov.  Kharkiv young adults with whom he confers in visits to the city and at Masorti camps would like to develop a non-Orthodox congregation close to the city center, but they need funds to acquire appropriate program space; due to the economic situation, it would be relatively inexpensive to find suitable property now, but the Masorti movement still lacks resources to do so.  Further, they also need to find and compensate a part-time leader for structured Kharkiv operations.


The entire Masorti movement in Ukraine is enriched by periodic working visits of senior rabbis and educators from Israel and Europe, said Rabbi Stamov.  These specialists teach in Masorti camps and train local teachers.  Visiting rabbis have joined Rabbi Stamov in examining candidates for conversion to Judaism.



70.  The Progressive/Reform movement has had a presence in Kyiv for more than two decades.  It has been led during the past 15 years by Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, a native of the city who received rabbinic training at the Leo Baeck College seminary in London.  In the absence of Rabbi Dukhovny, who was not in Kyiv at the time of her visit, the writer spoke with Alexander Gaidar, executive director of the Progressive/Reform movement in Ukraine and of its Kyiv congregation, known as Hatikvah.  We met in the new Hatikvah premises, which are located in a modern office building in the Podil area of Kyiv.


About 200 people pay membership dues, which are minimal, to Hatikvah congre-gation, said Mr. Gaidar.  Between 600 and 700 other people attend Hatikvah events fairly frequently, Mr. Gaidar continued, but are not dues-paying members.  The congregation would never exclude people because of inability to pay, he said.  Most family units in Hatikvah are intermarried families, he noted.  Whatever the specific religious background of people in these families, they come to Hatikvah because they are in search of a "spiritual foundation" for their lives.  They are seeking a comfortable way of exploring their roots.



Alexander Gaidar, executive of the Reform movement in both Kyiv and all of Ukraine, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Soviet air force.  From a military family, Mr. Gaidar said that he was once a communist, but information that he obtained during the perestroika period in the mid- and late-1980's led to a change of views.


Photo: the writer.


The major Reform/Progressive repetitive programming is Shabbat activity on Friday nights and on Saturday.  On Saturday mornings, a brief service for adults is held concurrently with education sessions for children.  After the service/classes, a potluck lunch is available and is followed by a film on the Torah portion of the week.  Hatikvah ceased Sunday programming some years ago, said Mr. Gaidar, because families want to be together doing other activities then.


Occasional cultural evenings are held in the Hatikvah premises.  Several talented musicians and "amateur cantors" are members of the congregation, Mr. Gaidar noted.  Additionally, Hatikvah has been able to mount several exhibitions of art on Jewish themes. 


About 20 local Jewish youth are active in Netzer, the Reform youth movement.  About 50 people attended the most recent Reform Shabbaton, which was held in Uman in June.  Previous Shabbatonim have been held in Cherkasy, Lutsk, Kamianets' Podils'kyi, Khmel'nyts'kyi, and Berdychiv.  It is important, Mr. Gaidar stated, that people have the possibility to leave the current tense atmosphere in Kyiv, even if only for a few days.


Speaking of the Reform movement on a national level, Mr. Gaidar said that, prior to the recent economic crisis and the Russian takeover of Crimea, about 20 cities and towns in Ukraine had a Reform presence.  At this point, he continued, that number has decreased to about 12 active congregations.  The only other Reform rabbi, in addition to Rabbi Dukhovny in Kyiv, in the country is Rabbi Yulia Gris, who serves a congregation in Odesa.  All active congregations remain active by raising local funds, in addition to receiving some support from the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  However, WUPJ subsidies are insufficient to cover all expenses of any Reform community, even in small towns.


In response to a question about internally displaced Jews, Mr. Gaidar said that Hatikvah had not had much contact with them.  It is his impression that most of them would like to return to their homes in the Donbas [Don River basin], rather than go to Israel or remain in Kyiv.


Contradicting statistical evidence, Mr. Gaider said that few Kyiv Jews are interested in aliyah.  Emigration to Israel is attractive to Jews from smaller, weaker towns in western Ukraine, but does not interest Jews in Kyiv.  Those Jews who emigrate from Kyiv are more interested in going to Germany than to Israel, stated Mr. Gaidar; intermarried families come to Hatikvah for assistance in obtaining proof of at least partial Jewish lineage so that Germany will grant them entrance visas.


Questioned about the general mood (настроение) in Kyiv, Mr. Gaidar said that some antisemitism exists, but it is much weaker than in France or elsewhere in Europe.  Further, in contrast to the Soviet period, antisemitism is not government-instigated. People in Hatikvah congregation are strongly opposed to Russian actions in eastern Ukraine; they even raised money within the congregation in support of welfare needs in the Donbas area.[102] Vladimir Putin, stated Mr. Gaidar, would like to establish a Russian corridor through southern Ukraine from Donetsk to Mariupol to Odesa to Pridnestrovye(also called Transnistria, Trans-Dnistr, or Transdniestria), a Russian-controlled enclave between the Dniester River and the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine.  Ukrainian citizens, Mr. Gaidar averred, want to live in a free, united Ukraine that is part of Europe.



71.  Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, Chief Rabbi of Donetsk since 1994, retains his title, but resides in exile in Kyiv, attempting to serve his now dispersed community while working in an office in a Kyiv office tower.  He fled Donetsk in late August of 2014, at the strong urging of Chabad colleagues, as Russian military personnel crossed into Donetsk oblast without permission of the Ukrainian government.  Rabbi Vishedski had ordered most of his subordinate staff out of the city in June; at that time, said Rabbi Vishedski. it was still fairly easy to leave Donetsk, traveling by road to Mariupol and onward from there.  Checkpoints and other barriers had not yet been established.


He feared, he said, that he had lost more than 20 years of work.  Many of the approximately 5,000 Jews who had lived in Donetsk before 2014 had been fairly prosperous.  They had nice apartments and many families had two cars.  They took several vacations every year, and they were generous donors.  Rabbi Vishedski had renovated the old synagogue and was looking for a new property on which to construct a larger synagogue.  He had just opened a new day school building near the center of the city, replacing an older facility that was less accessible.  He also had built a community center and a welfare operation that served the elderly and others who needed assistance.  Now, he lamented, many more people, including former donors, need help. 

[100] See page 20.

[101]   See page 16.

[102]  Mr. Gaidar did not elaborate on the specific destination of these funds.

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