Betsy Gidwitx Reports


Socializing experiences are very important for both youngsters and their families, observed Ms. Olshanitskaya.  All Jewish and Ukrainian holidays are celebrated, and an annual banquet is held at the Menorah Center.  Additionally, some online festivities are organized with different groups in Boston.


Notwithstanding the crisis in eastern Ukraine, Ms. Olshanitskaya observed, conditions are stable at the Resource Center.  However, the situation for individual families continues to deteriorate.  Most families are single-parent units, she said, because many fathers abandon their families at the birth of disabled children.[21]  The demands of special-needs children are such that most mothers are unable to work outside the home. The state pensions that handicapped people receive did not cover even basic expenses before the steep increases in inflation, and these already-inadequate pensions are not indexed to inflation rates.


Understandably, continued Ms. Olshanitskaya, many mothers of Resource Center children are severely depressed and worry constantly about the fate of their children if the mothers themselves become ill or die.  Ms. Olshanitskaya arranges some social activity, as well as counseling, for parents and other caregivers.  The Jewish Women's Microenterprise Loan Fund and Project Kesher also offer programs to Resource Center mothers.[22]


The Resource Center receives significant professional and financial assistance from Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (the Jewish federation in Boston).  In one such program, CJP supports a video conference series in which specialists from Gordon College of Education in Haifa (Boston's sister city) instruct Resource Center staff and professionals from several other Dnipropetrovsk institutions in special education methodology and other topics related to special needs children and youth.  The Resource Center, which possesses all of the necessary video equipment, convenes the conferences in which 15 to 16 professionals from other Dnipropetrovsk programs also participate.  Another Boston contribution has been a specially-equipped passenger van that is fitted with two lifts to bring wheelchair-bound youngsters into the van and then discharge them efficiently and safely.  The van is essential to transporting youngsters between their homes and the Center, said Ms. Olshanitskaya. 


The family of Dr. Judith Wolf, one of the founders of the Dnipropetrovsk Kehilla Project, supports a warm home program in which three to five Resource Center children in the same age group, along with their mothers and several Resource Center professionals, meet in the home of one of the children.  The children and parents know each other and are comfortable with each other, a key element of the program, Ms. Olshanitskaya stated.  One professional leads the children in arts and crafts and other informal activities, while another meets with the mothers for childcare education, counseling, and informal recreational projects of their own.  The Resource Center provides light refreshments, birthday presents, and van transportation.  Two such warm home events are held each month, engaging each child at least twice yearly.  The gatherings in children's homes also enable professional staff to assess home conditions, such as individual space available to the Resource Center child, said Ms. Olshanitskaya.



9.  The Hillel student organization occupies a suite of two activity rooms and several  offices in the Menorah Center.  A third room, which is a computer training center with 12 workstations and a small conference room, is located on another floor.[23]  


Olga Tovkach, the director of Dnipropetrovsk Hillel since 2008, said that the number of individuals on the Hillel contact list has declined sharply over the past year, reflecting two developments.  The first and most important is a surge in aliyah (emigration to Israel) of Jewish students and young adults.  The second is the transition of a large number of former participants to an age cohort in which Hillel activism is no longer appropriate.  The Hillel contact list has fallen from 1500 to 800 in recent months, Ms. Tovkach said.  About 200 of these are activists, participating in at least one program monthly, compared with about 300 activists during the last academic year.  Not surprisingly, the decline in participation has led to a dwindling number of those willing or able to assume leadership positions; a smaller pool of students generates fewer participants with the necessary skill sets to teach various classes (such as Jewish tradition, Hebrew, English, computer skills), lead committees, or perform other functions required by Hillel.



Olga Tovkach, the highly regarded Hillel director in Dnipropet-rovsk, resigned her position during the summer of 2015 to make aliyah to Israel with her husband and other family members.



Photo: the writer.


Notwithstanding the declining number of participants, Hillel continues to engage more Jewish young people than any other Jewish organization in the city, all of which are affected by the same demographic issues.  Hillel works closely with student groups associated with the Jewish Agency and with the Jewish Community Center.  In response to a question, Ms. Tovkach said that Hillel does not collaborate with the Chabad organization See the Light because that group accepts only those young people who are halachically Jewish.  Hillel does not want to exclude anyone with even relatively remote ties to the Jewish people, it does not want to cut people off.[24]


Ms. Tovkach observed that the Hillel organization in Donetsk, whose establishment had been strongly supported by Hillel in Dnipropetrovsk several years ago, had ceased operations.  Most Jewish students, she continued, left Donetsk and emigrated to Israel, some of them emigrating through the MASA program.[25]  Members of the Donetsk Hillel staff, continued Ms. Tovkach, were now working in Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Dnipropetrovsk.


At the moment, Ms. Tovkach said, Dnipropetrovsk Hillel is conducting its annual Week of Good Deeds.  Responding to current needs, the focus this year is on internally displaced people, about 50,000 of whom are in Dnipropetrovsk.  JDC and the Schusterman Foundation are joining Hillel in providing financial support for Hillel work with internally displaced families and elderly people.  Hillel volunteers participated in a seminar to prepare them for their programs with the IDP's.


Notwithstanding the problems noted above in finding individuals with appropriate skill sets to lead its various classes, Hillel continues to operate a variety of programs that appeal to Jewish students.  A grant from a local family has enabled Hillel to offer several studios for aspiring artists (both professional and amateur), noted Ms. Tovkach, and the information technology program remains very active.  The latter offers instruction in coding and other skills; all computer instruction is fee-based, she said, but tuition charges are lower than in commercial classes, thus attracting numerous young people, including some non-Jews.  Approximately 20 Hillel students are enrolled in Pesach University, a multi-session program that instructs participants in the conduct of Pesach seders.


Taglit (birthright Israel) remains very popular with Hillel members, Ms. Tovkach stated.  Dnipropetrovsk Hillel will recruit local Jewish young adults for three Taglit buses (40 people each) this year.  Comprehensive follow-up with Taglit returnees continues, she said; Hillel, the Jewish Agency, and the Israel Culture Center work together in organizing common special events for returnees from Taglit tours from all three groups.  Perhaps the highlight of these events is a Shabbaton.  In common with the other local Taglit sponsors, Hillel encourages Taglit veterans to enroll in Masa programs.  Masa is increasingly popular as many young people are eager to explore Israel in depth; they are seriously considering aliyah as an alternative to life in present-day Ukraine.[26]


10.  Established in 2006 and already operating programs in Kyiv, Odesa, and other post-Soviet cities, Moishe House started its Dnipropetrovsk group in 2014 with assistance from the international office of Moishe House and from the Joint Distribution Committee.  Its facility is a small two-story house with a relatively large living room on the ground floor and quarters for its residents on the second floor.  At the time of the writer's visit, the two resident directors were Roman Shulman, age 24, and Kostya Konyvets, age 21.  The two men described such programs as weekly Shabbat dinners, observance of all Jewish holidays (including the 9th of Av, said one), accompanying youngsters from Older Brother, Older Sister[27] in visits to wounded veterans in a Dnipropetrovsk military hospital, entertaining internally displaced Jewish children awaiting emigration to Israel,[28] visiting Jewish elderly at Beit Baruch,[29] and visiting children with cancer at a local children's hospital.  They also visit a general orphanage and raise funds for children requiring complex surgery.  Additionally, Moishe House participants volunteered at various projects during the recent Week of Good Deeds.  They attended a seder as a group at the Menorah Center and held their own seder for 18 people at Moishe House on a different evening.  A teacher from the Jewish Agency teaches Hebrew at Moishe House. They have organized one Moishe House Shabbaton  at a nearby facility.



Roman Shulman, left, and Kostya Konyvets, right, were directing the Dnipropetrovsk Moishe House at the time of the writer's visit in April.


Photo: the writer.



Most programs at Moishe House attract 15 to 22 young people, said the two men.  However, twice-weekly musical evenings of both Jewish and non-Jewish music often attract additional young adults. 

[21]  Ms. Olshanitskaya related a recent troubling episode in which a father of an autistic boy in the Resource Center beat the boy severely when he did not meet the father's behavior standards.  Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki intervened in the situation

[22]  See pages 11 and 8-9 about the Jewish Women's Microenterprise Loan Fund and Project Kesher respectively.

[23] In mid-2015, seeking lower operating costs, Hillel moved out of the Menorah Center and returned to its earlier and less expensive former premises in the small community building located in back of the synagogue.

[24] Among the joint activities sponsored by Hillel, the Jewish Agency, and Jewish Community Center are various holiday celebrations.  See pages 13-14 for more information about the Jewish Agency, page 8 for information about the Jewish Community Center, and page 7 for information about See the Light.

[25]  The Masa Israel project offers more than 200 study, internship, and volunteer opportunities in Israel to Jewish young adults.  The programs are five to 12 months in duration.

[26]  Follow-up with JAFI regarding Masa programs is facilitated by the fact that the Dnipropetrovsk JAFI representatives, Natalia Nabitovsky and Max Lurie, resided in Dnipropetrovsk before they made aliyah and are well-known and trusted in the city, said Ms. Tovkach.  See pages 13-14 regarding JAFI in Dnipropetrovsk.

[27] See page 5.

[28]  The children were staying with their families at the Mayak transfer center, a facility operated by the Jewish Agency for Israel.  See page 14.

[29]  See pages 10.

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