Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine
March, April, 1997

This report is an account of travel to nine Jewish population centers in Ukraine between March 17 and April 10 in 1997. The trip was made by Betsy Gidwitz (the writer) of Chicago and Sandra Spinner of Cincinnati, each of whom has traveled to Ukraine on numerous occasions in the past. Large cities visited were Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odesa; the writer had visited all of these cities on earlier journeys. New points on the itinerary were Mikolayiv and Kherson, both in southern Ukraine, and three smaller Jewish population centers within Cherkasy and Kyiv oblasts -- Cherkasy, Korsun-Shevchenkivsky, and Boguslav.1


1. Upon arrival in Kyiv, our entry point to Ukraine, we were informed by Ukrainian customs authorities that the considerable humanitarian aid in our luggage could be distributed only after all items had been inspected and approved by the Commission on Humanitarian Assistance, an entity reporting to the Ukrainian Council of Ministers. Responding to widespread fraud in the import and distribution of shipments designated as humanitarian assistance, the Ukrainian government imposed new restrictions on such goods in a resolution dating from February 19, 1997.

Customs officials conducted an initial inspection of our cartons and duffel bags at Borispil airport shortly after our arrival. They appeared most interested in confirming that (1) expiration dates on pharmaceutical goods were valid, and (2) clothing was new. They seemed somewhat baffled by (although not hostile to) computer software on Judaic subjects. We presented inventories, lists of intended recipients, and letters of support. Although expressing no objection to any particular goods or to intended recipients,3 they informed us that no aid was to be distributed until approved by officials from the Commission on Humanitarian Assistance. Because each carton and duffel bag had been addressed to Rabbi Yaakov D. Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, we were permitted to transfer the shipment to his synagogue on Shekavitskaya street, rather than place the items in storage at the airport; the latter would have led to storage fees and possible pilferage.

On the day following our arrival, we discussed the customs situation with Monica Eppinger, a political officer at the Embassy of the United States in Kyiv. (See #20, pp. 16-17.) She informed us that such problems were common and directed us to Molly Mort, an official at the Kyiv-based Regional U.S. AID Mission for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, the U.S. government entity designated to deal with humanitarian aid issues. Ms. Mort explained the new Ukrainian government procedures and provided relevant documentation. She noted that Rabbi Bleich was well-acquainted with the Commission on Humanitarian Assistance. Ms. Mort suggested that Rabbi Bleich’s office could work with the Commission to resolve outstanding issues regarding our shipment.

Despite repeated calls to the Commission by Rabbi Bleich’s staff and several visits by Commission employees to the synagogue to inspect the various commodities, the shipment was not released during our stay in Ukraine. The issue of our sequestered humanitarian assistance was a persistent distraction and irritation throughout our visit, resulting in almost daily telephone queries in search of clarification and assistance.

Reports had circulated in the United States and elsewhere since late February, i.e., since the resolution of February 19, of new Ukrainian restrictions on humanitarian assistance. Because the initial restrictions affecting Jewish organizations were imposed on containers conveying flour for matzos and other Pesach food, the impression among many concerned Jews was that the new policy applied (only) to containers; the possibility that the new procedures applied equally to goods brought into Ukraine by individual travelers had not been considered. We had received no warning from Jewish communal officials or others in Ukraine or from the various support organizations in the West that a new restrictive policy also pertained to smaller quantities of humanitarian aid.

2. Shortly after our arrival in Kyiv, we learned that Rabbi Bleich, who had been expected to return to the Ukrainian capital on March 19 from a visit to Israel and Bratislava, had fallen ill in Israel and would stay there for an indeterminate period. He remained in Israel during our entire journey, returning to Kyiv for a few days in mid-April following our departure and then for another brief period in late May. As of early June, no firm date had been established for his return to Ukraine on a long-term basis.

Rabbi Bleich’s absence was keenly felt. He is widely respected in his dual roles as chief rabbi of Kyiv and chief rabbi of all Ukraine. On a personal level, he had been one of the coordinators of our trip and we had eagerly anticipated discussions with him on various issues concerning Ukrainian Jewry.

The Karliner-Stoliner hasidim, the group with which Rabbi Bleich is associated, disdains publicity. Their failure to identify his illness led to a number of awkward questions and unpleasant rumors among Ukrainian Jews and others aware of his lengthy absence from the city.

3. Rabbi Moshe Asman, an Israeli born in Leningrad, has been the chief representative of the Chabad movement in Kyiv since 1996. Officially, his titles are Chief Rabbi of the Central (Brodsky) Synagogue and Chief Representative of the Chabad Youth Movement in Ukraine. Rabbi Asman is supported by Tsirei Chabad (Young Chabad), a group aligned with the political philosophy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rabbi Iosif Aronov of Israel and Rabbi Yonah Prus, an American resident of England, are associated with this organization.

Rabbi Berl Karasik remains Chief Rabbi, but now spends most of his time at the Chabad day school in Kyiv.

We met with Rabbi Asman in his office at the Brodsky synagogue in the center of Kyiv. Rabbi Asman outlined the history of the synagogue. It was built in 1897 by members of the Brodsky family of industrialists and philanthropists. Confiscated by Soviet authorities in 1926, it sustained “destructive remodeling” as it was converted into a puppet theater in 1955. In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Rada enacted legislation providing for the return of property to religious groups. In 1992, the Mayor of Kyiv issued a declaration (#1605) to the Brodsky synagogue community asking that it cooperate with the puppet theater until the following year when the puppet theater was to vacate the property. However, the puppet theater failed to leave the premises in 1993. In the meantime, it permitted the construction of several kiosks immediately adjacent to the building; its income from these markets, which include a currency exchange, may be significant.

In March 1996, shortly after his arrival in Kiev, Rabbi Asman met with Leonid Kuchma, President of Ukraine, to seek his assistance in recovering the synagogue. Mr. Kuchma said that the Mayor of Kyiv was supporting the puppet theater in its efforts to retain control of the building. However, the President “ordered” the Mayor to return the synagogue to the Chabad community. Subsequently, a court directed the puppet theater to vacate the premises by December 1997. Rabbi Asman observed that the theater has obtained another Kiev building, which requires extensive renovation; the theater management is asking the synagogue to reimburse it for repairs and improvements to the second facility. In response, Chabad has asked the puppet theater for compensation to cover more than 40 years of unpaid rent as well as remodeling and restoration of the synagogue.

The opposing sides are now quiet. According to Rabbi Asman, the puppet theater knows that it must leave by the end of the year. He believes that it will do so, but its management may attempt to profit from its departure, e.g., it may remove and take with it the stained glass windows installed by the theater as replacements for the synagogue windows (that were decorated with Jewish motifs). Chabad is waiting for the puppet theater to move; it does not want to initiate any action that might exacerbate the situation.

4. In cooperation with the Joint Distribution Committee, the synagogue operates a dining room serving hot meals to 200 elderly Jews every week. Management of the puppet theater often calls the Ministry of Public Health to report supposed violations of the sanitary code in connection with the kitchen and dining facility, but Ministry officials understand that the theater is attempting to harass the synagogue and do not take any subsequent action following the telephone calls.

5. Additional activities at the synagogue include a Sunday school, classes for adults, a small library, various clubs, lectures, and holiday festivities. These activities and synagogue services co-exist with the puppet theater. The Chabad community also publishes 10,000 copies of a monthly Jewish newspaper От сердца до сердцу (Ot serdtsa k serdtsy or From Heart to Heart), which is distributed free of charge in Kyiv and other communities.

6. Chabad also operates a day school in Kiev, enrolling 300 children in kindergarten through fifth grade. Space limitations preclude additional classes; until the school is able to obtain larger premises, most pupils finishing the fifth grade continue their day school education in programs operated under the direction of Rabbi Bleich.

7. In commenting on the general atmosphere in Kyiv, Rabbi Asman observed that antisemitism is no longer a major problem in the area. The country was becoming more democratic, but it remained unstable due to severe economic conditions. He fears that the increasingly grim economy may lead to antisemitism in the future.

8. In response to questions about his goals for the future, Rabbi Asman stated that his immediate goal was to recover the entire synagogue and convert it into a Jewish communal center with a synagogue chapel and space for offices and various meeting rooms. He perceives it as a center for Chabad activity throughout Ukraine and the surrounding area, including the Children of Chernobyl program. Best known for airlifting children from radiation-afflicted regions to Israel, this effort also provides medical supplies, food, and clothing for distribution in Ukraine and Belarus. Expressing strong Zionist sympathies, Rabbi Asman also views a remodeled synagogue as a facility offering educational programs that prepare Kiev Jews for emigration to Israel.

1. All place-names are in Ukrainian orthography.
2. Kyiv was visited twice, at the beginning and at the end of the journey.
3. Primary intended recipients were Jewish welfare societies and Jewish schools in the various cities on our itinerary.

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