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


The major factors driving Jewish emigration are economic conditions and the perception of parents that no future exists for their children in Ukraine. Both Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki of Dnipropetrovsk and Rabbi Pinchas Vyshetsky of Donetsk are strong Zionists and are helpful in promoting aliyah. However, the economic situation in this part of Ukraine is so severe that Jews will go to Israel without much encouragement. A principal role of Sochnut is to facilitate aliyah and to help Jews make decisions that will make their klitah (absorption) easier.

About 2,000 Jewish adults are studying Hebrew in ulpans throughout the region and 1,500 Jewish youth are enrolled in Sochnut-related Jewish youth clubs. Nine such clubs are located in Dnipropetrovsk and four are in Donetsk.

About 750 youngsters will participate in Sochnut-affiliated summer camps in the region. Parents of all campers will be asked to pay at least a small portion of camp fees; otherwise, too many people fail to regard the camp registration process seriously. They reserve places for their children, but the children never appear for camp.

Approximately 75 percent of Jewish families in the area are actually intermarried families. If the children of these families go to Israel, they will become Jews because their surroundings will be Jewish. About 60 percent of all emigrating Jews from the area go to Israel, 25 to 30 percent go to the United States, and 10 to 15 percent go to Germany. It is possible that departures to Germany may decrease because the German economy is weak, many Ukrainian Jews in Germany are not doing well, and economic factors are causing German officials to be more stringent in confirming the Jewish ancestry of would-be immigrants.

Mr. Rashal said that high inflation in Ukraine had caused major budget problems for Sochnut. Inflation exceeded 100 percent in 1995 and 1996,35 but the Sochnut budget increased only 30 percent. Further difficulties were caused by cash flow problems within Sochnut.

Mr. Rashal believes that relations between his office and the local Israel Center, which is operated by the Lishkat Hakesher, are good. The two organizations work together in sponsoring several special events. The Lishka brings Israel to Ukrainian Jews and Ukraine, and Sochnut brings Ukrainian Jews to Israel.

Mr. Rashal returns to Israel five times each year. Much of his time in Israel is devoted to visiting youngsters from the region who are enrolled in the Na’aleh 16 program. Local parents of the Na’aleh pupils are grateful for his concern.


47. Still referred to by most Ukrainians by its Russian name of Nikolayev, this city is located at the confluence of the Bug and Ingul rivers, just north of where they flow into the Black Sea. Its protected location in the Bug gulf spurred its development as a Black Sea port and naval shipbuilding center. Until the mid-1980s, Nikolayev was a closed city, i.e., it was closed to foreigners because of its military significance.

According to Ukrainian state statistics, the 1994 population of Nikolayev was 508,100. The shipbuilding industry has all but collapsed since the dissolution of the USSR, thus causing a severe economic depression in the region.

48. We met with Grigory (Gersh) Ainbender, a local historian and activist in the Jewish community. Mr. Ainbender said that Jews have lived in Nikolayev at least since the Russo-Turkish War (1735-1739), when Jewish merchants came to sell goods to the then nascent shipbuilding industry. Despite tsarist edicts during the nineteenth century to prohibit Jewish settlement in Nikolayev on the pretext that the city was an important naval base,36 its Jewish population grew rapidly. About 21,000 Jews lived in the city at the time of the 1917 Revolution, about 20 percent of the entire population. They supported 26 synagogues, including a large choral synagogue.

Local Jews were killed during pogroms in October 1905 and during the Civil War in 1919-1920. More than 100,000 Jews were killed in the Nikolayev region during the Holocaust, many of them brought into the area from Odesa and Moldova. According to Mr. Einbender, Nazi death squads massacred Jews at three major killing grounds; however, the site of only one of these has been identified with absolute certainty. Three local Jewish villages, each with populations of 8,000 or more, were completely destroyed by the Nazis: Dobroyen, Novopoltavka, and Plushevka. Relatives of the victims have built modest memorials at each site, none with any assistance from the government.

The last synagogue in Nikolayev was closed by the KGB in the 1950s. The KGB set the building on fire to destroy it and its contents, including a torah, books, tefillin, and other items. Rabbi Garelick, the rabbi of the shul, ran back inside and rescued the torah from flames already engulfing the structure. A large Jewish cemetery was closed by the authorities in 1956 and a zoo was constructed on its premises in 1978-1979. However, many families were able to move remains and headstones to other sites.

Officially, the Jewish population of Nikolayev is 7,500. Mr. Ainbender thinks that as many as 20,000 Jews live in the city, many of them in mixed marriages and many who changed their names and ethnic identity in their passports as they tried to find new jobs. Mr. Ainbender believes that many Jews will remain in Nikolayev, but that the majority of younger people will emigrate to Israel. His own daughter has lived in Israel for five years, and he advises other young people to make aliyah as well.

Those Jews who go to Israel do so for economic reasons, not because of Zionism. Popular antisemitism exists, but the government no longer promotes anti-Jewish bigotry. A group affiliated with UNA-UNSO congregated around the Jewish community sukkah last year; they made a few speeches and dispersed.

49. Rabbi Shalom Gottlib, a young and very energetic Chabad rabbi from Israel, had been in Nikolayev with his wife Dina and young son for six months at the time of our visit. Rabbi Gottlib explained that, although the Nikolayev Jewish population was small, Or Avner considered it a priority area for rabbinic placement because of its role in the history of the Chabad movement. The late Lubavitcher rebbe was born there in 1909.

Once Rabbi Gottlib decided that he wanted to work in the post-Soviet successor states, Or Avner suggested that he visit several possible postings, including Nikolayev. In all, he visited three cities that needed rabbis. He returned to Israel and approached a senior rabbi for advice, explaining to the older man the conditions that he had observed in each of the three cities. The senior rabbi considered the options for several days, then suggested to Rabbi Gottlib that he work in Nikolayev because that city would be the least onerous for his wife and family. Its proximity to Odesa would permit the young family to maintain close ties with relatives in Israel because there are frequent short flights between Odesa and Israel. Further, Dina Gottlib would be less isolated in Nikolayev because she is friendly with several Israeli Chabad women who reside in the city of Kherson, a short distance away. Rabbi Gottlib accepted the advice offered by the senior rabbi and decided to become the rabbi of the Nikolayev Jewish community. After six months in the city, he does not regret his choice.

Or Avner pays Rabbi Gottlib’s salary. Rabbi Mendel New of Melbourne is an additional sponsor; Mrs. New was born in Nikolayev, and the New family is related to Joseph Gutnik, the Australian Jewish mining magnate.

50. City authorities have returned an entire city block of Jewish communal buildings to the Jewish community under Rabbi Gottlib’s leadership. The authorities have suggested that they will reclaim the buildings if Rabbi Gottlib fails to restore them within one year, a nearly impossible task. Rabbi Gottlib hopes that some flexibility exists within the stated timeframe.

One of the returned buildings is the former tailors’ synagogue, a large structure that was used during the Soviet period as a sports club. (Chiseled into the stone façade of the building are four panels depicting various sports and outdoor themes plus a fifth panel with slogans.) This building is now used as meeting and office space. It has a small kitchen and dining room. The sanctuary, which had been used as a gymnasium, is now used as a storeroom; it and other parts of the building will require extensive remodeling. At the opposite end of the property is the old Ashkenazi shul. It is designed in classical Russian style, its exterior painted in robin’s-egg blue. Its interior is empty. Rabbi Gottlib hopes to develop its main hall as the new synagogue sanctuary, several adjacent rooms as community offices, and some small rooms upstairs as youth activity rooms.

Between the Ashkenazi shul and the tailor’s shul is a large structure that was once a religious school. Used during part of the Soviet period as an office building, the structure is full of debris, some of which appears to be discarded construction materials, now fragmented and unusable. Removal of the accumulated rubble, which is several feet deep in many areas, and renovation of the former school into usable educational space will be a major task requiring considerable time and funds.

51. The Joint Distribution Committee works in partnership with Rabbi Gottlib in extending welfare services to elderly Jews in Nikolayev. Facilities at the tailors’ synagogue serve as the base from which such JDC services are dispensed. At the time of our visit, in early April, 400 Jewish seniors were receiving monthly welfare parcels; the number of recipients was expected to more than double, to about 900, in the near future. Rabbi Gottlib said that prior to his arrival, some recipients had been selling the contents of the JDC aid packages to others and even hawking JDC-supplied commodities in bazaars; policemen had been bribed to facilitate such activity. Rabbi Gottlib is now supervising the welfare service very carefully and has been able to terminate this commercial exploitation of JDC service.

With the assistance of JDC, Rabbi Gottlib is serving hot nutritious meals to about 100 people daily in the tailors’ synagogue. He hopes to provide meals to about 150 in the near future. Funds from JDC enable meals-on-wheels to be delivered to 15 homebound elderly on a regular basis now and probably to about 40 or 50 within the next several months. Sixty elderly receive regular home assistance (cleaning, cooking, shopping, etc.) from JDC, a number that will increase to 100 soon.

35. The Ukrainian inflation rate for 1996 was closer to 40 percent, although it may have been higher in some regions of the country.
36. Similarly, Jews were prohibited from living in Sevastopol, another critical Black Sea naval base.

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