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


60. With the assistance of his secretary, Maria Mikhailovna Lapis, Rabbi Wolf reviewed the welfare program, which is operated from the synagogue in cooperation with the Joint Distribution Committee. Seven hundred elderly Jews receive monthly food parcels funded by the Claims Conference, 80 individuals are served hot meals six days each week at the synagogue, and another 40 homebound elderly receive meals on wheels. About 30 elderly had received new clothing.

Another partner in welfare work is the Jewish Veterans Club, chaired by Yaakov Efimovich Shulman, who is also a vice-president of the Jewish community. Mr. Shulman, who has an office in the synagogue, oversees welfare services for World War II veterans and arranges various special events for them, such as concerts and chess tournaments. He calls each veteran on his or her birthday, expressing congratulations and best wishes from the Jewish community. (Posted on one wall of the synagogue dining room is a list of Kherson Jews who perished in the Red Army during World War II and an honor roll of Jewish Heroes of the Soviet Union.39 )

61. The Kherson Jewish day school, designated as School #59, opened in 1993 with three classes meeting in the synagogue. It now is located in its own building and enrolls 217 pupils from the last year of kindergarten through eleventh grade. (To date, no separate Jewish pre-school exists in Kherson.)40

The school structure, formerly a kindergarten building, has been extensively remodeled and is one of the most attractive schools that we have seen in Ukraine. Its appearance is enhanced by the professional artwork of an ‘artist in residence,’ whose murals and other productions grace its walls. (The artist was working on a three-dimensional model of Jerusalem during our visit.)

Rabbi Avrum Wolf said that about 70 percent of the day school pupils are from poor families, 20 percent from middle class families, and 10 percent from relatively wealthy families. The school feeds two meals daily to 250 pupils, teachers, and staff.

The school is strongly Zionist in orientation. Rabbi Wolf said that his “dream” (мечта) is that all graduates of the school go on aliyah to Israel; actually, the eleventh-grade class (the equivalent of high school seniors in the U.S.) is severely depleted as many youngsters have already moved on to Israel in Na’aleh 16 or other programs. Four girls attend Beit Chana in Dnipropetrovsk, preparing to be teachers.

The school places great emphasis on mastery of modern Hebrew, devoting six hours each week in each grade to study of the language. Pupils learn in small groups in a room well-equipped with various learning materials. The wives of the three rabbis, all Israeli natives, are the principal teachers.

Kherson day school pupils study Hebrew in small groups. Shoshana Weber, seen at left, teaches elementary school boys in special Hebrew-language classroom.


Twelve computers had recently been installed in the school. A Pentium server controls a network of eleven 486 models on a network. Only the server has a CD-ROM drive. In a physics class that we observed, a teacher using educational physics software developed in Moscow integrated use of computers into physics instruction.

After meals, pupils sing the Birkat Hamazon (Hebrew blessing after meals), using as guides laminated cards with the blessing printed in Hebrew on one side and Russian-language transliterated Hebrew on the other. Different versions of the blessing had been prepared for different age groups. Rabbi Avrum Wolf said that the cards and had been prepared and produced in Kherson.

Rabbi Wolf is in frequent contact with Rabbi Shalom Gottlib in Nikolayev and Rabbi Yitzhok Lipshitz in Simferopol (Crimea), both of whom are Chabad colleagues. Aware of their difficulties in establishing viable day schools in small Jewish population centers, he has suggested to them that they send Jewish children from their cities to the Kherson school. Rabbi Wolf has already identified an available dormitory building in Kherson that could be used by out-of-town boarding pupils.


62. With a population of 1,046,400 in 1994, Odesa is the fifth largest city in Ukraine. A large port on the Black Sea, it is the dominant city in the southern part of the country. Odesa was the second largest Jewish population center in all of Russia between 1880 and the 1920s, surpassed only by Warsaw, the capital of Poland, which then was within tsarist Russia. Odesa Jewry of that era played an important role in local and regional commercial activity. Local Jews were also known for their secular character, commitment to Jewish communal institutional development, and intense political involvement. Odesa became an important center of Zionism and Hebrew literacy.

Approximately 180,000 Jews, then about one-third of the city population, lived in Odesa, before World War II. About 100,000 were killed in the Holocaust, the majority by Romanian troops. A large number managed to escape (many by sea) during the long the long siege of the city that preceded its occupation.

About 46,000 Jews are believed to reside in Odesa today. Jewish emigration from the city has been heavy, with a large proportion opting to go to the United States or to Germany rather than to Israel.

Representatives of Jewish organizations working in Odesa concurred in the view that the Odessa Jewish population was “different” from Jews in most other post-Soviet cities. Local Jews were viewed as “more devious” and “less trusting”.

The mayor of Odesa, Eduard Gurvitz, is Jewish. His first wife lives in Israel with their children, and his son by his second wife attends the Jewish day school sponsored by the Israeli government. (See section #71 on pages 55-56.)

63. The issue of rabbinic leadership in Odesa is complex, with no clear resident authority figure who is respected in a manner comparable to Rabbi Bleich in Kiev, Rabbi Kaminezki in Dnipropetrovsk, or Rabbi Avrum Wolf in Kherson. Two men claim to be Chief Rabbi of Odesa, each designated as such by a municipal department that issued appropriate certificates and stamps.

Shaya Gisser, a native of Odesa, emigrated to Israel some years ago and returned to Odesa in 1990. Affiliated with the Chabad movement, he has had some rabbinic education, but has not received semicha (rabbinic ordination). Nonetheless, some refer to him as Rabbi Gisser in deference to the training that he has completed.

Shaya Gisser is certainly among the vatikim (Heb., old-timers) of Jewish religious figures in the successor states, but he is not of them. Whereas others have had as their first priority the establishment of Jewish day schools, Gisser, after seven years, has built no day school. Whereas others often encourage Jewish youth and young adults to build their futures in communities more accommodating to Jewish tradition and Jewish culture than contemporary Ukraine, Shaya Gisser criticizes Zionism and Israeli efforts to promote aliyah. Whereas others focus on the teaching of Hebrew as an essential language in Jewish life, Shaya Gisser is hugely proud that he publishes the only Yiddish journal in Ukraine. Whereas others assiduously court foreign sponsors in search of funds that cannot be raised locally, Shaya Gisser disdains most international fundraising because, he says, foreign money means foreign control.41

Shaya Gisser is renovating a old synagogue, a project that is proceeding slowly due to inadequate funds. He said that 50 to 60 people attend Shabbat services at the synagogue, and 60 to 70 adults attend Sunday lectures there. Thirty to 40 adults meet with Gisser or one of his associates twice weekly for text study. His synagogue sponsors a club for pensioners, a library, music and drama productions, and a weekly Russian-language Jewish newspaper Шомрей Шабос (Shomrei Shabbos, Ashkenazi Heb., or Guardians of the Sabbath) that is mailed to 300 subscribers at their homes.

The община (obshchina or community religious organization of which the synagogue is a component) operates a kindergarten in which 57 children are enrolled. Eighty to 100 children participate in Sunday school classes, and additional youngsters are enrolled in other programs.

The religious organization opened a new cemetery in 1995, the first new Jewish cemetery in all of the successor states. It can accommodate 300 gravesites.

Shaya Gisser said that his organization distributes American government aid to 100,000 people in Odesa oblast, working through various [non-denominational] organizations, hospitals, boarding schools, and other organizations. He made no reference to working with JDC in any welfare or other projects.

64. In mid-1993, Ohr Somayach International decided to establish a day school and yeshiva in one of the post-Soviet successor states.42 Odesa was selected as the site for this project, based on knowledge that it was the only large Jewish population concentration in the successor states without such institutions, on recommendations from Odesa natives then studying at Ohr Somayach, and on the proximity of Odesa to Israel.

39. A disproportionately large number of Jews were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union during World War II, a fact that Soviet propaganda suppressed.
40. In the USSR, pre-schools were operated for children between the ages of three and six. Many were organized by industries and institutions principally for the children of employees, but some accepted ‘unaffiliated’ children. Fees were charged, although the cost was heavily subsidized by the sponsoring enterprise. Such pre-schools were early casualties of the collapse of the Soviet Union as sponsoring institutions were no longer able to provide support. First grade began at age seven, a policy that prevails in most of the successor states.
41. The writer has seen little evidence of inappropriate foreign influence in such areas as Jewish education or ritual where philosophical incompatibility could be a destructive force. The reality is that rabbis and others working in the successor states approach potential donors whose perspective on Judaism, Zionism, and other issues is similar to their own.
42. Ohr Somayach was founded in 1972 to provide an intellectually stimulating course of Orthodox Jewish studies for students with strong secular educational backgrounds, but limited Jewish educational experience. Originally geared toward young men from English-speaking countries, Ohr Somayach later began a Russian-speaking department to accommodate the increasing number of Russian-speaking olim in Israel. The main Ohr Somayach campus is located in Jerusalem. Its perspective on Israel is strongly Zionist.

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