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


Rabbi Shlomo Baksht
, a young educator and native of Israel, arrived in Odesa in December 1993 and almost immediately began offering evening classes in Judaism and Hebrew to interested adults. He also began to organize a high school, which would open in September 1994 with an enrollment of 75 boys in grades seven through ten. A high school for girls was started in 1995, and an elementary school for boys and girls opened in 1996. The three schools together enrolled 490 pupils in spring 1997.

The schools offer strong programs in both secular and Judaic studies. The former includes music, art, and drama, and the latter includes eight hours in Hebrew language instruction and five hours in Jewish tradition each week. After two years of Hebrew classes, Jewish tradition classes are taught in the Hebrew language. Approximately 16 teachers from Israel are employed in the schools, some on a fulltime basis and others on a part-time schedule, to teach Hebrew and Jewish tradition.

The high schools have a total of 16 computers (one 486 and 15 386s). Only one has a CD-ROM drive.

Children in the elementary school wear uniforms consisting of white shirts (and a tie for boys), blazers, and dark skirts or trousers. Because each class was permitted to select its own blazers, school assemblies are a sea of jackets of different colors. According to Rabbi Baksht, the cost of each uniform is about $30; the families of about 50 percent of the children paid for the outfits, and the others received the clothing as a gift from the school. At the time of our visit, pupils in the high schools were not wearing uniforms.

In September 1996, Ohr Somayach brought 20 older high school pupils to Israel for a yearlong program of intensive instruction in Jewish and general studies. Similar opportunities will be made available to Ohr Somayach Odesa pupils in the future. Many are expected to remain in Israel permanently, but some will return to Odessa for university and perhaps the longterm future as well.

The Ohr Somayach schools are private, charging $16 monthly in tuition. Only about 50 percent of the pupils are from families that pay the full amount. Rabbi Baksht estimated that about 10 percent of Ohr Somayach pupils are from wealthy homes. The school is subsidized by Ohr Somayach and by the Zev Wolfson fund. Rabbi Baksht has not attempted to do any fundraising in Odesa, both because he is too busy fulfilling his responsibilities in education and because, he believes, local fundraising efforts would not be productive in a society where Jews are unfamiliar with and resistant to the concept of tzedakah.

65. In September and November of 1996, Rabbi Baksht opened children’s homes for 30 Jewish boys and 27 Jewish girls respectively. Some of the children are orphans, some are abandoned, and some were living with older relatives incapable of caring for them in a responsible manner. Collectively, such children are known in Russian as “street children”, as described above. (See #43, page 35.)

Some street children are removed from the streets or other unsuitable living sites by local authorities and assigned to state homes by child welfare officials. A local individual familiar with conditions in state children’s homes appealed to Rabbi Baksht to provide more suitable accommodations and opportunities for Jewish children in need of such care. The massive social and economic upheaval caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union has had a dire impact upon many family units, leaving large numbers of children with inadequate supervision. State orphanages are overcrowded and underfunded; inadequately paid staff steal food from children, facilities are dirty, and provision for children’s education and psychological well-being are often non-existent. Christian missionaries are working in some such facilities. Precisely because general children’s homes are so overcrowded, their administrations often can be persuaded to permit the transfer of some children to another agency, thus providing Ohr Somayach with an opportunity to bring Jewish children into the Ohr Somayach homes. Rabbi Baksht and several associates are careful to maintain good relations with all such state institutions in the Odesa region.

Individuals affiliated with Rabbi Baksht frequently visit non-institutional settings where street children (and other unfortunate individuals) are known to seek shelter, especially railroad stations and street bazaars. When Jewish children are found in such premises, child welfare officers are asked to arrange their placement in Ohr Somayach. Ohr Somayach checks the Jewish background of each child carefully, often sending someone to Kyiv to trace the history of families in state records.

Rabbi Baksht has engaged local childcare professionals, including a psychologist, to supervise and guide the children. Several Israelis who teach in the Ohr Somayach schools also have responsibilities related to children in the homes. Most of the “street children” are successfully integrated into the Ohr Somayach day school, but some youngsters require special assistance and are taught in a small separate classroom. Among these are middle-school age children who are unable to read or write. Some children must also be taught how to use a fork and knife.

In common with Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki in Dnipropetrovsk, Rabbi Baksht does not provide care for street children under five years of age. He also is avoiding the issue of arranging adoptions [in Israel], realizing that the Ukrainian government would oppose departure of young children and might even accuse Ohr Somayach of “selling” the children. However, also in common with Rabbi Kaminezki, Rabbi Baksht believes that adoptions may be possible in the future after systematic procedures are developed with appropriate Israeli authorities and approved by the Ukrainian government.

The boys’ home is located in a former kindergarten building. Six to eight youngsters sleep in each of about a half-dozen rooms. The facility is generally stark and drab, with little color or evidence that children inhabit its rooms. Ohr Somayach has enlarged an all-purpose room in the building in which many boys gather after school. While we visited the home and spoke with Rabbi Baksht in the all-purpose room, a number of boys milled about and watched several adults play table tennis. There was little evidence of books, toys, educational games, sports equipment, or other items associated with boys of this age. However, many youngsters displayed great affection for Rabbi Baksht and for several teacher/counselors.

Girls are accommodated in a section of the Ohr Somayach elementary school, also a former kindergarten building. The girls’ quarters seemed more colorful and much warmer; a stuffed animal was on each bed, and some of the sleeping rooms were decorated in one fashion or another. However, as many as 12 girls slept in a single room. When we visited the girls one evening, they were engaged in a Rosh hodesh celebration involving a variety of games and contests.

If Rabbi Baksht is able to take possession of the large synagogue in the center of Odesa (see below), he hopes to accommodate boys on the upper floors of that building and increase the number of children in the Ohr Somayach children’s homes to 80.

66. Ohr Somayach operates a summer camp located about 50 kilometers north of Odessa. It is open for six weeks every summer and enrolls about 300 children, most from the school.

67. In cooperation with the Joint Distribution Committee, Ohr Somayach school kitchens provide hot meals for about 60 Jewish elderly on a daily basis and 80 seniors on Sundays. Jewish holiday celebrations are also held for the elderly and for others among the city’s Jewish population.

68. Ohr Somayach publishes a weekly Russian-language Jewish newspaper and hosts a twice-monthly television program. Both media forms include content on Judaism and Jewish holidays, Jewish history and culture, and information about community concerns.

69. Odesa Central Synagogue, a centrally located and imposing building, has been officially recovered by Ohr Somayach after decades of use as a physical education training college and sports center. As is the case with many such recovered buildings, the occupying institution is resisting departure and the Jewish community now controls only a small portion of its facilities. The structure will require extensive renovation.

70. Although Rabbi Baksht fulfills most of the functions of a community rabbi in the successor states, two circumstances separate him from other community rabbis in other post-Soviet cities. First, although he maintains an apartment in Odesa, he commutes between Odesa and Jerusalem, where his family continues to reside. He appears to spend about half of most months in Jerusalem. His wife and children sometimes visit him in Odesa as well, but his failure to live with his family on a longterm basis in the city that he serves undermines his stated commitment to the Jewish population of Odesa.

Second, the extent of mutual contempt and acrimony between Rabbi Baksht and Shaya Gisser is extraordinary, both in its intensity and in its visibility to others. That some younger Ohr Somayach staff members also expressed disdain for Shaya Gisser to visitors suggests that such observations are broadly tolerated within the Ohr Somayach Odesa center.43 It is unlikely that such public animosity advances the cause of Jewish community or of Judaism.

71. In 1994, the Israeli government opened a day school in Odesa under its Maavar program44 . Known as State National School #94, the school is public, secular, and tuition-free. It currently enrolls about 300 pupils in grades one through nine, and will add grades ten and eleven in the next two years.

The school had moved into its current quarters, a former kindergarten building, at the beginning of the academic year. Extensive remodeling was still underway at the time of our visit in early April; conditions in some areas of the structure appeared quite dangerous, unfit as venues for the children who walked in its hallways and gathered in its various class and activity rooms.

The curriculum includes eight or nine “Israeli hours” each week. Four of these hours are reserved for the study of modern Hebrew, and the remainder are set aside for instruction in Jewish history and Jewish tradition. Three teachers from Israel are responsible for these curriculum areas. All Jewish and Israeli national holidays are observed “as in Israel”. Israeli posters and art by school pupils on Jewish/Israeli themes brightened many walls in the building.

43. Such outspoken hostility is thankfully absent from most other post-Soviet communities in which two or more religious leaders from different movements are serving in community roles, such as Moscow, Kyiv, and Kharkiv.
44. Two other Maavar day schools operate in Ukraine -- in Kyiv and in Zaporizhya.

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