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


A large classroom was being prepared for use as a
computer laboratory. Currently without computers, the school is expecting the delivery of at least five pentium computers before the beginning of the 1997-1998 school year. When instruction in computer use commences, the school will become part of the ORT network of schools in the successor states. ORT had considered opening its own independent school in Odesa, but was persuaded by the Israeli government to invest its resources in the existing Israeli-sponsored school.45

Families are attracted to the school through publicity at the Israel Cultural Center (see below), advertising on local television, and recommendations by parents of children already enrolled. The school administration readily acknowledged that not all pupils are halachically Jewish and commented that such boys and girls would not be admitted to the Ohr Somayach school. However, all pupils are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Israeli Law of Return.

Some boys in the school were wearing kipot, but others were bareheaded. No dress code was in evidence. The general atmosphere at the school seemed relaxed to the point of being chaotic, but some disorder may have been due to ongoing construction activity and resultant disruptions.

72. The Israel Cultural Center occupies the second floor of a large building in Odesa. We met first with Efim Karpovsky, representative of ORT in Ukraine. Mr. Karpovsky directs an ORT computer laboratory at the Center.46 He explained several Center programs to us. A correspondence course offered by the Weizmann Institute in Israel enrolls 64 adolescents who meet at the Center on Sundays to prepare for future admission to an Israeli university. Participants learn how to use computers and also study Hebrew and Jewish tradition. Additionally, they practice taking the psychometric exams that are required for university entrance in Israel. A second program, the Open University of Israel, enrolls about 125 adults who are offered courses in three departments: Torah and religion; state and law; and computers and high technology. A third program is operated by ORT in separate sections for adolescents and adults. Study of computers, Hebrew, and Jewish tradition is combined with instruction in economics and management; adults may elect additional work in projects related to their professional fields, such as nursing or computer-aided design.

The Israeli Center also sponsors several Sunday schools, seminars for directors and teachers in local Jewish Sunday schools, youth clubs, adult ulpans, showings of Israeli films, and holiday celebrations.

Dani Gekhtman, the director of the Israel Cultural Center in Odesa, spoke with us about more general concepts. We had first met him in Dnipropetrovsk several years previously when he held a similar position there. He will transfer to Kiev during the summer to head the Israel Cultural Center in the Ukrainian capital.

Mr. Gekhtman said that aliyah from the Odesa region (southern Ukraine) was increasing due to several factors. Jewish activity in Odesa had expanded in the city during the past 18 months as a result of the combined [but non-coordinated] efforts of the Israel Culture Center, Sochnut, the Maavar school, and the work of Rabbi Baksht. Rabbi Baksht works with the Jewish population in an organized manner, said Mr. Gekhtman, and is provided with financial resources by Ohr Somayach that permit him to implement his agenda effectively. Mr. Gekhtman observed that Odesa had seen very limited Jewish activity until 1994 [despite the presence of Shaya Gisser and some Jewish cultural programs offered by JDC].47 These new Jewish/Zionist efforts certainly increased Jewish public awareness of Israel and aliyah options.48

73. Isaac Gurfinkel directs the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) representation in Odesa. Mr. Gurfinkel predicted that aliyah from Odesa would be about the same in 1997 as in 1996. Jewish emigration would remain high as the local economy continued to deteriorate; however, Germany was still a big attraction, its generous benefits drawing many Jews as immigrants. Aliyah suffered in comparison because of several perceptions common among Odesa-area Jews, such as: (a) finding suitable employment in Israel would be difficult, especially for people over 40 years of age [and Germany offers liberal unemployment compensation]; (b) the Israeli government is unstable; and (c) life in Israel is dangerous because of Arab terrorism and the possibility of more war with the Arabs. Smaller cities and towns in the region -- such as Nikolayev and Kherson to the east, and Belgorod-Dnistrovsky and Ismail to the southwest -- were providing more olim than Odesa.

Sochnut sponsors a club for local intelligentsia in an effort to enhance their Jewish identity and encourage their aliyah. However, many such well-educated individuals will not risk the loss of social standing that they have here. Even if they are not paid for their work because their place of employment is in economic crisis, they still identify as professionals. They will lose that identity, and with it their self-esteem, if they are unable to find work in Israel that they consider appropriate.

Several programs offered by Sochnut and the Israeli government are very popular with younger area olim. These include Na’aleh 16, Chalom, and Sela.

Olim have two options for transportation from Ukraine to Israel. About 40 percent from the Odesa region travel on one of two Boeing 737 flights each week. The majority choose to go on a ship financed by a Scandinavian Christian missionary group (Good News Travels, also known as Exobus); the major attraction of the ship is that immigrants are permitted to bring 250 kilos of freight with them, whereas the passengers on El Al or the Ukrainian airline Aerosvit are limited to 40 kilos. Neither Sochnut nor any other Israeli Jewish entity has much contact with this group; however, Sochnut is aware that some proselytization occurs at the hostel where immigrants stay in Odesa before sailing to Israel.

Approximately 200 adults were enrolled in Sochnut ulpans in Odesa and another 440 were studying Hebrew in ulpans in other cities in the area. The average age of olim is about 45, somewhat higher than in other areas.

Sochnut sponsors seminars for Hebrew teachers in the area as well as seminars for students and young adults. About 1,000 adolescents attend Sochnut summer and winter camps. Sochnut also supports a twice-monthly television broadcast entitled Hatikvah; it is directed by an excellent local journalist and features various Sochnut programs.

74. In an effort to emphasize the centrality and continuity over the ages of Jewish assistance to those in need, the Odesa office of the Joint Distribution Committee deliberately chose to call its Odesa hesed Gemilus Chesed, the same Yiddish name as that held by the leading Jewish welfare society prior to the 1917 Revolution. We met with JDC Odesa office director Moshe Katz, patronage service director Igor Zhitnikov, and other staff members during a visit to JDC in Odesa.

Approximately 400 (soon to be 450) Jewish homebound elderly are visited by JDC patronage workers in their homes; of these, 300 are bedridden and require daily care. The other 150 are seen every other day. About 70 patronage sisters and a cadre of 140 volunteers, all overseen by four coordinators, clean house, cook, run errands, and serve as ‘friendly visitors’ to this segment of Odesa Jewish elderly.

JDC also distributes medical equipment (such as wheelchairs and walkers) and provides ‘talking books’ with tape recorders for 60 visually impaired people. The latter program is being expanded.\

A variety of nutrition services are offered. One hundred elderly eat a Sunday meal at an Ohr Somayach facility or dine three days each week at a private café with which JDC has a contractual agreement. Sixty clients, 20 of whom live in remote districts, receive meals-on-wheels three days each week that are prepared at Ohr Somayach.49 Each delivery includes sufficient food for two or three days and is conveyed to the recipient by volunteers.

JDC has organized six “warm houses”, gatherings of ten to 15 neighborhood elderly in an apartment once or twice each week. Participants share a hot meal, socialize, and celebrate holidays.

Distribution of food parcels to Jewish elderly is often timed for Jewish holidays. JDC was planning to disburse 3,000 such packages for Pesach. About 145 long-term invalids, not all of whom are elderly, receive monthly JDC food parcels.

JDC makes daily visits to 13 Jews who live in a government old-age home. Because provision for meals in such facilities is minimal, JDC provides these individuals (and their non-Jewish roommates) with significant additional food.

Celebrations are held at the Gemilus Chesed building on most holidays. Volunteers are honored on their birthdays and at several special events.

As the regional JDC center for southern Ukraine, the JDC Odesa office will assist Jews in other cities -- in Kirovograd to the north, Kherson and Nikolayev to the east, and Sevastopol and Simferopol on Crimea -- in organizing their own hasadim. Workers in these new hasadim would come to Odesa for training or perhaps enroll in some courses at the major JDC training institute in St. Petersburg.

Each hesed is expected to assist some non-Jews so as to minimize ethnic tensions and to work closely with local government and charitable welfare organizations. Hasadim also assist Righteous Gentiles who live in the area.

Renovation of the Odesa Gemilus Chesed building was accomplished with substantial contributions from the Jewish federation in Baltimore (The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore) and from the Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. Odesa and Baltimore are sister cities. Gemilus Chesed has also had some success in local fundraising and in attracting contributions of furniture and other items from Odesa Jews.

45. The Women’s American ORT Board of Directors has pledged $50,000 annually for three years “to support maintenance of the school, plus an additional $75,000 for the next two years toward its overall vitality.” See ORT Reporter, 48:2 (Summer 1997), p. 40.
46. Betsy Gidwitz had corresponded by e-mail with Mr. Karpovsky on several occasions in the recent past regarding computer use in several Ukrainian Jewish day schools.
47. Although Mr. Gekhtman used the phrase “Jewish activity”, his approach suggested that the phrase “Zionist activity” might have been more appropriate.
48. In Odesa, as in many other cities in southern Ukraine, teachers had not been paid since September. Their enthusiasm for work had understandably diminished; many attended to their teaching responsibilities infrequently as they had to find second jobs in order to support themselves and their families. All public schools and universities were closed in January and February because no funds were accessible for heat. Hospitals were closing or severely contracting. Common medicines were sold at exorbitant prices. Standard vaccinations for children were unavailable. Many of the best physicians had emigrated.
49. These statistics supplied by JDC differ somewhat from those provided by Ohr Somayach (see #67 on page 54), but are not necessarily contradictory. Ohr Somayach provides some meal services that are not subsidized by JDC.

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