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



75. The inability of Rabbi Bleich to fulfill communal responsibilities implicit in his title of Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine raises anew among some observers of post-Soviet Jewry the issue of operational overload that is prevalent among many community rabbis in the successor states. Community rabbis serve as representatives of the local Jewish population to local and regional power sources, defenders of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, congregational leaders, day school presidents, welfare service supervisors, fund raisers, coordinators with international organizations (Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish Agency, sister-city groups, universities, and others), host to foreign visitors, and mediators in various disputes among the Jewish people. All of these responsibilities are executed in an environment of political and economic instability, widespread corruption, burgeoning crime, and immature government institutions. Husbands and fathers of young children, they are overburdened with an unsustainable workload. For Rabbi Bleich, who is chief rabbi both of a large urban population and a diverse national Jewish population, the tasks inherent in office are doubly burdensome.

Their effectiveness will be sorely challenged without the addition of administrative personnel to their organizations. Staff associates for both local and national concerns would alleviate the burdens for Rabbi Bleich. Competent business and property managers are essential as community institutions and programs develop and flourish. However, funding for such mundane positions is often difficult to attract.

76. The pressing need for expanded expatriate professional support to community rabbis - and to various international Jewish organizations with on-the-ground operations in the successor states -- is exacerbated by the inability of Ukrainian Jewry to produce its own communal leadership at either the professional or lay levels. Many of those who do come forward are able to draw and retain constituencies only because they are sustained in office by foreign sponsors desperate for local representation. The Soviet system in which they were raised (or in which their parents and other mentors were raised) stifled qualities essential for leadership in an open society, such as individual initiative, moderation in language, tolerance of diverse political and spiritual views, articulation of a vision, planning and priority-setting, accountability, and consensus-building. Their role models are Soviet-era party bosses or post-Soviet economic barons who achieve compromise through coercion and claim consensus when none exists. Personal and social responsibility are as yet alien concepts. Acceptance of the notion of a legal culture and a sense of communal ethics are beyond their ken.

Some local leaders will emerge who are both responsive and responsible, but it cannot be assumed that they will appear in sufficient numbers to address the enormous needs of post-Soviet Ukrainian Jewry. Expatriate professionals will be required for the foreseeable future, and their attendance will be costly to maintain.

77. The continuing need for foreign expertise is also seen in Jewish day schools. Only those schools that have made a major investment in professionally-trained Israeli or other Hebrew-speaking teaching staff are able to offer a robust Judaic studies curriculum. Whether the programs offered at the Jewish Pedagogical Center in Kyiv and the Beit Chana michlala in Dnipropetrovsk will produce enough skilled native Judaic studies teachers remains to be seen.

The agreement by the Israeli Ministry of Education to pay the salaries of two Judaic studies teachers in each day school is, of course, helpful, but the larger schools require ten or more such teachers and few can afford to pay even a fraction of the costs inherent in such a major expatriate staff deployment. A project sponsored by the Ministry and Bar-Ilan University to train a cadre of Ukrainian Jews as Jewish studies educators is in its initial stages and will require some years before its impact on local day schools is significant.50

78. Given the extent of political and economic upheaval in Ukraine, the appearance of large numbers of Jewish street children is as inevitable as it is painful.51 The efforts of Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki in Dnipropetrovsk and Rabbi Shlomo Baksht in Odesa to address this situation in a manner consistent with the highest Jewish values should be applauded and supported by more affluent Jewish communities. It is likely that a third shelter should be established in Kyiv to serve similar needs in central and western Ukraine. At an opportune time, coordinated approaches should be made to the Ukrainian government and to appropriate institutions in Israel about establishing procedures for the transfer of orphaned Jewish children to Zion and their adoption by Israeli families.52

79. Although several of the areas visited in this journey are major sources of aliyah, aliyah itself and the general lack of demographic vitality among the Ukrainian Jewish population are reducing the future aliyah pool. Qualified observers believe that a window of no more than five years or so exists in which aliyah can be energetically promoted.

80. Responding to abuse of its import tax exemptions for non-profit organizations, the Ukrainian government imposed severe and enormously bureaucratic regulations in February 1997 on the import of humanitarian aid and educational materials. These new restrictions have caused significant hardship to legitimate institutions, such as welfare agencies and schools. The amount of time spent in negotiating customs clearance has been extraordinary and has impeded such institutions in the accomplishment of their humanitarian mission. The process itself has been counterproductive and even destructive as customs officials have damaged once-sealed and sterile medical goods and food commodities in their efforts to inspect items according to unpublicized standards.

It behooves governments, organizations, and individuals to impress upon the Ukrainian government that the considerable good will it has earned for its generally progressive human rights policies has been squandered in misguided efforts to terminate abuse of its import regulations. Whereas its goals are legitimate, its methods are less so. Import licenses should be issued to authorized non-profit institutions for unimpeded receipt of specific goods; occasional monitoring of such shipments by Ukrainian officials is understandable. Continued affront and insult imposed upon legitimate organizations and well-meaning individuals serves no constructive purpose.



Betsy Gidwitz
June 10 (rev. July 8), 1997


The writer is grateful to Sandra Spinner for her assistance in reviewing several meetings described in this report. Some background information on Jewish population centers is adapted from articles in Encyclopedia Judaica. All photographs were taken by the author, except for that on page 34, which was provided by Beit Chana in Dnipropetrovsk.




Map of Ukraine. Available: June 10, 1997.

50. This project will embrace the Jewish Pedagogical Center in Kyiv and Beit Chana in Dnipropetrovsk.
51. See section #43, pages 35-36, and section #65, pages 53-54.
52. It is little known that the Joint Distribution Committee and several individual rabbis have succeeded in conveying small numbers of abandoned Jewish children from the successor states to adoptive families in Israel. However, the large volume of such children in the late 1990s suggests that a more systematic approach may now be appropriate.

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