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


Rabbi Asman welcomed any support for recovery of the synagogue that might be offered by western advocacy groups. He suggested that approaches be made to Ukrainian President Kuchma and Prime Minister Lazarenko, rather than to Kiev municipal officials. He said that articles in the western press might also be helpful.

9. Charles Hoffman, the Joint Distribution Committee “country director” for central and western Ukraine, visits Ukraine every month from his base in Jerusalem. Aware of our interest in eastern Ukraine, he spoke of “changes in the JDC map” in response to JDC receipt of funding from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany for work in assisting elderly Jews in eastern Ukraine. JDC is establishing a new region in eastern Ukraine, with headquarters in Dnipropetrovsk, additional major service points in Kharkiv and Donetsk, and smaller representations in other east Ukraine Jewish population centers.4

Mr. Hoffman said that Yitzhak Averbukh, currently JDC director in the Volga region, would become the new director for JDC operations in eastern Ukraine. Because Claims Conference funds are now available for use in Kharkiv, JDC will soon purchase a building for a hesed5 in that city and will place an Israeli in charge of its expanded activity there.

As for Kiev, Hesed Avot is now well-established as the central welfare organization for Jewish elderly. Mr. Hoffman mentioned the article about the new Hesed Avot building that appeared in the Forward in January.6 He said that he didn’t know why Iosif Zissels (Chairman of the Ukrainian Vaad), who was quoted extensively in the article, was so negative about the hesed building. Mr. Zissels was not expressing a sense of community. Mr. Hoffman said that many local Jewish elderly are proud of the fine building.

JDC was now reaching out to middle-age Kiev Jews to familiarize them with Hesed Avot programs so that they might consider volunteering at Hesed Avot when they reach retirement age. JDC was also operating a non-sectarian training course funded by U.S. AID for a particular district in the city; the course was designed to help other organizations improve their services for other elderly clientele. Such efforts were good public relations vehicles for JDC.

Elsewhere in central Ukraine, JDC was helping to organize a regional hesed based in Cherkasy. About 3,000 Jews live in that city and another 3,000 Jews reside in its periphery. The Jewish Federation of MetroWest (NJ), which has a kehilla relationship with Jews in the Cherkasy area, has contributed $50,000 toward the purchase of a hesed building there. (When we told Mr. Hoffman that we were considering a visit to the Cherkasy region, he provided useful information and helped us to make contacts with local Jewish organizations.)

Recalling my visit to western Ukraine in 1996, Mr. Hoffman said that Magen Avot, a welfare organization operating under the auspices of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities in Ukraine, is now active in the area.7 Using its own resources and aid from the Claims Conference, JDC, and the Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore, Magen Avot is trying to establish regional hasadim in each oblast capital. Generally, about 50 percent of all Jews in oblast centers are elderly and about 70% of Jews in smaller towns are elderly.

11. We visited Hesed Avot in Kyiv on another day, after Mr. Hoffman had returned to Jerusalem. The Kyiv hesed continues to generate criticism. Its building is lavishly appointed by Ukrainian standards, thus prompting accusations of extravagance. It is situated on a small hill, limiting accessibility for some of the people whom it is intended to serve. It is poorly located in relation to public transport, therefore requiring the hesed to organize its own bus service to transport elderly to and from the building. It offers no programs for other age groups, thus limiting its potential to serve as a unifying force within the Jewish community.

We visited the Hesed Avot building in the late afternoon. Few elderly clientele were visible. A meeting of Hesed volunteer physicians was in session; 14 of the 20 doctors who serve in that capacity were present. They made an impassioned plea to us for various medicines from the West, saying that neither the hesed nor its patients could afford to purchase necessary medications.

Leaving the physicians to continue their meeting, we were taken on a tour of the hesed building. Various activities were explained as we went from one program space to another. In the office where homecare aid is assigned, we were told that services are provided to 900 housebound clients by 190 workers. A day center accommodates 100 seniors in groups of 20; each group meets once weekly for a hot meal, socializing, holiday celebrations, and cultural activities.

The hesed food service provides a total of 1,000 hot meals each week, distributed among four canteens in different parts of the city. Thirty meals on wheels are delivered to clients every day. Parcels of food staples are also delivered to numerous clients.

11. Magen Avot was founded in 1992 as a national welfare agency aiming to coordinate and assist welfare services to elderly Jews in 49 small Jewish population centers across Ukraine.8 JDC currently provides about 50 percent of its funding. Rabbi Yaakov Bleich is its chairman, and Yosif Zissels is deputy chairman. Ilya Vinnik is its executive director. It has a council or board of physicians, gerontologists, and local rabbis who establish policy and raise money for the group.

We met with Mr. Vinnik and several workers at the Magen Avot office in Kyiv. Mr. Vinnik said that the organization has a very lean and efficient infrastructure. It provides homecare services and hot meals to Jewish elderly. In some areas, the meals are prepared and served in local commercial restaurants with which Magen Avot has contracts. It mediates conflicts among rival Jewish groups. It operates training seminars for local workers, often in collaboration with JDC.

Mr. Vinnik and his colleagues outlined some of their major concerns. First, relations with JDC are often strained. Coordination is difficult because the local JDC office has little authority to make decisions on its own; most matters are referred to Jerusalem, where JDC bureaucracy delays resolution of even simple issues. JDC is often two to three months late in paying salaries, which causes real hardships for workers. Further, the workers vent their anger at Magen Avot, which is local and accessible, rather than at JDC. When JDC sends in their own personnel for supervision and training, they spend large sums of money for expensive hotels, cars, and travel to and from Israel. Sometimes they feel that JDC is trying to destroy them by delaying decisions and withholding funds that would strengthen Magen Avot infrastructure and autonomy. As an example, the staff referred to several computers in the office that are essential for record-keeping; Magen Avot was able to obtain them through the Jewish Community Development Fund9 after JDC had refused earlier requests for such equipment. Mr. Vinnik and his associates said that Meir Zizov, the Kyiv-based JDC representative with responsibility for JDC operations in Central Ukraine outside Kyiv, is an excellent professional; the problem with JDC is in Jerusalem.

Second, many smaller Ukrainian cities and towns are home to small clusters of no more than 20 to 30 Jews, all of them elderly. It is very difficult to serve such small populations in an efficient manner.

Third, it is increasingly difficult to find skilled workers, particularly ‘patronage sisters’.10 Many such individuals now are non-Jewish.

Fourth, conflicts exist in many communities between older and younger Jews. The older Jewish men are World War II veterans, claiming a special status based on their military service and exposure to Nazi brutality. Many were members of the Communist Party until the late 1980s; they are accustomed to wielding power and now try to maintain control over Jewish communal organizations through bullying and manipulation. Younger Jews are often more active, better educated, more cultured, and more efficient. Unfortunately, JDC often takes the side of the older group, perhaps because these individuals are retired and have time on their hands, and inflates their role in the community.

12. The Jewish Pedagogical Center of Ukraine was established in 1993 by the Association of Jewish Organizations of Ukraine (Ukrainian Vaad) with the support of Rabbi Yaakov Bleich. Fifty percent of its funding is supplied by the Sochnut-related Pincus Fund, 25 percent by Sochnut itself, and 25 percent through funds raised by Iosif Zissels and Rabbi Bleich.11 JDC provided the organization with a television set, VCR, and computer, and the Israeli government provided office furniture.

4. The revision of jurisdictions in Ukrainian service areas aligns JDC with political and economic realities in Ukraine. The country divides naturally into four political/economic regions: western, Kiev and central, eastern, and southern. The earlier JDC division of Ukraine into two regions, northern and southern, created service sectors with little political or economic coherence. The previous arbitrary assignment by JDC of Kharkiv to “northern Ukraine” and Dnipropetrovsk to “southern Ukraine” lacked recognition of Ukrainian political and economic reality; both cities are within eastern Ukraine.
5. The hesed concept (hesed, pl. hasadim; Heb.; charity, aid) centers on the provision of aid to the elderly and to handicapped Jews. Funding from the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany (often referred to as the “Claims Conference”) and from several private foundations has enabled JDC to develop hasadim in more than 30 Jewish population centers in the post-Soviet successor states. In large cities, hasadim may be located in buildings purchased and renovated according to dedicated designs. In areas with small Jewish populations, the hesed may consist of two or three rooms in an apartment. Heseds are intended to supplement services provided by state and municipal sources. Basic assistance offered by hasadim usually includes medical and legal consultations, some distribution of medicines, a Russian-language lending library focusing on Jewish themes, Jewish newspapers and holiday information, day centers and clubs, social and cultural events, hot meals, meals on wheels, food parcels, homecare (cleaning, laundry, cooking, friendly visits), home repairs, winter assistance (heating fuel, warm clothing), telephone hotlines, and loan of medical equipment. Special programs for deaf/hearing impaired and/or blind elderly are offered in several of the larger hasadim. Some heseds provide low-cost hairdressing.

JDC has developed training programs for local professional and para-professional hesed workers and also tries to recruit local volunteer helpers, almost all of whom are pensioners

6. Rachel Blustain, “Lavish JCC Raising Hackles in Impoverished Kiev,” Forward, #31,115 (January 17, 1997), p. 1+. Ilya Vinnik of Magen Avot also expresses critical views about the Kyiv structure in this article.
7. This group is associated with Rabbi Bleich and Iosif Zissels. See below.
8. Founding agencies were the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine (sometimes referred to as the Ukrainian Vaad) and the Cummings Foundation (New York).
9. The Jewish Community Development Fund was established in 1993. It is now managed by American Jewish World Service.
10.Patronage sisters, who are usually younger retirees, assist homebound elderly in cleaning, cooking, running errands, etc.
11. Mr. Zissels said that, notwithstanding the agreement with Sochnut to cover 75 percent of the expenses of the Pedagogical Center, i.e., 50 percent through the Pincus Fund and 25 percent directly, the Center had received no payment from Sochnut during the first three months of 1997. When the Pedagogical Center questioned Sochnut Kyiv director Moti Paz about the missing money, Mr. Paz responded that since the sponsorship agreement was reached before he arrived in Kyiv, he was not obligated to continue fulfilling its obligations. [Sochnut resumed payments in May. BG]

Prev | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | Next

Click here to view/download a PDF version of this report.
To view/print the above file you must have the free Adobe Acrobat reader. Click here to download the reader.
  Copyright 2007 Baecore Group