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


We met with Iosif Zissels and Professor Marten Feller12 at the Center. Mr. Zissels said that the goal of the center was to provide various services for the 11 Jewish pre-schools, 16 Jewish day schools, 80 Sunday schools, and 70 ulpans in Ukraine. 13

Together, these schools enroll 30,000 children and adolescents and 10,000 adults.14 About 400 teachers are employed. Only two institutions in Ukraine train teachers for Jewish schools: this center in Kyiv and the pedagogical college (michlala) in Dnipropetrovsk. Whereas the Dnipropetrovsk college trains women for positions only in kindergartens and elementary schools, the Kiev center trains both men and women for employment in secondary and higher schools. A persistent problem in Ukrainian Jewish education is the emigration of trained teachers to Israel.

Since its inception, the Pedagogical Center has sponsored 20 seminars in which more than 500 teachers have participated. The seminars have been in the areas of Hebrew language, Jewish tradition and holidays, and Jewish history.

In June 1996, the first 12 teachers graduated from an 18-month certificate course in Jewish education offered by the Center; all are now teaching in Jewish schools in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine. The Center has now enrolled 16 candidates (selected from a pool of 24 applicants) in its second 18-month course. Most of the students are in their twenties and have earned undergraduate degrees in education, psychology, or similar fields. Several are older and are now beginning second careers. A few younger students are graduates of Jewish day schools in Kyiv and Chernovtsy; their previous education in Hebrew and other Jewish subjects compensates for their young age. Mr. Zissels said that nine or ten of the students are from Kyiv and the others are from different cities and towns throughout Ukraine.

We visited a lesson for this group on the then forthcoming holiday of Purim. About 12 students, mostly women, were present and were seated around a conference table; they were using various bilingual (Hebrew and Russian) megillot because the Center lacked sufficient copies of any one edition to distribute identical versions to each student. The instructor, Raya Gekhtman, is a local woman who is an experienced teacher and has completed a year of graduate studies in Jewish education at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Ms. Gekhtman appeared to be a leading a good discussion in which the students were fully engaged.

Mr. Zissels said later that two Jewish studies teachers from Ukraine are enrolled at Bar-Ilan every year. Whereas study in Israel may be desirable for every teacher, it is very expensive. Bringing teachers to schools in Ukraine from Israel is also costly as the sponsoring institution must pay for transportation, housing, and other expenses as well as salaries. The most cost-efficient method of training Judaic studies teachers, said Mr. Zissels, is through such institutions as the Pedagogical Center. Specialists in Jewish history, Hebrew, and other subjects can be brought to Kyiv from Israel to teach intensive one-month or six-week courses in their area of expertise to the students at the Center. Graduates of the Center then return to schools in their own communities where they are already familiar with local situations.

The Center has also trained six education methodologists. They hope to train 30 such professionals to be employed at Jewish schools throughout Ukraine on a regional basis so that consultations are available in every locale.

The Center prepares a Jewish literary supplement for the Russian-language Jewish newspaper Hadashot (News) four times annually. (Hadashot is published by the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine.)

In cooperation with Sochnut, the Center hopes to publish a series of Jewish studies textbooks that can be used throughout Ukraine. Included in this series would be Jewish literature based on Ukrainian Jewish history, such as various writings on hasidism because Ukraine is the cradle of hasidism.

13. An Institute of Jewish Studies is located in space adjacent to the Pedagogical Center. Its goal is to organize and coordinate the research efforts of scholars in Ukrainian Judaica. It conducts research projects and organizes conferences, seminars, lectures, and publishing activities. It deals with Jewish history, culture, literature, sociology, and politics. It monitors antisemitism in Ukraine and maintains collaborative relationships with academic and research institutes in Ukraine and a number of foreign countries, including Israel and the United States.

The director of the Institute is Leonid Finberg, a respected sociologist and demographer. About ten other specialists work under its auspices, including Professor Feller.

It has received financial support from the Ukrainian Vaad, the JDC, Ministry of Nationalities in Ukraine, American Jewish Committee, and other organizations and foundations, but is chronically underfunded. Although supplied with several computers, its operational space is severely cramped.

14. Kiev-Pechersk National Mathematics Lycee was founded in 1961 as an elite public school specializing in mathematics. In 1992, following Ukrainian independence its status was changed from a public school to a private school and was designated as a lycee. According to its director, Dimitry Grigorovich Kravchenko, lycee status recognizes a higher level of pupil achievement; such schools attract studious and creative pupils. Mr. Kravchenko said that this school has long been the best mathematics school in Ukraine. The school affiliated with ORT in 1996.

The school enrolls 1,047 pupils in grades one through eleven, all of whom were attired in uniform blazers, white shirts, and dark trousers or skirts. It offers four specialties -- mathematics, economics, chemistry/biology, and law. The law concentration attracts those youngsters inclined more toward humanities than toward mathematics or science. In addition to intensive education in mathematics, the mathematics concentration offers classes in computer use and in chess from the first grade though graduation.

The physical plant is large, well-maintained, and much more attractive than most schools we have seen in Ukraine and the other successor states. It has extensive computer facilities, including 26 Pentium and 17 486 workstations as well as related equipment, all neatly arranged among several different large classrooms.

Language instruction in Russian and Ukrainian is compulsory. Additionally, pupils all study English or German. Hebrew is a new elective for 15- and 16-year old pupils.

Mr. Kravchenko said the main task of the school is to “Europeanize” the curriculum. The first barrier to achieving this goal is computerization. The second barrier is the knowledge of western languages; Ukrainians cannot compete in Europe without fluency in a commonly spoken European language. The third barrier, is professionalization of computer use. Additionally, the existing Ukrainian system does not easily accommodate new specialties, such as ecology.

When asked how many pupils are Jewish, Mr. Kravchenko responded that many ethnic groups are represented in the school, but that no statistics are maintained about specific groups. He said that 150 15- and 16-year old pupils elected to study Hebrew when that language was first offered this school year. He also said that at least 20 teachers at the school had emigrated to Israel and were now teaching at some of the best schools there, including the Jerusalem College of Technology and several other technical schools.

The school does not appear to offer any curriculum in Jewish studies other than the elective in Hebrew.15 No symbols of Judaism or Israel were visible during a tour of the building.

The school offers an extensive extracurricular program, which includes refreshments, at extra cost to pupils. The hallways of the school are filled with artwork, some of it rather sophisticated, done by pupils; it was not clear if this work is done during regular classes or during extracurricular sessions.

15. The Lower School of Gymnasium 298 holds the preschool and first two grades of Gymnasium 298, the Jewish day school operating under the auspices of Rabbi Yaakov Bleich. With a capacity enrollment in both the boys’ and girls’ divisions of his school, Rabbi Bleich secured a vacant preschool as a third building. Although remodeling is not yet complete, the school opened in September 1996. Beginning in September 1997, the third grade will also be accommodated in this building.

Having visited both the boys’ and girls’ schools as well as the former preschool on previous visits, we chose to visit the new lower school. The preschool is coeducational, but boys and girls meet in separate classes in different wings of the building in first and second grade. Each class occupies a former two-room “suite” of the old preschool building; whereas one room was used as a class/activity room and the second was used for naps in Soviet-designed preschool structures, the Gymnasium uses one room as a formal classroom and the second as a dining/activity room. Thus, each class has its own separate dining room. The school also has a sports hall and a large auditorium.

The preschool is the best equipped preschool we have seen in the successor states, with numerous toys and educational materials. The entire school is large, offering ample opportunity for enrollment growth.

Incongruously for a Jewish school, a small mound of dirt with a cross fashioned of twigs was visible just outside the school entrance. It appeared as if a small animal, perhaps a bird, had been buried there and a crude cross erected to mark the grave.

12. Professor Feller, formerly a faculty member at both a university and a pedagogical institute, has taught and written extensively in journalism, linguistics, and education. He currently teaches at the Pedagogical Center and is editor of a forthcoming multi-volume encyclopedia on Ukrainian Jewry.
13. Mr. Zissels did not mention adult education programs other than Hebrew-language ulpans. It is not known if this omission was an oversight or was intentional.
14. These numbers may be high. BG.
15. The ORT school in Moscow, which the writer visited in June 1996, required five classes in Jewish studies each week for all students, both Jews and non-Jews. The five classes included three in Hebrew language and two in either Jewish tradition or Jewish history. The Maavar/ORT school in Odesa requires four hours of Hebrew each week as well as four or five hours (depending on grade level) in Jewish history and tradition.

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