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


16. A unique organization in Ukraine is Makor, the Centre for the Support and Development of Jewish Youth Activities. The constituency of Makor is Jewish young people between the ages of 14 and 25. It coordinates the Kyiv Jewish Youth Council, which includes Aish Hatorah, Betar, Bnei Akiva, BBYO (which is newly organized in Kyiv), Israeli Center (Lishkat Hakesher), Kidma, Netzer (World Union for Progressive Judaism), Shahar (Sochnut), and the Union of Jewish Students (affiliated with WUJS).

Makor sponsors a Russian-language Jewish youth newspaper that is circulated throughout Ukraine, a Sunday club for youth between the ages of 14 and 18, video and Jewish history clubs, various social events (usually related to Jewish holidays), seminars (on Jewish tradition, culture, history, and similar topics) in cooperation with one or more of the youth groups noted above, quiz games on Jewish topics, and links with European Jewish youth groups. Its three-room office, which includes one room about the size of a conventional classroom, is available to its constituents for meetings and other activities.

Makor supplies technical equipment and services (such as photocopying) to the entire Jewish community. However, because of heavy use, some of its equipment, such as computers and video cameras, is very difficult to maintain.

In a discussion with several Makor leaders, they said that emigration of Kyiv and other Ukrainian Jewish youth is very substantial16 and, therefore, they believe that organized Jewish life will continue in Kyiv for perhaps only 20 to 30 years. They also said that young people from intermarried families face a major problem if they want to emigrate to Israel because the non-Jewish parent usually does not want to re-settle in the Jewish state; thus, family breakdown may be a consequence of aliyah.

Makor is supported by the Kyiv Jewish Community, the Jewish Community Development Fund, and several local Jewish businessmen. JDC, which used to provide modest support, is no longer funding the organization. (See below.)

17. The international student organization Hillel established a unit in Kiev in 1994, basing the program at International Solomon University.17 Although the majority of its 160 members are enrolled at ISU, it has attracted some participants from three other Kyiv post-secondary institutions. We met briefly with Iosif Axelrod, the director of Hillel in Ukraine.18 (The focus of this meeting was not Hillel itself, but a possible trip to Ukraine by Hillel students from universities in the midwestern part of the U.S.)

Kyiv Hillel seems to enjoy greater respect among Jews outside Kyiv than within activist Kyiv Jewry. For the last several years, some Kyiv Hillel members have journeyed to small Jewish population centers across Ukraine during the Pesach holidays to conduct seders for remote Jewish communities in which few, if any, local Jews are capable of organizing and leading such events. Response from these smaller Jewish population centers has been very positive. Within Kyiv, some resentment exists because of the establishment of the group at ISU, an atypical Ukrainian institution, and because International Hillel has failed to consult with Makor, which is respected within Kyiv and Ukraine for its work with Jewish youth. Hillel does not work with Makor.

Hillel programs in the successor states are co-sponsored by JDC and International Hillel through a grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation (Tulsa).

18. We visited the Sochnut (Jewish Agency for Israel) office in Kyiv twice, once at the beginning of our trip and once just before we left Ukraine, at the request of Mordechai (Moti) Paz, Director of Sochnut for Ukraine and Moldova. Due to scheduling complications, Mr. Paz was able to meet with us only briefly during our first visit.

Mr. Paz reviewed for us the major changes that occurred recently in the Sochnut infrastructure in the post-Soviet successor states in response to the development of separate identities in the various states. Instead of a head office in Moscow with some supervision responsibilities for all of the ex-USSR, the Moscow office now directs Sochnut operations only in Moscow and Belarus. Additional and separate Sochnut jurisdictions exist for Ukraine and Moldova, the Caucasus area, and Central Asia. The status of the Baltic region (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Kaliningrad oblast) has yet to be resolved because of its political sensitivity; based on his previous experience as Sochnut director in St. Petersburg, Mr. Paz believes that Sochnut operations in the Baltic area should be supervised from Helsinki.

Mr. Paz continued that the new regionalization system was still in its initial stages; however, he is confident that it is the best approach to working with the Jewish population in the successor states and that any difficulties in its initial implementation will be resolved quickly. Vesting of authority in separate regional offices permits Sochnut to address local situations more effectively.

In response to a question concerning the major differences between working in St. Petersburg and working in Kyiv, Mr. Paz said that Jews in St. Petersburg were much more difficult to reach. Almost all of them were three generations removed from Jewish life and were strongly russified and assimilated.19 They are members of the intelligentsia and many were active in the Communist party. Some of the latter are now disillusioned and may be “salvageable,” but many more will disappear as Jews.

Jews in Ukraine are much closer to their Jewish roots. Ukraine is the home of hasidism.20 Many Ukrainian Jews will respond if sparks are lit. This response can be seen in some communities -- such as Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, and Simferopol -- but is more difficult in the most sophisticated urban areas, such as Kyiv [and Kharkiv].

Mr. Paz continued that about 50,000 Jews emigrate from Ukraine every year. About 30,000 go to Israel, and the remainder go to the United States or Germany. He believes that a window of three or four years remains in which substantial aliyah can occur; beyond that time, the aliyah pool will have been depleted. Mr. Paz briefly reviewed four programs he considers essential in encouraging aliyah -- Na’aleh 16, Chalom, Yahad, and Aliyah 2000.21

After Mr. Paz departed to fulfill another commitment, we spoke with Shai Grinshpoon, Shaliach to Youth Activities in Ukraine. Mr. Grinshpoon is a native of Odesa, but emigrated to Israel as a small child with his family. He has held his current position in Kyiv since September 1996.

Mr. Grinshpoon said that the forces of assimilation are very strong in Kyiv, where many Jews try to conceal their identity and/or intermarry. The main “enemies” of Jewish identification are ignorance and cynicism. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, no one believes in anything.

Sochnut sponsors two Jewish youth clubs in Kyiv, one in the same building as the Sochnut office and one in a different district. Twenty additional Sochnut youth clubs are active in other Ukrainian cities. These club programs include considerable Jewish-Zionist content, often in a musical context because music is very appealing to many young people. They have found that guitars can be used effectively in creating programs that are inviting from an entertainment standpoint and also educational. Another promising approach is to develop educational computer programs because youth are attracted to computers; so far, the youth club in the Kyiv Sochnut premises has three computers, but appropriate Jewish-Zionist software is lacking. About 250 Jewish youth use these clubs on a regular basis.

Turning to emigration, Mr. Grinshpoon said that most Jewish emigres leave Ukraine because of poor economic conditions, political instability, and/or ecological distress -- not because they are Zionists. Many Jews perceive no future in Ukraine; Ukraine has “dropped out of history.” Jews leave Ukraine, they don’t go to Israel. They deliberate whether they should go to the United States, Germany, or to Israel. Sochnut tries to motivate them to go to Israel, but it cannot create aliyah.

The Ukrainian political system is corrupt. The economy is contracting 20 to 30 percent annually.22 The crime rate is very high, a product of political corruption and economic upheaval.

Regarding antisemitism, Mr. Grinshpoon said that the Ukrainian government does not promote antisemitism. However, antisemitism is chronic in several areas, including universities. Some universities still maintain antisemitic quotas.

In response to a question, Mr. Grinshpoon said that the Ukrainian government might try to stop or impede Na’aleh 16 again as it had done in 1994. They consider departure of talented youth an insult to the country.

Mr. Grinshpoon said that the Jewish religious organizations in Kyiv are very powerful. They have financial resources. They do not always promote aliyah.

All Jewish youth programs can be effective. Young people desire information about their futures -- where to study, where to live, etc. -- so they can make appropriate decisions. Sochnut programs for young people concentrate on those who are about 18 years old; various aliyah programs afford people that age many advantages.

16. This observation is supported by official Israeli statistics.
17. International Solomon University was established in 1992 as a broadbased private university under Jewish auspices. Currently enrolling about 1,000 students, it offers courses in humanities, Jewish studies, engineering, and other fields. The institution remains controversial among many observers of the Kiev Jewish community because of its very high non-Jewish enrollment.
18. The only other Hillel program in Ukraine is in Kharkiv. See section 28, page 25.
19. A substantial proportion of St. Petersburg Jewry migrated north to the then-Leningrad from impoverished Belarus during the heavy industrialization period of the 1930s. They were thus removed from any Jewish life still existing in prewar Belarus and, due to the political conditions of the time, were unable to develop any associations with Jewish life in Leningrad.
20. Perhaps because of time constraints, Mr. Paz did not mention several additional factors that buttress his own position about the greater affinity of Ukrainian Jews to their Jewish roots. First, the Holocaust affected Ukrainian Jewry with much greater ferocity than was in the case in Russia; whereas all of Ukraine was occupied by German troops, leaving few Jewish families intact, only a small number of Russian Jewish population concentrations were subject to Nazi savagery. Thus, Ukrainian Jewry has a much more intimate relationship with modern Jewish history. Second, although the Jewish population of Russia is more numerous than that of Ukraine, more rabbis work in Ukraine -- and many are effective in reinforcing existing Jewish bonds. Third, in terms of aliyah, the more troubled Ukrainian economy bolsters emigration to Israel
21. Na’aleh 16 is a program in Israel for high school students, Chalom attracts high school graduates to Israel for career training, Yachad works with young adults who make aliyah in cohesive groups, and Aliyah 2000 focuses on providing specific jobs and housing for adults in targeted occupations.
22. Most qualified observers believe that the economy is contracting at an annual rate of 10 percent.

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