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


With the assistance of Malka, JDC provides a number of services to Jewish elderly in the city. “Patronage sisters” visit the homes of 200 homebound elderly to clean their apartments, run errands, and perform other tasks. Another 200 seniors convene twice weekly in one of 18 “warm homes”, neighborhood apartments in which they are served hot meals, socialize, and receive basic health care; some participants also take food to their own apartments from the warm home. Four canteens are operated (one each at the OU Center, the two Chabad school buildings, and the synagogue), each serving 30 to 50 meals daily. Two of the canteens each distribute 30 meals on wheels every weekday.

Malka organized the distribution of two shipments of JDC food parcels, one of 4,000 units and the other of 7,000. Through Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Malka obtained large quantities of butter, rice, soya, flour, and beans; some of these commodities were given to organizations serving non-Jewish groups, such as children with polio, gulag veterans, and non-Jewish survivors of Nazi concentration camps.

Malka also arranges free theater and concert excursions for the elderly and works with the local Sochnut and Lishkat Hakesher (Israeli Center) offices in planning celebrations of Jewish holidays. They have also worked with the student volunteers at the Chabad school to organize performances of student groups and social events in which pupils and elderly interact.

In response to a question, the Malka women listed a number of items needed by their clients, such as clothing (all kinds, including underwear for men and women and warm-up suits for men), house slippers, and shoes. They said that they are able to work with limited resources because the long Soviet period taught them to be patient, to maintain hope, and, above all, to survive.

They spoke with enthusiasm about a new opportunity for themselves; through JDC, they are now enrolled in courses offered by the Open University of Israel. They are studying such subjects as Jewish history and the Holocaust. Grateful for the possibility to build their own Jewish identity, they are also using their new knowledge to teach their elderly clients about these critical topics.

The Malka women spoke with mixed emotions about JDC plans to expand its work in Kharkiv with funds available from the Claims Conference. In September of 1996, their new organization, Hesed Maalot, was registered with the authorities. JDC would purchase a building in the near future to house its new programs, including a long-awaited medical equipment (wheelchairs, walkers, etc.) loan service. Certainly Malka clients would benefit from such assistance. However, uneasiness was expressed about the forthcoming appointment of an outsider, i.e., an Israeli, as the director of JDC operations in Kharkiv, and the re-assignment of Kharkiv from the Kyiv (“northern Ukraine”) region of JDC operations to the eastern Ukraine region, which is directed from Dnipropetrovsk. Surely, the women reasoned, it was better to be associated with the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv than with Dnipropetrovsk. Unarticulated but visible was the disdain many in urbane Kharkiv feel toward the less sophisticated city of Dnipropetrovsk.

34. Igor M., a human rights specialist in Kharkiv, discussed several topics with us. He said that five percent of the Ukrainian population controls 95 percent of the wealth. Ukrainians purchased $1.4 billion more than they sold in 1996. People learn to live under these conditions, although life is very difficult for teachers, scientists, and physicians as schools and universities, institutes, and hospitals are contracting by as much as 50 percent in the transition from a socialist to a market economy.

The Ukrainian nationalist group UNA-UNSO27 is very active in Kharkiv, more so than before. They cater their remarks to different groups, emphasizing one theme to one group and another to a different group. For example, when speaking to Communists, they will talk about unemployment; when talking to the intelligentsia, they will proclaim their adherence to the principle of free speech. Their adaptability makes them dangerous. They also have some military capacity. Another extremist force is the Slavic Union of Ukraine, a fascist group aligned with Alexander Barkashov that advocates the political union of Ukraine with the two other Slavic former Soviet republics of Russia and Belarus. The SBU28 retains regional characteristics, favoring Ukrainian nationalism in some areas and Russian allegiance in others.

Igor was skeptical about official assertions that the Israel Center in Kharkiv had been firebombed by an ad hoc group of several young people who had also attacked Ukrainian and Russian centers. It was more likely, he suggested, that the act had been committed by the Slavic Union or by the SBU as a provocation.

The incidence of AIDS is increasing very rapidly in Ukraine. The main causes are shared needles in narcotics use by young people and homosexual activity in overcrowded prisons where inmates are forced into very close contact with each other.

Igor confirmed the assertion that we had heard elsewhere about the relationship between the Ukrainian “new rich” and Ukrainian mafia groups, i.e., that all very wealthy people in Ukraine have ties to a mafia because the wealthy class requires protection services. He also said that a disproportionately large segment of the very wealthy in Ukraine is Jewish.

Igor also agreed with the theory advanced by some that mafia activity may be necessary in the early stages of post-communist national development, that is, until all state property is distributed. Also in concert with others, he compared the current level of Ukrainian [and Russian] national development with the “robber baron” era of United States history.

35. Grigory Masezhnik, a native of Chernovtsy, has been the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) representative in Kharkiv since September 1996. He is on leave from a position in computer technology at a vocational college in Israel.

Although Mr. Masezhnik supplied statistics on aliyah, the numbers were difficult to relate to Kharkiv in particular because the Kharkiv region now extends to Lugansk, some distance away. In Kharkiv itself, 700 adults were studying Hebrew in Sochnut ulpans and 350 young people between the ages of 14 and 23 participated in a Sochnut youth club known as Simcha. Three winter camps had been held in Kharkiv, enrolling a total of 275 young people; the three groups attending the different camps were schoolchildren, adolescents, and university students. Sochnut also sponsored a weekend camp for parents of high school students enrolled in Na’aleh 16 and seminars for teachers.

Mr. Masezhnik said that local economic conditions (rather than Zionism, local antisemitism, or Ukrainian nationalism) determine the rate of aliyah. However, although the state of the economy is dire in the Kharkiv area, emigration to Israel remains low. Mr. Masezhnik explained that absorption in Israel is often difficult for people with a Soviet-style higher education. Although they may possess degrees in engineering or medicine, as do many Jews in Kharkiv, Israeli standards require a higher level of training than is available in Ukraine. Professionals must know technical Hebrew as well as ulpan Hebrew, and English, and they must also be proficient in computer use. Unskilled in any of these areas, local Jews are reluctant to emigrate to Israel.

Mr. Masezhnik believes that Sochnut should provide opportunities for potential olim to upgrade their skills in these areas while still in Kharkiv. He has submitted a proposal to Sochnut headquarters in Jerusalem for the development of a computer classroom in available space in the Kharkiv Sochnut office; having priced various computers locally, he suggests that Sochnut purchase a minimum of eight Pentium 150 computers, a network system, and a printer. Sochnut could offer computer technology courses appropriate for various professions and could also use the computers to teach Hebrew and English. The computers could be made available to children in the late afternoon, after school.


36. Dnipropetrovsk is the third largest city in Ukraine (after Kyiv and Kharkiv); according to Ukrainian government statistics, its 1996 population was 1,147,200. An industrial center on the Dnipr River, Dnipropetrovsk is currently undergoing severe economic distress. Its Jewish population of about 60,000 is the second largest in Ukraine.

The Jewish communities of Dnipropetrovsk and Boston established a kehilla or twinning relationship in the early 1990s. Living in the Boston area at the time, Betsy Gidwitz was instrumental in initiating this affiliation and has visited the city on numerous occasions since that period. Sandra Spinner has also visited Dnipropetrovsk previously.

37. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk and a follower of the Chabad movement, is considered one of the most successful rabbis in all of the post-Soviet successor states. Among his major accomplishments is the development of a number of Jewish institutions serving various segments of the Jewish population. Some of these institutions have been funded with major contributions from the local Jewish population, a rare achievement for rabbis among a Jewish people unfamiliar with the tradition of tzedakah.

38. The Kotsiubinsky street synagogue complex has been enlarged and extensively remodeled; air-conditioning has been installed, thus facilitating its use during the summer months. It is now named Beit Baruch (or The Beit Baruch Jewish Center) in memory of the father of a local man who provided significant funding for the project. The renovated sanctuary is modern in appearance, its starkness relieved by its intimate size, the traditional ark from the old hall, a hand-carved wooden bima, and hand-made wooden seating. A large skylight in the shape of a six-pointed star is an arresting feature.

Adjacent to the upstairs women’s gallery are spacious new offices for Rabbi Kaminezki and his secretary, an office for the synagogue president, a small branch representation of the main Sochnut (Jewish Agency) office, a medical consultation room for senior citizens, and a bookstore selling Jewish books. (The last-named was full of boxes of matzos during our visit, which occurred shortly before Pesach.)

On the lower level, just behind the sanctuary, is a new kitchen and dining room serving hot meals to 150 Jewish elderly each day. The canteen service is a component of a Beit Baruch-based program for elderly Jews. Other facets of the program include celebrations of Jewish holidays and of birthdays of participants, a choir, a Jewish history club, a Yiddish literature club, a social club, a video club featuring films on Jewish themes, and study of the weekly Torah portion. Various Russian-language Jewish-oriented reading material is also available. The program is ably managed by Jan Sidelkovsky, a veteran worker in the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community.29

27. UNA-UNSO is an acronym for the Lviv-based Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self –Defense Organization; the latter is the paramilitary arm of the former.
28. SBU is an acronym for the Ukrainian national security service, a Ukrainian version of the Soviet KGB.
29. Mr. Sidelkovsky had been employed most recently at the JDC hesed in Dnipropetrovsk, but left after various clashes with Shimon Strinkovsky, the outspoken director of JDC activities in the city. Mr. Sidelkovsky may return to JDC after Mr. Strinkovsky’s scheduled departure from Dnipropetrovsk in the summer of 1997.

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