Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Visits To Jewish Population Centers
And Summer Camps In Ukraine

July 14-30, 1997

Following is a report of a visit by the author to three Ukrainian cities (Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv) and five Jewish summer camps in Ukraine during the latter part of July 1997. The major purposes of the trip were (1) to speak with rabbis and others in the cities visited, and (2) to visit summer camps in Ukraine operated by Jewish religious groups and by the Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut).

The first section of this report includes reports on discussions in the three cities. Reflecting both the summer season (when many people are traveling) and the focus on Jewish camps, the agenda in the cities was less comprehensive than has been the case during previous visits. The second section of the report concentrates on summer camps.

Visits to Cities


1. Rabbi Yaakov D. Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, was present in Kyiv during my stay in the city. He had been out of the country since March, returning only periodically for a few brief visits since then. He is planning to return to the Ukrainian capital with his family during the latter part of August.

2. The Ukrainian Jewish Congress was a major focus of discussion with Rabbi Bleich (and with others). In an attempt to emulate the Russian Jewish Congress, the UJC had been established by Vadim Rabinovich in April 1997 at an assembly hastily called in Kyiv during the intermediate days of Pesach. Mr. Rabinovich had emigrated to Israel some time earlier, but continues to spend much of his time in Ukraine, where he is engaged in various business ventures. A wealthy man, Mr. Rabinovich underwrote the costs of the initial assembly and the attendance of many of its participants. The assembly was poorly organized and concluded in confusion and some rancor.

The Ukrainian Jewish Congress is widely perceived as deriving its political support from Tsirei Chabad (Young Chabad), the sponsor of Rabbi Moshe Asman, the chief Chabad representative in Kyiv since 1996. The effective operational base of Tsirei Chabad is in Israel; its political philosophy is close to that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is said to endorse its activity in Ukraine. Rabbi Iosif Aronov of Israel and Rabbi Yonah Prus, an American resident of England, are closely associated with Tsirei Chabad. Relations of many Chabad rabbis in Ukraine outside Kiev with Tsirei Chabad are tenuous.

Unlike organizers and leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress, Mr. Rabinovich declines to pledge specific amounts of personal funds to the Ukrainian Jewish Congress. He has suggested that his deputies, i.e., other wealthy Ukrainian Jewish businessmen, might contribute $50,000 annually to the UJC, whereas “second-tier” donors to the Russian Jewish Congress contribute $500,000 annually. Although the standards of wealth in Russia are higher than in Ukraine, the discrepancy between proposed obligations of Russian and Ukrainian Jewish benefactors to their respective national philanthropic organizations is extraordinary.

Rabbi Bleich and others are encouraging Mr. Rabinovich to endorse a second session of the Ukrainian Jewish Congress, to be held in November, with a well-planned and public agenda, fully legitimate delegates, and fair elections. Whether the Ukrainian Jewish Congress can become an effective organization remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the bold approach of Mr. Rabinovich, joined with his own financial resources and those of his colleagues, cannot be ignored.

3. The Ukrainian Jewish Congress is the third umbrella-type national Jewish organization to appear in Ukraine. The first two are: (1) the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, also known as the Ukrainian Vaad, which is associated with Rabbi Bleich and Iosif Zissels, and (2) the Ukrainian Jewish Council, associated with Ilya Levitas and Arkady Monastirsky. In 1996 and 1997, the leadership of the two organizations convened exploratory discussions about a potential merger. However, in mid-1997, Mr. Monastirsky broke from Mr. Levitas; the former has established a fourth national Jewish organization, the Ukrainian Jewish Fund.

4. The Jewish Pedagogical Center of Ukraine, established in 1993 by the Ukrainian Vaad, is undergoing a leadership transition. Professor Marten Feller, the director of the Center, is retiring from administrative responsibilities and will be replaced by Flora Shevelenko. Professor Feller will continue to be associated with the Center, but will focus on publications.1 Reflecting both budgetary pressures and management overload, the Center is re-defining its mission.

5. Rabbi Bleich discussed several factors related to enrollment at Ukrainian Jewish schools in general and at the Kyiv day school (Gymnasium 298) sponsored by his movement, the Karliner-Stoliner hasidim. In general, enrollment patterns reflect the considerable Jewish emigration from Ukraine that has occurred in recent years. The number of Jewish Sunday schools has decreased significantly.2

Gymnasium 298 enrolled 613 pupils at the beginning of the 1996-1997 school year. By the end of the school year, 96 of these youngsters had emigrated from Ukraine. Fifty-six pupils went to Israel (some with families and some alone on high school in Israel programs), 27 to the United States, six to Germany, four to Canada, two to England, and one to Australia. Rabbi Bleich commented that a far greater proportion of Jews from the non-day school population went to Germany. The Kyiv school tries to arrange placement of its emigrating pupils in Jewish day schools in destination communities.

Of the 33 youngsters who graduated from School 298 high school in 1997, 17 went to Israel, almost all of them alone (without families). School 298 tries to direct them to religious-based Israeli educational institutions for absorption programs and post-secondary education. Three other graduates went to the United States, and one emigrated to Canada. The remaining 12 graduates are planning to stay in Kyiv, at least for the time being; most will enroll in local institutes and many will remain in contact with the Jewish community.

Of the 31 graduates in 1996, 12 went to Israel and four have settled in the United States. Fifteen remain in Kyiv.

Rabbi Bleich expects 1997-98 enrollment at School 298 to be comparable to that of 1996-97.

6. Shortly after he returns to Kyiv on a fulltime basis in mid- to late August, Rabbi Bleich hopes to convene a one-day “summit meeting” with other key rabbis from Ukraine and Russia to discuss approaches to potential donors for day school food subsidies. All of the day schools provide at least one free hot meal per day to all pupils and teachers; many schools provide two major meals and a snack, and at least one operates its dining hall throughout the weekend so that children from impoverished families will not go hungry between the close of school on Friday afternoon and its reopening on Monday morning. The Ukrain-ian government no longer subsidizes school lunches.

Approximately 9,000 youngsters attend the 45 Jewish day schools in the post-Soviet successor states. For many families, the primary attraction of such schools is less the Jewish content of the curriculum than the nutritious school meals that are served to pupils, free bus transportation, and various features of the secular education component of such schools that have fallen victim to post-Soviet chaos in non-religious public schools, such as classes in English and computer use. Many of the Jewish day schools in the successor states are highly regarded for their secular studies.

7. Another matter that Rabbi Bleich intends to address after his return to Ukraine in August is the increasing activity of Christian missionaries that target Jews. He is aware of approaches by missionaries in a number of cities; some rabbis (for example, Rabbi Moishe Moskowitz in Kharkov and Rabbi Avrum Wolf in Kherson) have been able to enlist the support of municipal officials in deterring missionary work among Jews, but the missionaries are very persistent.

Publications will reach the largest number of people. Legal action may be appropriate on the grounds that missionaries are deceiving people when they offer various humanitarian services under false pretexts or try to persuade Jews that they can be both Christian and Jewish at the same time.

8. Rabbi Bleich said that he regards International Solomon University in Kyiv as a “good, non-Jewish university” in Kyiv, comparable to Kiev-Pechersk National Mathematics Lycee, a local school that affiliated with ORT in 1996, as a good, non-Jewish lycee. Although Rabbi Bleich finds various aspects of ISU objectionable, he acknowledges that the rector of ISU, who is emigrating, is an excellent administrator.

(International Solomon University was established in 1992 as a broadbased private university under Jewish auspices. Currently enrolling about 1,000 students, it offers curricula in humanities, Jewish studies, engineering, and other fields. The institution remains controversial among many observers of the Kyiv Jewish community because of its very high non-Jewish enrollment.

(Kyiv-Pechersk National Mathematics Lycee was established in 1961 as an elite public school specializing in mathematics. Although it apparently enrolls a substantial number of Jewish pupils, the proportion of Jewish registration could not be determined during a visit by the writer in March 1997. The Judaic content of its curriculum is minimal.)

Among the objections of Rabbi Bleich and others to ISU, Kyiv-Pechersk Lycee, and similar institutions in other communities is that significant Jewish resources are committed to institutions with (a) relatively small Jewish enrollment, and/or (b) negligible Judaic program content. Further, the presence of so many young non-Jews in such settings does little to encourage endogamous Jewish marriage in a society where the intermarriage rate already exceeds 70 percent. Concurrently, most Jewish educational institutions dedicated to transmission of Jewish values and content are seriously underfunded.


1. Professor Feller is editor of a forthcoming multi-volume encyclopedia on Ukrainian Jewry.
2. As families emigrate, the Jewish population decreases and the potential Jewish enrollment pool shrinks. Many Jewish families appear to perceive Sunday schools mainly as preparatory programs for aliyah, perhaps reflecting to some degree the Israeli orientation of the majority of these schools. Most receive financial support and curriculum guidance from the Israel Fund for Culture and Education in the Diaspora, an Israeli government agency that promotes aliyah.

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