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

July 14-30, 1997

9. In later discussions with Rabbi Peretz Charach), a Karliner-Stoliner hasid who is Chief Rabbi of Khmelnitsky, Rabbi Charach said that he expects to leave Khmelnitsky after the Jewish holidays in October because “there are no young Jews left in Khmelnitsky”. He and his family will move to Kyiv, where Rabbi Charach will become director of Karliner-Stoliner youth activities in Ukraine.3 (See section on Yad Yisroel summer camp, beginning on page 13.)


Rabbi Peretz Charach and Esther Charach in Khmelnitsky, May 1996.




10. Julie Davis Fisher is the new human rights specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. Her previous position was that of vice-consul in the same embassy. In speaking about repeated difficulties concerning shipments of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Ms. Davis said that no resolution to the problem is in sight. The United States government is engaged in very serious discussions with the government of Ukraine, which still wants to impose taxes on all aid. Local officials are applying unofficial "import taxes", i.e., demanding bribes for the release of goods from customs. This problem is just one aspect of endemic corruption in Ukraine. Another factor leading to extortion is that many government employees receive very low salaries -- and sometimes the state is months late in paying wages. Several European governments have advised philanthropic groups in their countries to divert aid shipments from Ukraine to other nations with more responsible humanitarian assistance policies.

The militia, i.e., municipal police and highway patrols, have their own agenda, said Ms. Davis. They also must supplement miserly salaries that are sometimes paid months late. Their need for funds accounts for the large number of cars signaled over to the side of the road on the whim of an officer. Sometimes the officers only want to flaunt their power, but often they demand ten hryvnia (approximately $6.00). The judicial system in Ukraine is also prone to corruption, responding to behind-the-scenes payments intended to sway opinions. Ms. Davis said that much of the press, although free, is subject to coercion because almost every publication receives some funding either from government agencies or from government officials [who had become wealthy through corruption].

Ms. Davis said that she and others in the Embassy were looking forward to the return to Kyiv on a longterm basis of Rabbi Yaakov D. Bleich. The Embassy has come to rely on him for accurate information and useful insight. Problems caused by his absence are compounded by the fact that he has no deputies. For example, the Embassy finds it difficult to address two incidents that have arisen in recent weeks because no other individual in the Jewish community with national credibility is available to provide guidance. In the first such incident, the Embassy learned from a report on Ukrainian television that the Jewish cemetery in Khust was defaced on July 21. Several calls to municipal officials in Khust had elicited different and even contradictory responses and the Embassy still does not know whether the defilement was a matter of random vandalism by adolescents or a more serious antisemitic attack by an organized group.4 In the second such incident, the Embassy had learned that the historic Jewish cemetery in Uman had sustained significant damage during recent torrential rains. The damage should be repaired in the nearest future before additional rain, wind, and visitor traffic causes further degradation.5 Ms. Davis did not know whom to contact in Rabbi Bleich’s absence.

Regarding the Brodsky synagogue in Kyiv, Ms. Davis said that Rabbi Moshe Asman and his Chabad congregation assumed official control over the structure on July 1. According to official agreements, the puppet theater that had moved into the building in the 1950s should vacate the premises by the end of 1997. The United States government fully supports Jewish communal efforts to reclaim the synagogue. However, it is clear to all that the puppet theater management is not interested in leaving the synagogue to occupy its assigned new site. Chabad officials, U.S. diplomats, and other concerned parties all are trying to avoid giving the impression that a Jewish group intends to evict local children from their beloved puppet theater.6 A further complication may be that a modeling agency appears to have moved into the synagogue and recently presented a fashion show there. Although the puppet theater management accommodates several other commercial tenants (without consultation with the synagogue), the appearance of a modeling agency on synagogue premises is especially unfortunate as modeling in Ukraine is often associated with prostitution.


10. Operations of the Joint Distribution Committee are in a period of transition in Dnipropetrovsk. The city has been designated as headquarters for the new eastern Ukraine region of JDC. Yitzhak Averbuch, who formerly directed JDC operations in the Volga region of Russia, is the first director of the new region.7

Rabbi Menachem Lepkivker, formerly the onsite director of the Kharkov project of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (New York) is the new JDC director for Dnipropetrovsk.8 He was due to assume his Dnipropetrovsk responsibilities in late August, but was in the city in late July to find an apartment and attend to other matters before bringing his family to Ukraine from Israel. Mr. Averbuch and Rabbi Lepkivker drove out to the Chabad camp one evening to join Rabbi Kaminezki and me for supper.

11. Irina Sviridenko, formerly director of extra-curricular activities at a large school, has been appointed Director of the Общиный центр (obshchiny tsentr; community center) section of the local hesed, Shaarei Hesed, that is sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee. She explained that the community center section includes all non-welfare activity in the hesed, i.e., the library, a women's club, a youth club, the Simcha children's arts program, the Tsivos Hashem program, and “many ideas”.9 Ms. Sviridenko was in the process of registering the community center with local authorities.

The center recently sent six young people from the Simcha group to a Moscow competition to demonstrate their computer animation skills. The Dnipropetrovsk youngsters won a prize.

In September, the Center will sponsor a Jewish book festival under the guidance of JDC, which is planning similar book festivals at this time throughout the successor states. A variety of different activities focusing on Jewish books and culture will occur. Some events will take place outside Dnipropetrovsk in smaller Jewish population centers, such as Kriviy Rih and Dniprodzherzhinsk.

On a longterm basis, the Center will serve as the host for regional seminars of Jewish youth leaders and other workers in the Jewish community.

When asked about the Center budget, Ms. Sviridenko responded that JDC had not yet informed her about budgetary provisions. She readily acknowledged that this lack of information created planning problems.

12. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, commuted into the city every day from Sunday through Friday from the Chabad summer camp in Novomoskovsk. Chany Kaminezki and their four young daughters remained at the camp throughout the summer.

13. Rabbi Kaminezki expects enrollment at his day school to increase to at least 700 pupils and perhaps as many as 750 in September after several years of decline due to heavy emigration from the city. The economy in Dnipropetrovsk remains very depressed and emigration continues to be high, but enrollment is beginning to recover nonetheless. The school will utilize several new class-rooms in the “third building” to accommodate the additional pupils.

The “second building” on the school campus was undergoing extensive reno-vation during the summer months. This building accommodates the yeshiva high school, a library, two sports halls, and other special-purpose facilities.

Both the façade and the dining hall of the main building were also in need of major repair, but Rabbi Kaminezki said that funds were not available for such work in the immediate future.

3. Formerly known as Proskurov, the city was renamed after Bogdan Khmelnitsky in 1954. Bogdan Khmelnitsky was the Cossack leader whose troops massacred about 100,000 Jews in 1648-1649. Many Ukrainians perceive him as a great Ukrainian patriot who was instrumental in awakening a sense of Jewish nationhood. Fewer than 3,000 Jews live in Khmelnitsky, the majority of whom are elderly. During his several years in the city, Rabbi Charach and his wife Esther developed a vigorous youth program that strongly encouraged Jewish youth to emigrate to Israel.
4.Khust is located in western Ukraine, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Prior to 1945, it was part of Carpathian Ruthenia, i.e., eastern Czechoslovakia.
5.Located in the southern part of Kyiv oblast, Uman is the site of the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Thousands of pilgrims visit Uman annually. Only a few hundred Jews reside in the city today.
6.See the author’s most recent previous trip report Travel to Jewish Population Centers in Ukraine - March and April 1997 (Chicago: the author, 1997), pp. 3-4.
7.Other large Jewish population centers in the eastern Ukraine region are Kharkiv and Donetsk. A number of smaller Jewish populations are also included.
8.See Travel to Jewish Population Centers in Ukraine, op. cit., pp. 25-27.
9.Tsivos Hashem is a Chabad youth program that is housed within the hesed building. Chabad provides its own youth leader for the program, but Ms. Sviridenko determines its role within the overall hesed.

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