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

July 14-30, 1997

In addition to enrolling a large number of new pupils from the general Jewish population in September, Rabbi Kaminezki and the school administration hope to begin a class for approximately 10 Jewish “invalid children” of primary-grade age, i.e., youngsters with various physical handicaps. If such a program is initiated, it will be the first Jewish school in the post-Soviet successor states to teach such children. Few educational or socializing opportunities are available to handicapped youngsters in the successor states; most are isolated in their apartments, living with parents who are forced to forgo employment in order to care for their children.10

14. Construction on the homes for Jewish street children that Rabbi Kaminezki is developing in Dnipropetrovsk is nearing completion. Both should be ready for occupancy by September as planned. Rabbi Kaminezki and his staff are now working on furnishing the two buildings. The homes already had been dedicated so as to accommodate the travel schedule of Esther Benenson, the principal donor, who had arrived in Dnipropetrovsk with an entourage of family and associates in June.

Each building is designed to house 50 youngsters plus houseparents. The girls’ building, which is a new structure, is within walking distance of the day school. Boys will be accommodated in a remodeled synagogue and will require bus transportation to reach the school. Rabbi Kaminezki has applied to the Pincus Fund of the Jewish Agency for financial assistance in absorbing the children in special classes that will prepare them to join the regular day school classes.

15. Beit Chana, the Chabad michlala or pedagogical institute, expects to enroll at least 130 young women during the 1997-98 academic year, an increase from its 1996-97 enrollment of 80.11 A group of about 35 second-year Beit Chana students was in Israel during the summer of 1997, studying for ten weeks at Machon Gold. Fifteen other Beit Chana students were working as counselors during the girls’ session of the Chabad camp in Dnipropetrovsk. Levi Levayev, the major patron of the Chabad support organization Or Avner, and the Pincus Fund of the Jewish Agency each provide about 40 percent of the Beit Chana budget; Rabbi Kaminezki raises the remaining 20 percent.

16. The Open Jewish University of Dnipropetrovsk was established in 1993 to provide learning opportunities for adults in various spheres of Jewish studies. It offers five subject concentrations: (1) Fundamentals of [the Jewish] Religion; (2) Jewish Life -- tradition, fundamentals of belief, holidays, classic texts and commentaries; (3) History of the Jewish People; (4) Jewish Civilization -- literature and art; and (5) Languages -- Hebrew and Yiddish. Most classes meet on Sundays in Dnipropetrovsk, but several courses have been offered in Dniprodzerzhinsk, Zaporizhya, and other nearby Jewish population centers. The Open Jewish University receives funding from the Joint Distribution Committee, the Pincus Fund of the Jewish Agency, Or Avner, and the governing body of the Dnipropetrovsk synagogue.

According to data provided by the Open University, 127 people were enrolled in 1996-97. Their average age was 38, and most were graduates of universities or institutes. Due in part to substantial emigration from the area, the number of enrollees is lower than expected and is declining further.

With support from JDC, the Open Jewish University has recently published paperback textbooks entitled Foundations of Judaism by Boris Mazo, The Jewish Way of Life -- Traditions and Ritual by Arkady Zaltzman, History of the Jews of Russia, the USSR, and Ukraine (2 vols.) by Anatoly Varshavsky, and Israel -- History and Modernity by Viktor Lehrer.12 All of the authors are instructors in the Open Jewish University.

17. Rabbi Kaminezki shares the view of Rabbi Bleich that Christian missionaries have become more aggressive in recent months. Rabbi Kaminezki said that the problem is particularly acute in cities such as Kriviy Rig, where no rabbis are present to monitor the situation. He also agreed that a large-scale distribution of anti-missionary literature would be very helpful. The synagogue governing body has already printed and distributed an anti-missionary brochure,13 but a more intensive and systematic publishing effort is required if missionary efforts are to be frustrated.

18. Several architectural plans are being considered for the renovation of the Golden Rose Choral Synagogue, which was returned to the Jewish community in late 1996 after several years of acrimonious exchange with the clothing factory that was using it as a warehouse. It is Rabbi Kaminezki’s intention that the facility be converted into a multi-purpose community building with a large assembly room (to be used variously as a synagogue, wedding hall, concert center, or other large gathering place) along with several smaller activity rooms and communal offices. Funding will be provided by the family of George Rohr, an American who has supported the renovation of other Chabad synagogues in the successor states.

19. Rabbi Kaminezki reported that the synagogue had identified the individual who stole the congregation’s only Sefer Torah in April. The thief is a Georgian Jew who had lived in Dnipropetrovsk for some months; he had represented himself to the Jewish community as a businessman and had joined the congregation, apparently in preparation to seize the Torah. On the night that he actually cut the Torah parchment away from its rollers and removed it from the synagogue, he had remained at the shul after the Maariv service to chat with other worshippers and the security staff and to have a cup of tea with the “regulars”. Investigation by the synagogue and the municipal police suggest that he managed to introduce a substance into the tea of the custodian that later reduced the custodian’s alertness.

Shortly after the Torah disappeared, the individual also disappeared. Only after he was identified as a suspect was it remembered that he had always refused to be photographed during various celebrations in the synagogue and larger community. Dnipropetrovsk police have been in contact with Georgian police about recovery of the Torah as it is known that the thief returned to his homeland with it; however, Georgian authorities do not seem eager to pursue the case. If the Torah is not returned through official channels in the very near future, Rabbi Kaminezki will contact individuals in the Georgian Jewish com-munity for assistance.

When news of the Torah theft became public, the congregation received several offers of replacement Torahs from Israel and the United States. The synagogue accepted the offer of an Israeli donor and expects the new Torah to arrive before Rosh Hashana. Notwithstanding, the generous gift of a new Torah, a very bitter taste remains because the original Torah, which had been especially commissioned for Dnipropetrovsk, had been stolen by a fellow Jew.


20. Renovation of the choral synagogue in Kharkiv, a significantly riskier project than that in Dnipropetrovsk as control over the Kharkiv structure is still contested, is also under way. Rabbi Moishe Moskowitz, a Chabad hasid from Caracas, has been using the synagogue for some years as an office, site of a JDC-supported soup kitchen, and a truncated synagogue facility. Eduard Khodos, a disagreeable and contentious individual has long occupied the upper floors of the building and has blocked use of the spacious sanctuary. With only the vestibule of the synagogue available for synagogue services, Rabbi Moskowitz has still managed to attract 150 people for Shabbat observance.

In mid-1997, having received funds from George Rohr, Rabbi Moskowitz decided to proceed with renovation of the synagogue despite threats from Mr. Khodos. The sanctuary has been opened (although it is unusable) and repairs have begun on the cupola. Gutters and downspouts are being replaced. Renovation will continue in stages, depending on the response of Mr. Khodos.

21. Rabbi Moskowitz said that inquiries from and interviews with families during the spring and summer point to a substantial increase in enrollment for the Kharkiv Chabad day school in September. Whereas enrollment was approx-imately 400 pupils during the 1996-97 school year, enrollment for the 1997-98 school year may be almost 500. He was unable to offer an explanation for the increase, noting that the upper school was still in very unattractive quarters and, unlike many other schools in the city, it has no computer laboratory.

22. Jewish emigration was continuing at a significant rate because the local economy remained very depressed. Many Jewish families, even those with children in the day school, were going to Germany, a “purely economic” decision.

Visits to Jewish Summer Camps

23. The author visited five Jewish summer camps in Ukraine. Two, in Khmelnitsky and Dnipropetrovsk, are operated by the Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut). The other three are sponsored by religious groups -- two by Chabad and one by Karliner-Stoliner hasidim.14

Sochnut camps are co-educational and are strongly focused on Zionism and promotion of aliyah. The majority of campers are adolescents, age 14 and older, as this age group is perceived to be considering their options for further education and for careers. Reflecting the high rate of intermarriage among Soviet and post-Soviet Ukrainian Jews, many of the campers are halakhically non-Jewish; however, all are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return and each is considered by Sochnut to be a candidate for aliyah.15 Due to severe budgetary constraints affecting the Jewish Agency, the length of camp sessions has been cut back to only nine days. Further, most Sochnut offices limit each youngster to two or three summers at camp so as to reach the largest number of Jewish adolescents as possible.

10. Shaarei Hesed already works with handicapped youngsters and their families on a limited basis. The Chabad camp also accommodated invalid children and their parents in a one-week pre-camp session in June. A critical problem in programming for this population is the lack of qualified professional personnel.
11. Local radio stations read advertisements for the institute during the spring and summer.
12. Each of the texts is published in the Russian language. Translations of the titles are by Betsy Gidwitz.
13. The brochure is a Russian-language adaptation of material developed by the U.S.-based anti-missionary organization Jews for Judaism.
14. The writer was a guest of the Karliner-Stoliner camp for four days and a guest of the Chabad camp in Dnipropetrovsk for eight days.
15. Jewish law (halakha) defines a Jew as an individual whose mother is Jewish. The Israeli Law of Return grants citizenship to an individual with at least one Jewish grandparent or to a non-Jew married to a Jew.

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