Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


The focal point of the OU education program in Kharkiv is Lycee Shaalavim, a private school that enrolled 116 pupils in grades seven through eleven in September 1997. Enrollment in late April 1998 was 98, the decrease due mainly to pupil emigration to Israel with their families. Rabbi Lewis described the school as "an Israeli school in Ukraine," referring to its Israeli teaching staff and strong Zionist orientation. Fifty-eight pupils are residents of Kharkiv and 40 (20 girls and 20 boys) are non-residents. The latter are recruited from throughout Ukraine at Jewish summer camps and by word-of-mouth; they are accommodated in newly-built dormitories. Many youngsters, both local and boarders, are from troubled homes. The school curriculum is modern Orthodox in philosophy. Pupils study three classes of Jewish subjects each day, almost all of which are taught in Hebrew, as well as a full, rigorous secular curriculum. Five certified teachers from Israel and five Israeli students serve as instructors in the Judaic courses and as dormitory counselors.

Aliyah is encouraged and facilitated, leading to an extraordinarily high enrollment turnover -- sometimes as high as 70 percent -- from year to year as pupils emigrate to Israel with their families or in Naaleh or other high school programs. The eleventh grade (final class in Ukrainian schools) is very small, and most graduates enter Israeli universities.

In addition to the lycee, the OU operates a youth center in the middle of the city that sponsors a small Sunday school, a youth club, a learning program for university students, several Shabbat programs, a large meals program for Jewish elderly (subsidized by JDC), and other activities. It also sponsors a three-week summer camp in the Kharkiv region that enrolls about 250 adolescents.

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

Mr. Masezhnik directs JAFI operations in a large area, covering four oblasts (Kharkiv, Lugansk, Sumy, and Poltava). Kharkiv has the only large Jewish population, about 40,000; Kremenchug (Poltava oblast) and Lugansk city may have about 3,000 Jews each; and Sumy and the city of Poltava may have about 1,600 each. Perhaps six additional cities have Jewish populations between 100 and 1,000.

Aliyah from the region has been increasing by about nine percent from one year to the next over the last several years, said Mr. Masezhnik. The growth in departures to Israel reflects the "situation" (положение).51 Mr. Masezhnik described the local economy as "catastrophic," noting that only 25 percent of the factories in the region were operating. Eighty percent of the workforce is registered as unemployed, but it is likely that additional unemployed people are unregistered, he said.

The proportion of younger people going to Israel is increasing significantly, reflecting their inability to find work after completing post-secondary studies. In addition to the shrinking industrial base, universities and institutes were closing entire departments and hospitals were shutting wards. The only deterrent to the departure of young people, said Mr. Masezhnik, is fear for the well-being of their middle-age and older parents, who are much less willing to take risks in a new culture. The Naaleh, Sela, and Chalom programs are very popular with adolescents and young adults.

As he had noted in a discussion with the writer in 1997, Mr. Masezhnik believes that Sochnut should provide opportunities for potential olim to upgrade their skills in computer technology so they would develop the confidence to move to Israel. 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, they lack proficiency in computer technology as well as in English and both ulpan and technical Hebrew. Unskilled in any of these areas, some middle-age Jews are reluctant to emigrate to Israel.

Mr. Masezhnik has submitted a proposal to Sochnut headquarters in Jerusalem for the development of a computer classroom in available space in the Kharkiv Sochnut office. Sochnut could offer computer technology courses appropriate for various professions and could also use the computers to teach Hebrew and technical English. The computers could be made available to children and adolescents in the late afternoon after school. Mr. Masezhnik remains frustrated that the Jewish Agency budget is unable to cover the costs of such a program.52

JAFI ulpan courses in Kharkiv alone enroll about 750 adults. The Jewish Agency youth club is very large and includes many special-interest groups, such as discussion groups on Israel-Arab negotiations, Israeli culture, and other topics. Very practical matters (such as Israeli army service, higher education opportunities, job-hunting in Israel, insurance, etc.) are also discussed. All Jewish and Israeli holidays are observed, and some celebrations draw as many as 300 or 400 young people. Some activists come into Kharkiv from all over the region to participate in these events, even from Lugansk, which is five to six hours away by car.

JAFI expects to operate five summer camp sessions in the Kharkiv region in 1998. Two (June 25 to July 7, and July 9 to July 20) will enroll a total of 320 Jewish youngsters between the ages of eight and 10. It is difficult to care for such young children in a camp setting, said Mr. Masezhnik, but it is hoped that their experiences plus activities planned for their parents will encourage entire families to move to Israel. Another camp session (July 22 to August 2) is planned for 150 youngsters between the ages of 14 and 16. About 200 university students will participate in JAFI student camps in August. In addition to these camps, JAFI will offer some financial support to the Orthodox Union summer camp and to a camp operated by Ezra, a religious Zionist organization. The Ezra camp probably will be held near Lugansk.

Mr. Masezhnik was very enthusiastic about the recent joint conference in Dnipro-petrovsk of JAFI representatives and rabbis in Ukraine. He pronounced it "very healthy (здоровый), very good". He said that JAFI relations with Rabbi Moskowitz of Chabad and with the OU Center are very excellent because all three parties have common interests. Relations with the local Israel Cultural Center are "normal"; JAFI and the Israel Cultural Center co-sponsor celebrations of some Israeli holidays.53 He added that JAFI has almost no contact with the new Hillel student group in Kharkiv (see below), noting that the JAFI student group is much larger and stronger and also more effective on a regional basis than is Hillel.54

Mr. Masezhnik said that he may remain in Kharkiv for one more year, i.e., a third year, before returning to Israel. He explained that he derives great satisfaction from working on behalf of aliyah and seeing significant increases in departures to Israel.

67. The Joint Distribution Committee initiated comprehensive operations in Kharkiv only within the last 18 months, significantly later than in some other post-Soviet cities with smaller Jewish populations. However, the implementation phase of its activity has proceded rapidly and the organization already is receiving plaudits from local Jews. George Feingold, the JDC Kharkiv director, is widely admired in the city; Mr. Feingold was attending a JDC conference in Jerusalem during the writer's visit to Kharkiv, but had arranged meetings with other JDC personnel.

The JDC welfare program is extensive, with 10,800 needy elderly already on its rolls and more than 1,000 additional impoverished Jews expected to be added in the near future. About 9,000 people receive some type of assistance, from occasional food parcels to more comprehensive in-home assistance. Six soup kitchens (one at the Chabad synagogue and one at each Chabad school site, one at the OU school and one at the OU youth center, and one at a restaurant in a remote area of the city) serve a total of more than 800 elderly, each receiving three to five meals weekly. Additionally, the Chabad and OU kitchens each dispatch meals-on-wheels to JDC clientele. Twenty-eight warm homes serve hot meals twice weekly to 337 Jewish elderly. Patronage services (in-home assistance) is provided to 885 homebound clients by 175 patronage workers.

According to JDC staff, the average pension in Kharkiv is $18 monthly. A great need exists for more nutrition assistance and more patronage service, but funding is unavailable. A related difficulty is the expense of transportation for patronage workers; JDC tries to match workers with clients in the same neighborhood, but such assignments are not always possible and some that are feasible in a technical sense do not work out because of personality conflicts or other reasons. Further, the municipal transportation system frequently breaks down, a function of the general economic collapse in the city, sometimes stranding workers in remote areas for hours on end.

JDC also needs funding for insulin and other medications, bedding, underwear, and adult diapers. Additional financial support is also required for winter relief services to Jews who live in villages.

A visit was made to the new hesed, Hesed Maalot, a former kindergarten building undergoing extensive renovation. A club for elderly Jews is located on the ground floor; its major activities are weekly kabbalat Shabbat gatherings, holiday celebrations, lectures and other cultural events, and a vocal ensemble of 15 individuals. Other facilities include a center for rental of medical equipment (wheelchairs, walkers, etc.), medical consultation suite, a clubroom for World War II veterans, a small hairdressing salon, and administrative offices for the various welfare services. No space is assigned to activities for children.

Two smaller heseds are being developed in Poltava and Sumy. Approximately 80 percent of the Jewish population of Poltava is elderly.

JDC also supports a variety of education and culture programs in Kharkiv, including a Popular University of Jewish Culture in Eastern Ukraine. This institution does not offer regular courses, but sponsors public lectures, a seminar for academics with interests in various Jewish subjects, and a periodic journal Истоки (Sources) that includes articles by local scholars on Jewish history (local and international), Judaism, and Jewish culture. Support is also given to a pre-existing Jewish Theater. JDC arranges attendance of Jewish elderly at dress rehearsals and provides hesed members, Jewish school groups, and World War II ghetto survivors with tickets.

The Jewish Veterans of World II organization, which is assisted by JDC, has a membership of 1,093 individuals. A Society of Former Ghetto Prisoners, which has 72 members (50 Jews and 22 Righteous Gentiles, some of whom have been recognized by Ukraine and some of whom have been recognized by Israel), also receives JDC support.


51. положение is a literal translation of situation. In the context used, it is understood to refer to the economic situation.
52.  As cited earlier in this report, computer training is available to local Jews in several other major Ukrainian cities, such as at the Israel Cultural Center branch at the Kyiv Polytechnical Institute and at the Israel Cultural Center in Dnipropetrovsk. However, the ICC's do not coordinate these training programs with Jewish Agency aliyah counselors.
53. The Israel Cultural Center in Kharkiv appears to be a weak organization, rarely mentioned in discussions of Kharkiv Jewish life.
54. A lack of contact between JAFI and Hillel appears to be the norm throughout the transition states.

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