Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


72. The total population of Moldova is about 4.3 million people; Kishinev, with a population of about 720,000, is the only large city. The economy is based on agriculture and agricultural industry. The industrial base is weak and almost entirely lacking in high technology production. A small number of people are very wealthy, and a very large sector of the population is impoverished. As in Ukraine, the national parliament is riven by ideological conflicts and is unable to formulate a workable economic policy. Elections in March 1998 returned a parliament that is 40 percent communist, 28 percent Moldovian nationalist, and 32 percent centrist. Observers predict a sharp devaluation of the Moldovian currency and further declines in the gross domestic product and living standards.

73. Marina Fromer, the "country director" for the JDC region of southern Ukraine and Moldova, was in Kishinev at the time of the writer's arrival. Ms. Fromer and JDC representatives in Moldova Yigal and Inna Kotler discussed Moldovan Jewry in comparison with other post-Soviet Jewish populations. Ms. Fromer herself is a native of the Soviet Union and earlier represented JDC in St. Petersburg. The Kotlers, who had lived in Odessa most of their lives, had previously worked for JDC in Kyiv.

The three JDC professionals agreed that it is easier to work with Moldovan Jews than with Jews in St. Petersburg, Kyiv, or Odessa. Moldovan Jewish leaders regard their responsibilities very seriously. They are less contentious and more community-minded than Jews in other post-Soviet states. Different groups of Jews are more likely to work together in a collaborative manner in Moldova.

Ms. Fromer and the Kotlers hypothesized that the relatively recent (1940) absorption of Moldova into the Soviet Union had created a postwar Jewish population that remained conscious of its Jewish heritage, including a strong sense of Jewish communal responsibility.58 Even younger Jews retain a collective memory of local pogroms and the Shoah. Ms. Fromer and the Kotlers commented that many Jewish young adults understand Yiddish and that some speak Yiddish, a rare phenomenon elsewhere in the post-Soviet successor states.

74. Jewish School #22 was organized in 1991 by the Lishkat Hakesher (Nativ) as part of its Maavar (Tsofia) program. According to Roman Karachun, the principal, and Mikhail Paz, an Israeli who directs the Jewish component of the curriculum, the enrollment of the school is almost 400 and is growing from year to year. Ninety-seven percent of the pupils are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return. About 15 percent of pupils leave during the school year to emigrate to Israel or another country with their families. About 50 percent of school graduates enroll in Sela, the Israeli pre-university program.

Teachers, especially those who teach Jewish subjects, are also leaving. Their departure causes serious problems as Jewish-studies teachers are not easily replaced.

All pupils are taught four hours of Hebrew each week, two hours of Jewish history, and one of Jewish tradition. The two men concurred that the curriculum would include additional hours of Jewish subjects if trained teachers could be found.59

A full secular studies curriculum is also taught, including three languages -- Romanian, Russian, and English -- in addition to Hebrew. The school has 20 Pentium computers, nine of which were provided by the Moldovan government and 11 that were supplied by Israel, and a good, active library in both Russian and Hebrew. However, the facility has no sports hall, a deficiency that is keenly felt.

Small museums on Jewish history and Israel have been constructed in hallways and various ancillary spaces. One such display is on the Shoah, with particular emphasis on Moldova. A second is on the Israel Defense Forces. A third is on Israeli nature; plants brought from Israel are shown and are also used in biology classes.

Small museums on Jewish history and Israel have been constructed in hallways and various ancillary spaces. One such display is on the Shoah, with particular emphasis on Moldova. A second is on the Israel Defense Forces. A third is on Israeli nature; plants brought from Israel are shown and are also used in biology classes.

In response to a question, Mr. Karachun said that families with children in the school represent a range of economic conditions. However, the majority are single-parent families and are impoverished. Earlier in the school year, continued Mr. Karachun, the school conducted a health scan of its pupils. It found that numerous youngsters were malnourished and that many suffered chronic health problems, including disorders of the endocrine and nervous systems, cardiac weakness, and ophthalmologic abnormalities. In response, the school strengthened its own nutrition programs, increasing its funding in this sector of school services by 300 percent. However, the school cannot provide youngsters with necessary medications that are simply unavailable in Kishinev or are prohibitively expensive

Mr. Karachun likened the school to a large family, with all of its joys and sorrows. It has a good reputation in the city and the children themselves are not eager for school vacations. The school operates a three-week day camp in the summer, which is heartily welcomed by both pupils and their parents. The possibility of extending the day camp season has been explored, but funding is unavailable.

75. A second Jewish day school, School #15, operates under Chabad auspices. It enrolls about 170 pupils, almost all of whom are Jewish according to halakha. The writer was unable to visit this school because it had closed for Pesach vacation on the only day available for such a visit.

76. Both day schools operate their own Jewish pre-schools. About 40 children are enrolled in the pre-school of School #22 and about 75 attend the pre-school of Chabad.

77. Rabbi Moshe Budilovsky arrived in Kishinev in September 1997 to invigorate Torat Emet - Yeshiva of Kishinev, a Jewish school that had floundered under previous leadership. The school currently enrolls 30 youngsters -- 20 boys and 10 girls in separate programs -- in grades seven through eleven. Rabbi Budilovsky expects 50 to 60 adolescents as pupils in 1998-1999, perhaps the capacity of the school's current facilities. Most youngsters board at school dormitories; they are from various cities and towns in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

The curriculum focuses on Jewish studies between 8:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., and on secular subjects between 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. Rabbi Budilovsky, two instructors from a hesder yeshiva in Yerucham, and two female soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces teach Jewish subjects, and a local person teaches Hebrew on a part-time basis. The teachers of secular subjects are all local people, the best in the city (according to Rabbi Budilovsky). As in other Jewish schools throughout the transition states, such teachers are attracted to Torat Emet by good teaching conditions and salaries that are paid on time.

The goal of the school, said Rabbi Budilovsky, is the provision of five years of rigorous education in both secular and Jewish religious subjects. All pupils will be encouraged to enroll in Israeli post-secondary yeshiva programs such as Machon Lev/Jerusalem College of Technology (for boys) or Michlala/Jerusalem College for Women (for girls). Rabbi Budilovsky and his sponsors see no future in Moldova for Jewish young people. One of his sponsors has arranged for all pupils to spend the 1998 summer in Israel in a special program that includes three weeks of touring the country, three weeks in yeshiva, and two weeks of living with families in a religious agricultural settlement.

Rabbi Budilovsky himself was born in Kyiv and graduated from Leningrad State University before emigrating to Israel. He is a professional educator with 13 years experience as a school principal. Rabbi Moshe Eisenman of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore is his mentor.

In response to a question about the appeal of Torat Emet to parents, most of whom have weak Jewish backgrounds, Rabbi Budilovsky said that the high quality of its secular education, the poor quality of local public schools, and the emphasis that Torat Emet places on character-building all attract parents. Free room and board as well as free transportation to and from their homes for vacations also attract families, most of whom are impoverished.

The boys' school has seven computers, described by Rabbi Budilovsky as being of "stone-age" origin. They may be 286s; only five are in working order. "Another three junks" are at the girls' school, said Rabbi Budilovsky. Notwithstanding the aged and decrepit nature of the equipment that they are operating, some of the boys appeared to be ready for programming and design work.

Rabbi Budilovsky explained that Torat Emet - Yeshiva of Kishinev occupies the same site as a famous synagogue and yeshiva of the pre-World War II era. The synagogue and yeshiva were led by Rabbi Leib Yehuda Tsirelson (1859-1941), who had worked in Kishinev since 1910. Rabbi Tsirelson was a respected rabbi, a Zionist, an activist in Jewish communal affairs, and the representative of Bessarabian Jewry in the Romanian parliament. He was killed on the first day of World War II by a bomb dropped from a German aircraft. The yeshiva is located across the street from a large sports stadium in which Jews were rounded up and shot during the Shoah.

Rabbi Budilovsky is highly regarded in Kishinev for his intelligence and readiness to work with all segments of the community. He has been active in Jewish welfare services and as a rabbinic advisor to the Hillel student group.

78. Other educational institutions of Jewish significance in Moldova are the Faculty of Judaica, Jewish History, and Literature at Kishinev State University, which enrolls 40 students in Hebrew, Yiddish, general Jewish history, and Jewish history of Bessarabia, and the Department of Judaica at the Academy of Sciences. The latter has published several books on local pogroms and other subjects.

A popular Jewish University offers courses and lectures in Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish culture. It has opened branches in Beltsy and Bendery, in addition to its main center in Kishinev.

79. The Joint Distribution Committee operates a multi-faceted program in Moldova designed to support the local Jewish population. According to JDC representative Igal Kotler, the priority is welfare, but JDC also supports programs in Jewish education and culture, Jewish communal life, and Jewish religious practice.

58. The same observation has been made about the Jews of the Baltic states, particularly Latvia and Lithuania, whose history is similar.
59.  The seven-hour weekly Judaic curriculum is comparable to that in most other Tsofia schools with which the writer is familiar.

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