Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


Hesed Yehuda (named after Rabbi Leib Yehuda Tsirelson; see above) is the center of JDC welfare activities, which serve about 2,500 elderly Jews in Kishinev. Located in very cramped quarters, the hesed staff supervises a nutrition program offering hot meals in canteens and in neighborhood warm houses, meals-on-wheels, and distribution of food parcels. About 240 elderly homebound Jews in Kishinev receive patronage services, such as cleaning, shopping, and meal preparation. Hairdressing at home, repair of appliances, and a telephone contact line are also available. Almost 300 people rent canes, walkers, mattresses designed to prevent bedsores, and other medical equipment.

About 300 elderly participate in social activities for the elderly at Hesed Yehuda. Among these are 15 different interest groups, such as handicrafts, singing, Yiddish, etc. Shabbat and holiday programs are also available.

The focus of JDC-sponsored cultural activity is The Yitzak Manger Kishinev Jewish Municipal Library and Jewish Community Center. The library was established in 1991 with Moldovan government support and is now one of the largest Jewish community libraries in the successor states. The Jewish Community Center includes: (1) a Children's Department offering arts and crafts, Hebrew instruction, dance, etc; and (2) a Jewish Cultural Center offering a Jewish Family Club, Shoah survivors group with 470 members, war veterans association with 500 members, Yiddish Center, Pensioners' Club, dance and music groups, bookbinding, ceramics, a museum of Bessarabian Jewish history, and a Hillel student group.

JDC has supplied Jewish day schools and other educational institutions with various educational materials and office equipment, such as copying machines. It has sponsored several academic seminars and conferences on Jewish themes.

In supporting the development of Jewish communal life, JDC works with the Moldovan Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, an umbrella body for Jewish organizations in ten cities and towns throughout the country. These smaller Jewish population centers have Jewish cultural societies, Sunday schools, and heseds. The chairman of the Association is Shimon Shoikhet, a prominent local architect. Immediately prior to the writer's arrival in Moldova, representatives of this group had met to plan distribution of payments from Swiss banks to Holocaust survivors.

As in the case in other transition states, JDC support of Jewish religious life includes provision of ritual items and religious materials to synagogues and Jewish schools. It also participates in the planning of communal celebrations of Jewish festivals.

The spacious downtown offices of JDC house the Kishinev Institute for Social and Communal Workers, a branch of a larger JDC facility in St. Petersburg. Serving southern Ukraine and Moldova, the Kishinev Institute operates various seminars and workshops in social and communal work, management, and Jewish tradition and culture for employees in JDC-assisted programs. The themes of its 19 seminars in 1997 included patronage and nutrition programs, the warm home program, the role of the volunteer in philanthropic organizations, the role of the community board in the hesed, bookkeeping practices in philanthropic organizations, planning in the hesed, and adult Jewish education. JDC has also sent some workers to seminars in other post-Soviet successor states and in Israel.

80. The State of Israel does not maintain a separate embassy in Moldova. Its consular representative in Moldova is Alex Agmon, who formerly directed the Israel Cultural Center in Dnipropetrovsk. Mr. Agmon, who was born in Tashkent, heads the Consulate of Israel, which is located in the Israel Cultural Center. (See below.) The Consulate operates under the direction of the Embassy of Israel in Ukraine.

81. The Israel Cultural Center is sponsored by Nativ, formerly known as Lishkat Hakesher, which is an Israeli government institution attached to the office of the Prime Minister. It is located in new and very attractive office space. Yana Agmon, an Israeli who was born in Baku, directs the Center; she previously worked in the Israel Cultural Center in Dnipropetrovsk. She is the wife of Alex Agmon, the Israeli Consul in Moldova.

Ms. Agmon said that one of their major responsibilities is the supervision of eight Jewish Sunday schools throughout Moldova for Jewish pupils between the ages of seven and 16. Three are located in Kishinev and enroll 60, 80, and 90 youngsters; the others are located in Bendery (120 pupils), Soroky (50), Beltsy (35), Rybnitsa (35), and Tiraspol (35). The curriculum includes Hebrew, Jewish tradition, Jewish history, and holiday celebrations.

The Israel Cultural Center operates an ulpan in Kishinev that enrolls about 250 people. It also sponsors a youth club, Maccabee sports club, and a women's club, as well as lectures on various topics and holiday celebrations. Its major purpose is to provide information about Israel to local Jews.

82. Discussion with Victor Fisher, the Kishinev representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was difficult because, due to time constraints, it was held in the midst of a larger and poorly planned meeting between Mr. Fisher and Hillel students from Illinois. (See below.)


Hillel Pesach Project in Moldova

83. Rabbi Paul V. Saiger, Executive Director of The Hillels of Illinois, approached the writer in 1996 for suggestions regarding the possibility of involving Illinois Hillel students in some level of contact with the Jewish population of the post-Soviet successor states. Rabbi Saiger noted his own family history in the area and his belief that substantive interaction could be developed between the two Jewish populations. The writer responded that any efforts in effecting such contact might be concentrated in Kyiv and the surrounding area; Chicago and Kyiv are sister-cities, and Rabbi Yaakov D. Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, was known to be interested in fostering contact between Jewish young people in Ukraine and the United States. However, it was also noted that the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago had shown little interest in pursuing a relationship with Kyiv Jewry, a critical factor because any such association probably would require some degree of subsidy from Federation. Several possible Hillel student summer projects in Ukraine (such as working as counselors in Ukrainian Jewish summer camps or working with Ukrainian Jewish students to restore abandoned Jewish cemeteries) were discussed, but none was pursued because no financial support could be foreseen. 60

84. The writer contacted Rabbi Saiger in autumn of 1997, suggesting that The Hillels of Illinois consider the possibility of participation in the Hillel Pesach Project in the post-Soviet transition states. That Hillel members in Russia and Ukraine had conducted Pesach seders for Jews in relatively small Jewish population centers in 1996 and 1997 was well known among those who followed the post-Soviet rebirth of Jewish communal life. It appeared much less well known that American Jewish students attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem and several additional American Jewish students from Pittsburgh had joined with Ukrainian and Russian Jewish youth in these endeavors in 1997. (Appropriate publicity had attended the participation of American Jewish students in the Pesach Project; however, this precedent seems to have attracted little serious attention.) Because a Pesach project would be of relatively short duration, it was thought that its cost would be much more manageable than a summer project.

85. Rabbi Saiger contacted Rabbi Yossi Goldman61 at a Hillel staff conference in late 1997 regarding the possibility of Illinois participation in the 1998 Pesach Project. Rabbi Goldman responded that Kyiv, Chicago's sister-city, had already been reserved for 26 American Jewish students at Hebrew University, but that Illinois might consider working with Hillel groups in Odessa, Moldova, or the Ural Mountain area.

By early January 1998, Rabbi Goldman suggested that Chicago limit its exploratory efforts to Kishinev as the other destinations lacked the infrastructure to accommodate American students. It was suggested that the Hillels of Illinois contact the office of the Joint Distribution Committee in Kishinev, as JDC is the advisory organization to Hillel in the transition states. In prior communication with Rabbi Goldman, Kishinev JDC had indicated agreement to receive an Illinois Hillel group of six to 10 students.

86. Rabbi Saiger was in contact with JDC in Kishinev and with an experienced travel agent by mid-January. Concurrently, Rabbi Saiger was recruiting student participants and attempting to develop a firm budget for the trip so that necessary funds could be raised.

Projected costs seemed to be about $2,000 per participant. So that the experience would be available to a broad range of Hillel members, it was decided to limit the student share of expenses to $500 each. An informal fundraising drive yielded gifts of $5,000, $4,000, two contributions of $1,000 each, and $100 to cover the necessary subsidy for eight students.

87. By late February, The Hillels of Illinois had received expressions of interest from more than 20 students. Fully half of the inquiries were from New American students, i.e., from students who had emigrated to the United States from the (former) Soviet Union. These inquiries were scrutinized with great care as it had been anticipated that some immigrant students would perceive the trip primarily as a heavily subsidized opportunity to visit friends and relatives remaining in the transition states. A formal application and interview process ensued.

88. Eight participants were selected by mid-March, including one New American and one brother-sister duo. The students ranged from 20 to 30 years old and represented five universities and colleges in Illinois. The 30-year old, who had substantial international travel experience, was selected as group leader. Attempts were made to arrange orientation meetings for participants; those attending Chicago-area campuses were able to meet on the Sunday before departure, but the three students from the University of Illinois were unable to attend this session.

Concurrently, e-mail correspondence between Rabbi Saiger in Chicago and JDC/Hillel in Kishinev addressed issues related to program, accommodations for Illinois participants, the need in Moldova for Pesach supplies, etc. Visas and air tickets for Illinois students were obtained.

60.  Jeffrey Weill, a staff member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Chicago at the time, also participated in these discussions. Mr. Weill's responsibilities at the JCRC included the portfolio for post-Soviet Jewry.
61.  Rabbi Goldman is Hillel director at Hebrew University and also Hillel International Vice President and Director for Israel and the Former Soviet Union.

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