Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


89. The writer arrived in Kishinev on April 7, one day ahead of the Illinois students. Discussions were held with Igal and Inna Kotler, JDC representatives in Moldova, to resolve several issues. The Illinois students arrived late in the day on April 8, via Frankfurt. Kishinev Hillel students joined their American counterparts at a welcome dinner held at a Jewish-style restaurant in the city.

90. The Kishinev Hillel organization dates from 1996, when JDC convened a group of three Kishinev Jewish students and suggested that they be the founding members of Hillel in the Moldovan capital. Kishinev Hillel now includes 50 Jewish students from 12 different post-secondary education institutions. The organization has its own room (called Beit Hillel) at the Jewish Community Center and sponsors a discussion club, Jewish film club, Jewish song club, English club, discotheque evenings, newspaper, beit midrash, kabbalat Shabbat program, and other projects. Members have learned about Jewish holidays at synagogues in Kishinev and then have organized holiday observances for Jewish elderly and for Jews in several small towns. They played an active role in organizing and operating a JDC-sponsored family summer camp and have organized and led several Jewish community events in Kishinev. Activists have attended Hillel conferences in other cities in the successor states and several have participated in Hillel seminars in Israel.

A core group of about eight Kishinev Hillel members accompanied the Illinois Hillel travelers in almost all program activities. Several were fluent in English and most of the others had some English-language capacity. Additional Kishinev Hillel members participated in occasional events during the week-long Pesach Project.

91. Illinois and Moldovan Hillel students gathered in a large conference room at the JDC office on the first full day of the project. Igal Kotler began the session with a review of Moldovan history and Jewish life in the area. Mr. Kotler also spoke about security concerns and asked the American students for their cooperation in safety issues. The point of his message was not absorbed by the Americans, who asked to visit local commercial discotheques that evening. The American students were unaware that many disco establishments throughout the post-Soviet successor states are associated with narcotics trafficking and other criminal activity.

The students then began to plan their first seder, which was to involve members of a JDC-sponsored Jewish Family Club. A Moldovan and an Illinois student were designated as seder leaders and everyone else was assigned a part to read.

Moldovan and Illinois Hillel members rehearse parts for a JDC Jewish Family Club seder. Planning meetings and rehearsals took place at the Kishinev JDC office.

An early afternoon bus tour of Jewish Kishinev with an English-speaking specialist on Moldovan Jewish history began with an impromptu visit to Jewish day school #22. Although several of the American students appeared to find it interesting, the disorganized character of the visit greatly reduced its value. The historian, who clearly was annoyed at losing some of her designated time to an unplanned stop at the school, spoke in a dry, overly academic manner and failed to engage the American students on the ensuing bus tour, many of whom were feeling the effects of jet lag.

The group returned to the JDC office in the late afternoon to continue planning for the first seder. In the meantime, Mr. Kotler managed to find some popular Jewish musicians to lead a disco evening at Beit Hillel, which was attended by Illinois and Moldovan Hillel members.

92. The second day, Erev Pesach, began with more planning meetings at the JDC office. Students were assigned to one of three mixed groups of about three Illinois and three Moldovan students each to plan seders for concurrent visits to Jewish population centers in Beltsy, Bendery, and Soroky. In this planning session, as in others, the students from Illinois and Moldova seemed to work well together. They used different haggadot as resources,62 but communicated effectively.

In the early afternoon, the writer accompanied the Kotlers and other JDC staff to a seder at a JDC dining room. Participants included JDC dining room clients, hesed volunteers and clients, a contingent of Jewish World War II veterans, leaders of Jewish community organizations, and various JDC employees. Rabbi Moshe Budilovsky and his eldest son led the seder. A choir from the Chabad day school sang several traditional Pesach songs. A women's choir of JDC volunteers also sang.

The first seder for the Hillel students was at the yeshiva associated with Rabbi Budilovsky. The students had prepared for a group of 40 members of the JDC Family Club, which includes some three-generation families as well as several singles. A small room at the yeshiva had been assigned for this seder. Rabbi Budilovsky was to lead a more traditional seder for the yeshiva students in another room.

As people gathered at the yeshiva, it became apparent that far more than 40 individuals intended to participate in the Family Club seder. Rabbi Budilovsky suggested that the event be relocated to two adjacent rooms with a large doorway between them. Much re-arranging of furniture ensued as tables (already set for the seder) and chairs were moved from one room to two other rooms and additional tables and chairs were found and prepared. About 80 people attended the seder.

The yeshiva kitchen managed to find enough food for all. The Budilovsky family and others associated with the yeshiva were very helpful.

Moldovan and Illinois Hillel members were seated in each room. Some remained in one room, shouting their portion of the seder so as to be heard in the second room as well. Others stood in the doorway between the two rooms and attempted to speak to each from that neutral position.

Following completion of the seder, which was regarded as something of a triumph because of the conditions in which it was conducted, Moldovan and Illinois Hillel students left the yeshiva building arm-in-arm, walked into the yeshiva courtyard and out into an area adjoining the street, all the while singing Pesach songs. A voice rang out, "Should we be doing this? Singing in Hebrew outside?" The voice was that of Alexandra T., the New American student, who had emigrated from Ukraine some eight years previously at a time when singing in Hebrew outside was a potentially hazardous activity, glasnost notwithstanding. She would reflect later that her outburst and the non-response that it elicited were a defining moment of the trip for her.

93. The third day was Shabbat. Students attended Shabbat services at the Chabad synagogue, which is within easy walking distance of the hotel. The synagogue was quite full. The second meal was taken at the synagogue. (The Chabad synagogue often provides catering to the Kishinev Jewish community.)

Following the second meal, the students walked through the city to the yeshiva, where, according to the schedule, Rabbi Budilovsky was to lead them in studying the weekly Torah portion. The walk became an expedition; in warm spring weather, it was overly long. Arriving at the yeshiva, the students found a surprised Rabbi Budilovsky, who had not been informed of his instructional role. However, he greeted everyone graciously, invited the group into a study hall, and asked that the Americans "consider the yeshiva your home while you are in Kishinev". A homey sense was easily achieved when Rabbi Budilovsky's eight-year old daughter entered the hall, whispered something to her father, and stood expectantly before the students. Rabbi Budilovsky explained that his daughter had invested a prodigious amount of time and energy in learning Mah Nishtanah and wished to recite the traditional Four Questions before the group. The students readily assented, listened respectfully, and then praised the child for her accomplishment.

Although he had not anticipated the arrival of American students and some of their Moldovan counterparts, Rabbi Budilovsky proceeded with an English-language lesson on the Torah portion. His lack of preparation, the warm weather, fatigue from the long walk to the yeshiva, and general exhaustion from their Moldovan Pesach experience thus far probably all contributed to the somnolence that overtook some of the students as they sat at their desks.

The second Pesach seder for the students was among their peers in a room at the Jewish Community Center. It appeared that all Hillel members in Kishinev were in attendance, leading to a crowded, but congenial evening.

94. On the fourth day, groups of five or six Hillel members went to Beltsy, Bendery, or Soroky. About 1,000 Jews are believed to live in Bendery and in Soroky, perhaps a few hundred more in Beltsy.

The writer chose to accompany the Soroky group, having visited the Bendery Jewish community several years previously and having driven through Beltsy en route to Kishinev from Chernovtsy. The northward route to Soroky, which lies on the right bank of the Dnistr River across from Ukraine, stretches through miles of rolling hills, most of which is under cultivation (fruit, corn, tobacco). Cars and trucks share the road with horse-drawn carts and individuals on bicycles. Bucolic villages appear quaint and charming, although the enchantment recedes as one realizes that village wells testify to a lack of plumbing and that other amenities also are absent. The group stopped in the center of Soroky to visit a 15th-century fortress erected by Prince Stephen the Great of Moldova. After a tour led by an English-speaking guide, the group proceded to the Soroky synagogue, a square stucco structure on a deeply pot-holed street.

62.  The Americans brought copies of the standard American Hillel haggada with them. The Moldovan students preferred a bilingual (Russian/Hebrew) haggada prepared and distributed by JDC. The latter was distributed widely throughout the successor states and was the standard haggadah for JDC-sponsored seders.

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