Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


Inside, 120 people were seated at long tables surrounding the center bima. The men all wore white kipot (traditional head coverings) with JDC emblems. About a dozen children sat with their parents, but eight additional children were escorted to the bima where they remained throughout the seder, watching intently as the two American and four Moldovan Hillel students lead the community in a some-what shortened version of the traditional ritual.

Two boys on the bima engaged in a minor scuffle over one kipa, but the contest ended quickly after a second
kipa was produced. Several local women proudly declared to the writer that they had been preparing the meal for the last five days, a believable claim.63

Top: The synagogue in Soroky.

Bottom: Hillel members lead a seder inside the Soroky synagogue.

Returning to Kishinev, the van carrying the students stopped suddenly. The six students emerged from the vehicle and proceeded to walk down the embank-ment to the shore of the Dnister. The car in which the writer and several JDC staff were riding stopped behind the van. A puzzled van driver reported that the students just wanted to walk along the river. After confirming with the students that everything was in good order and with the driver that he would wait for them, the writer and JDC staff continued on to Kishinev. The two Illinois and four Moldovan students returned later.

Dinner was held at the I.M. Manger Jewish Library and Community Center in Kishinev. Prior to dinner, students toured the very large library (which receives municipal funding), a ceramics studio, bookbinding shop, and other facilities. Moisei Lemster, a Yiddish writer and also Chairman of the Jewish Cultural Association of Kishinev, headed a large group of community leaders who dined with the students.

95. The sixth day in Kishinev began with a meeting for the American students at the Embassy of the United States with Ambassador John Todd Stewart.64 Mr. Stewart received the students graciously in a conference room and responded to several broad questions.

Relations between the United States and Moldova are very good. He observed that Moldova has no significant diaspora in the United States; therefore, no Moldovan lobby exists. Accordingly, U.S. aid is determined on its merits. Of all the post-Soviet transition states, Moldova receives the second highest per capita aid from the U.S. Moldova spends its U.S. aid wisely, said Mr. Stewart. He noted that the highest per capita recipient of American aid among the successor states is Armenia, a country with a significant ethnic lobby in the United States.

The U.S. aid program had a somewhat rocky beginning due to fighting in the Transdnistr area. However, a comprehensive program now functions very well. The first extension of U.S. aid was for a large Peace Corps contingent, a project that continues today. The priority within the Peace Corps program is the teaching of English; among other benefits, English facilitates use of the internet.

The U.S. offers many exchange programs for students and is operating 35 different technical assistance programs in Moldova. The most important assistance program is in agriculture and is leading to the transformation of Moldova's extensive agricultural sector. About two-thirds of Moldova's 1000+ farms have been privatized. The country needs a good agriculture extension service. Some oil and gas deposits are located in southern Moldova; a U.S. company holds the concessions for their exploitation.

U.S. humanitarian aid is far-reaching, both that extended by the U.S. government and that contributed by private American groups to such organizations as orphanages and hospitals.

Referring to the Moldovan economy in general, Mr. Stewart said that the country is mostly rural and exists on a non-cash economy. It is difficult to evaluate the overall economy because so much of it functions on a barter basis and thus is not reported. Lack of an equitable and enforced tax system is a major problem; government salaries and pensions are not paid, and various government services are never implemented. Much of the support for the Communists in the last election came from older people who are not receiving their pensions.65

Many city-dwellers have relatives in rural areas who help out with food. In return, the city-dwellers provide certain manufactured goods that are easier to find in urban areas.

The Moldovan industrial base is very narrow. Industrial production was limited during the Soviet period and whatever did exist was linked to production in other parts of the Soviet Union. This type of manufacturing ceased soon after Moldova declared independence. The industrial sector requires considerable develop-ment.

Mr. Stewart responded to a question about the Transdnistr situation that was posed by one of the students who had helped to conduct a seder in Bendery, a city in Transdnistr. The Transdnistr situation is a major problem for the new Moldovan government, said Ambassador Stewart. Immediately following Moldovan independence, local Russians were justified in their fears of Moldovan nationalism and potential Romanian annexation of Moldova, including Trans-dnistr. Local "rabble rousers" and "Russian carpetbaggers" from Russia exploited the situation in declaring a Dnistr Moldovan Republic that was loyal to Russia. However, Moldovan nationalism and Romanian claims on Moldova have declined substantially since the heady days of early independence and justification for the continuing presence of the Russian 14th Army in Transdnistr no longer exists. Russian state policy on Transdnistr seems ambivalent; Russia appears to have no real desire to maintain troops in the area and might cooperate in a withdrawal if a strategy for withdrawal is developed.

In the meantime, Transdnistr has become a haven for organized crime. The Transdnistr leadership has no interest in resolving the issue because they are making money from illegal commerce in the area. Moldova is concerned because it has no control over its own borders; contraband, such as cigarettes and weapons (for Chechnya and Abkhazia) move freely through Transdnistr.

96. The American and Moldovan students proceeded to Orhei (Orgeev), a town of about 40,000 people, approximately 35 kilometers north of Kishinev. Fewer than 1,000 Jews remain in the region.

Together with leaders of the Orhei Jewish community, the students crowded into a small room (normally used for ulpan classes) in a Jewish communal building for a Pesach luncheon. Several elderly men related accounts of the Shoah in Orgeev. In response to a question, the middle-aged leader of the community said that the ulpan was very busy and that almost all young people are leaving for Israel.

Following the meal, the students visited the local Jewish cemetery, a burial ground of special interest as it includes graves and tombstones from the 16th century as well as monuments to Shoah victims and more contemporary graves. An elderly communal leader recited kaddish in a clear, strong voice.

97. Upon returning to Kishinev, the students toured the JDC Hesed Yehuda welfare center (see pp. 64-65), showing special interest in the various nutrition programs, social activities, and medical equipment loan programs. Although other experiences had prompted occasional questions about the role of world Jewry in supporting fellow Jews in "countries of distress", the visit to the hesed seemed to generate a more coherent aware-ness of Jewish communal responsibility in caring for Jews around the world. The question of one student -- Who is paying for all of this? -- would provide a useful foun-dation for a discussion on the following day.

Two local women preside over the medical equipment loan center at Hesed Yehuda in Kishinev.

63.  For this seder as for others, representatives of JDC had driven to the town several weeks previously with cartons of matzot, other Pesach supplies, and instructions for meal preparation, presentation, and organization. Funds for food and other items were given to community leaders.
64.  It is unusual for an American ambassador to meet with visiting groups of Americans, especially with a group of students. The visit was arranged by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
65.  The writer saw two political demonstrations by older people in Kishinev who were demanding payment of their pensions. Both occurred on April 14; one was staged in front of the Ministry of Justice, and the second was held outside the office of the President of Moldova. Upon seeing the protesters and reading some of their placards, the writer's driver commented sadly, "The old people, they are dying like flies." ["Пожилые, они умерают как мухи."]

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