Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


The Hillel students ate dinner at Hesed Yehuda and listened to a brief concert by young Jewish musicians. Each student received a small gift (such as a challah cover) made by an elderly client in a hesed workshop.

Immediately before dinner, the students divided into small groups and visited individual Jewish elderly in their apartments. The writer went to an Open Home, an apartment in which ten elderly Jews had gathered for a modified seder. A World War II veteran led the ritual, mainly in Hebrew. Several other participants read poetry that they had written about the holiday or about other aspects of Jewish life.

The man at right led the seder in Hebrew and Russian. The man at the left remained silent throughout the seder in a Kishinev JDC Open Home.

98. On the seventh (and last full) day, the students had some free time during the first part of the morning and then met at the JDC office for a summary and evaluation of their experience in Moldova. The following points were made by the Illinois students:

  • They had expected that all Moldovan Jews would be ignorant of Judaism and Jewish custom, and that Moldovan Jewry would lack Jewish institutions. The Americans were surprised to find that some Moldovan Jews are well educated in Jewish tradition and practice, and that numerous Jewish institutions exist in the country.
  • The Moldovan Hillel students were friendly and helpful throughout the visit. The planning meetings at the beginning of the Hillel Pesach Project experience in Kishinev were very useful in helping the two groups of students to become acquainted.

    Planning meetings were productive and helped Hillel members from Illinois and Moldova become acquainted with one another.
  • The Illinois students were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meals throughout the trip.

  • They would recommend more comprehensive preparation in Chicago prior to departure. They suggested a weekend workshop in which they would meet each other, learn background information on Moldova and Moldovan Jewry, and review Pesach traditions. They also suggested establishment of e-mail contact with their Moldovan Hillel counterparts several months before Pesach.

  • A tour of Kishinev in general (not only Jewish Kishinev) at the beginning of the trip would be helpful. Similarly, Illinois students would also like to meet Moldovan political, business, and cultural figures. They would like to meet people from other minority populations.

  • The students would like to spend more time with individual elderly Jews in Moldova so as to learn their personal histories. (They recognize that additional translators will be necessary for fulfillment of such a project.)

  • They would like to do a community service project while in Moldova.
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  • They would like more time in Moldova, perhaps two additional days, in which all participants would visit the Transdnistr area (because the situation in Transdnistr is contemporary history), visit more small Jewish population centers, and have more free time.

  • They would like more mixed small-group activity, e.g., programs in which two or three American and two or three Moldovan Hillel members work together.

  • They would contribute more than $800 in remaining group and individual funds to specific program areas in Kishinev Hillel and in Hesed Yehuda.

  • They believe that the JDC pre-occupation with security concerns was excessive.
  • 67

In discussing potential further developments (follow-up) to the trip, the Illinois students suggested:

  • The two groups of students should maintain contacts through e-mail, a web-page, and/or a reunion in Chicago or in Israel.68
  • Perhaps some of the Chicago students could work at the JDC-Hillel family camp in Moldova.
  • One or more of the American participants in the 1998 Pesach project could be the (graduate) student leader(s) of the 1999 Pesach project.
  • The Illinois students should combine the results of their individual video and photographic efforts in an "official" Hillels of Illinois video.
  • The Illinois students should participate actively in fundraising efforts to develop an endowment fund for perpetuation of Illinois Hillel participation in such projects.

99. Following conclusion of the evaluation meeting, the writer met with the American students to review several broad topics: (a) the general political and economic situation in independent Moldova, in terms of student observations and in terms of the remarks of the U.S. Ambassador on the previous day; (b) Jewish life in Moldova; and (c) the programs of the various international Jewish organizations represented in Moldova, including their sources of support. The latter topic included some discussion of Jewish federation fund raising, UJA, the process of allocating communal funds, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and the role of private foundations in supporting Jewish communal endeavors.69

100. Logistics problems delayed the Illinois Hillel meeting with the local Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI; Sochnut) representation until after the evaluation meeting described above. Given the controversy that the JAFI meeting generated, an opportunity to discuss several aspects of it in the context of evaluation would have been helpful. Unfortunately, such an opportunity did not arise.

Victor Fisher, the Jewish Agency shaliach, had requested five hours with the students, during which they would be escorted to several different JAFI programs. Because of a conflicting commitment, the writer joined Mr. Fisher's introductory session some 40 minutes after it had started. As the writer entered Mr. Fisher's office, it was apparent that the shaliach's approach had produced considerable tension, even hostility, among the American Hillel students. In later discussions, the students commented that Mr. Fisher's remarks about several segments of the Jewish population had been offensive.70

Mr. Fisher observed that many young Moldovan Jews wished to make aliyah. JAFI had just concluded a three-day seminar in which 72 Moldovan Jews between the ages of 18 and 27 discussed various aspects of emigration and absorption in Israel. No issue, even prostitution or narcotics use in Israel, was out of bounds for discussion, said Mr. Fisher. Mr. Fisher then ended the introductory session, suggesting that the Illinois students wait in the hallway in the local JAFI office until he could find ulpan classes and other activities that they could observe

After much standing and walking about in the corridor, groups of students were directed to several program areas. The writer and several of the Hillel students visited a small ulpan class for young adults. The Israeli teacher was scheduled to return to Israel in two days. He distributed sheet music of an Israeli song to the ulpan students and played the song on a tape recorder. The ulpan students listened to the song and then attempted to sing along, but their efforts yielded only limited success.

All of the Hillel students then attended a session of the JAFI Student Club, which had been convened especially for Hillel. A representative from the Student Club said that 15 of its members had left for Israel since the club was organized one year previously. Those 15 had been replaced by another 15 students who had joined the club in the past year. A group of students would make aliya together in six months as part of the Yachad (Together) program, which encourages young adults to immigrate in groups of friends who will be mutually supportive.

At the suggestion of the Americans, the Moldovan students introduced themselves, declared their academic majors and career plans, and explained why and when they planned to emigrate to Israel. Their career plans spanned a broad range of technical and liberal arts fields. Most said that Israel appeared to offer far more opportunities for the future than did the stagnating economy of Moldova. Many wanted to join close relatives in Israel who would assist them in the absorption process. A few mentioned Zionism and/or Jewish continuity as reasons. Some had plans to emigrate at a specific time, e.g., immediately after graduation or in six months, but some said only that they were certain that they would leave within the next several years.

66.  Marina Fromer, the JDC "Country Director" for Southern Ukraine and Moldova, had suggested such a project during preliminary discussions with the writer about the trip. Ms. Fromer had suggested participation in the delivery of meals on wheels, helping in a JDC dining hall, or similar work. However, no action was taken on this suggestion.
67.  The students resented the presence of JDC security guards near their rooms in their hotel and the insistence by JDC that they not walk around Kishinev on their own without security person-nel. They seemed not to absorb explanations about the high crime rate in the post-Soviet successor states and the reality that foreigners often are perceived as easy targets.
68.  The web page, entitled Hiillel United, can be seen at
69.  On several occasions, JDC personnel had noted that a particular program was funded in part by a private foundation, such as the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore.
70.  According to the students, Mr. Fisher spoke in a condescending manner about poorly educated local Jews with university degrees, middle-age people who are difficult to absorb and become burdens to their young adult children in Israel, and mentally retarded and otherwise handicapped individuals who also cause absorption problems in Israel.

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