Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


Their statements elicited a snappish response from one of the American students, who advised her Moldovan counterparts to remain in Moldova and contribute to the renaissance of the Moldovan Jewish community. Several additional Americans agreed with the first student, directing hostile statements and questions to the Moldovans about younger Jews "abandoning" Moldovan Jewry. One of the Moldovan students then accused the Americans of advising Moldovan Jews to assimilate, an inevitable fate because (she suggested, but did not say clearly), Moldovan Jewry would be unable to sustain itself. The Americans seemed taken aback by the vehemence of the Moldovan student's response. At this point, the writer entered the discussion, counseling the Americans that their own hostile response to the notion of aliyah, i.e., to the future path that the Moldovan students had chosen for themselves, may have provoked the harsh Moldovan student rejoinder. Several of the American students then apologized for the aggressiveness of their approach to the issue. The arrival of several JAFI student musicians who wished to perform for their American peers ended a bitter exchange.

Notwithstanding the acrimony of the discussion, the American students commented later that they wished they had met the JAFI Student Club members earlier in the trip. The Americans would have enjoyed further discussions on such critical topics.

The American students then went by bus to a JAFI youth club called Nesher (Eagle), an organization for adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17. Many of the youngsters were enrolled in School #22, the Jewish day school that the Americans had visited on the first day in Kishinev. Mr. Fisher explained that Nesher was a vehicle for informal Jewish education on various Jewish themes. It was important, he said, for adolescents to have fun while engaged in Jewish activity. Led by Israeli women soldiers assigned to Kishinev for several months, the youngsters were engaged in competitions designed to familiarize them with the Israel Defense Forces. Some of the games involved mock combat, and one exercise encouraged participants to go outside to rip branches off bushes and trees for use as "camouflage". The Israeli leaders were quite personable and assured the American students that the youngsters enjoyed the rough play of the exercise, a judgment confirmed by observations of the students. It was also noted that the Nesher agenda included a broad range of activities, including holiday celebrations.

101. The American students returned to the Jewish Community Center for a final dinner and cultural program with their Moldovan Hillel counterparts. The students left Kishinev en route to Chicago the next morning, and the writer continued to Odessa.


102. The expansion of international welfare operations in support of impoverished Jewish elderly in Ukraine (and, indeed, in all areas of the post-Soviet transition states) is extraordinary in its visibility, impact, and testimony to the ability of the international Jewish community to mobilize its resources in times of dire need. The lead organization in this enterprise has been the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has engaged and is coordinating the efforts of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Jewish federations across North America (in a special Hunger Relief Program), private foundations, the Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief, and indigenous post-Soviet Jewish organizations.

New JDC heseds71 (welfare centers) have opened in the last year and existing Jewish welfare centers are expanding. Their services focus on the provision of food to needy Jewish elderly through communal dining programs, meals-on-wheels, and food parcels. They also arrange homecare for the homebound, loans of medical equipment, fuel and clothing for winter, medical consultations, and other services.

103. The need for such assistance in Ukraine is immense. The economic situation is catastrophic, with little positive change anticipated in the foreseeable future. A fragmented parliament and pervasive corruption deter vital economic reform.

Whereas JDC and its partner organizations are accomplishing much in alleviating the plight of Jewish elderly, the care of Jewish children in distress is neglected by international Jewish organizations that are at once overburdened with other responsibilities and ill informed of the need for their assistance. The 17 Jewish day schools in Ukraine do much more than offer their pupils a sound secular and Jewish education; many also are welfare centers, providing two or more hot meals on a daily basis, clothing, and, in some instances, medical care. As critical as Ukrainian Jewish day schools are to struggling Jewish families, day schools alone cannot address the problems of those children whose family situations are painful or who have no family support at all. Several rabbis in Ukraine have initiated residential programs for the most unfortunate children. About 150 Jewish youngsters are currently accommodated in such institutions, perhaps 50 percent of those estimated to require such care. Programs of this type demand consistent financial support and professional supervision, neither of which is readily available. Although JDC does provide occasional grants to institutions caring for these children in the successor states, no international organization is providing comprehensive assistance to Jewish children in distress on a regular basis.72

104. The March conference in Dnipropetrovsk that brought together Ukrainian rabbis and Jewish Agency representatives is a welcome development in organizational collaboration and religious-civil partnership. The intent of the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine (Об'еднання іудейських релігйних організацій Україне) to hold additional joint conferences with other Jewish enterprises in the future offers some hope that Jewish interagency suspicion and mistrust may diminish, at least among international Jewish organizations in Ukraine.

105. Whether a joint conference of Ukrainian rabbis and representatives of Nativ (also known as the Lishkat Hakesher or the Liaison Bureau) in Ukraine will occur remains to be seen. In a purely objective sense, such a meeting will lack balance as only the four largest Ukrainian Jewish population centers host Nativ deputies, whereas rabbis are present in 16 Ukrainian cities.73

106. The issue of professional leadership continues to affect all Jewish institutions in Ukraine. In concert with the Zionist mission of Israel, major international Jewish organizations with programs in Ukraine and the other successor states enlist Israelis as local managers. However, the reservoir of capable Israelis willing to work and live in Ukraine is limited. Each organization -- the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, and Nativ -- is encountering serious problems in retaining and replacing key professional staff.

Political and economic instability, recurring shortages of basic commodities, ethnic turmoil, pervasive crime and corruption, environmental degradation, and separation from loved ones all deter qualified Israelis from seeking onsite employment in Ukraine.

As international and local Jewish institutions move to employ local individuals in managerial positions, the legacy of Soviet rule and post-Soviet chaos is evermore visible. Few indigenous Jews have acquired the numerous skills required for effective Jewish professional leadership; planning, consensus-building, enabling, motivating, managerial competence, fundraising, financial administration, and knowledge of Jewish tradition are unlikely to have been acquired under the Soviet system or during these early years of post-Soviet independence. Vision eludes those of shallow experience and narrow horizons.

Professional competence is wanting in almost all spheres of Jewish communal life. No social work practice exists in the successor states. Skilled educators in Jewish subjects are rare among Ukrainian Jews. Foreign teachers of Judaic topics may be employed, but few among them speak Russian well, understand the local culture, or are amenable to extended employment in Ukraine. Specialists in community organization, community relations, youth work, geriatrics, counseling and therapy, and other specific services do not exist.

107. Recruitment of Ukrainian Jews for lay leadership responsibilities encounters comparable problems. Although the case of Vadim Rabinovich is extreme, it is not irrelevant. Many of those who present themselves as leaders or who are recruited by organizations as leaders are ill-suited to the tasks at hand. Most often, their failings appear to be a legacy of the same Soviet system that impairs the development of Jewish professional leaders.

The readiness of some international Jewish organizations to extend credibility and even respect to indigenous Jews of questionable character and unproven performance seems predicated on the notion that local leadership of any caliber is preferable to a leadership vacuum. Such a premise requires further examination, particularly when information about the candidate is readily available among local citizens, rabbis, diplomats, and national offices of western organizations active in support of post-Soviet Jewry. To state that a "boycott" of Vadim Rabinovich "is no longer fashionable", as has the Kyiv representative of one very prominent international Jewish organization, is to display a stunning level of both ignorance and foolishness.

108. Ignorance and foolishness also accompany the continuing debate over whether the priority for post-Soviet Jewry should be Jewish community-building in the successor states or aliyah. (In the case of American Hillel students questioning Moldovan students, naivete and rudeness might be more appropriate descriptions.) Younger Jews in Ukraine and Moldova continue to emigrate in large numbers, seeing little future for themselves in these unstable economies. Middle-age and older Jews are more likely to remain, deterred by fears about maintaining careers in a new society, by poor health, or by inertia. A Jewish community infrastructure should support those who remain, but that support also should endorse (and encourage) departure of those for whom opportunities are greater elsewhere. Within a few years, large-scale emigration will diminish as the pool of likely emigrants decreases due to emigration itself, the high average age of those who remain, a low birth rate, and continuing intermarriage of the relatively small number of younger Jews.

109. Consistent with experience in other forms of education, the impact of Illinois Hillel student participation in the Hillel Pesach Project in Moldova may require some time for assessment. Nonetheless, it would seem that such ventures should be continued and expanded in the future. A more extensive orientation prior to departure than was possible in Illinois in 1998 might be advisable. Briefing material for Hillel staff or others who accompany the students also should be developed.



Betsy Gidwitz
June 25, 1998


Some background information on Jewish population centers and Jewish history in this report is adapted from standard reference materials on the post-Soviet successor states, Jewish history, and Jewish communal life. All photographs were taken by the author. The two maps are from Magellan Geographix and are available through the internet at <>. The Slavic language used in this report is, in most instances, Russian. However, names of Ukrainian Jewish organizations are written in Ukrainian, the language in which these organizations are registered in Ukraine.

71.  The Hebrew plural form of hesed is hasadim. Such organizations exist in about 70 different locations across the post-Soviet transition states. Many are regional, serving multiple Jewish population centers.
72.  Both the Karliner-Stoliner movement (which is strongest in Kyiv and western Ukraine) and Ohr Somayach in Odessa operate residential schools in Jerusalem geared to the needs of Russian-speaking adolescents. These institutions enroll youngsters referred by their respective organizations in Ukraine, but they lack the capacity to absorb all youngsters who would benefit from their programs. Further, many families prefer that their children, particularly younger boys and girls, remain in Ukraine close to family members even if the families are dysfunctional and unable to provide appropriate care.
73.  The future of Nativ remains in doubt. It has yet to define its post-Soviet mission, its methods of operation have been criticized severely in periodic reports of the Israeli State Comptroller, and much of its agenda seems to be invested in turf battles with other organizations better suited to the performance of specific tasks. For example, its consular functions are more appropriate to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs according to recognized standards. Its aliyah promotion activities would be better managed by the Jewish Agency; and its role in Jewish day school education would be administered more professionally by the Jewish Agency Department of Education (which specializes in diaspora education) in a coherent program embracing both formal and informal Jewish education. Its computer training and small business operations classes would be more effective if conducted by Sochnut as components of aliyah programs. Certain other functions of Nativ could be abolished without any harm to post-Soviet Jewry or to aliyah.

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