Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


Miriam Weis Livneh, an Israeli whose husband directs the Israel Cultural Center in Kyiv, directs the Israeli program at the school. She and two other Israeli teachers teach all of the Jewish subjects in the school curriculum. She also works with older pupils at the school who are preparing to take examinations for the Sela (university preparation) program in Israel.

The Israeli government will open a second Tsofia school in Kyiv at the beginning of the 1998-1999 academic year, initially enrolling youngsters in grades five through nine. In time, it is expected to accommodate youngsters in all eleven grades of the Ukrainian school system. Officially, both Tsofia schools will continue to operate because they are in different districts of the city, but some observers expect that the Jewish section of #128 will be transferred to the new school because its management is somewhat uncomfortable in the same building as another school .

The writer visited the school on the day prior to Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. Children in the Jewish section had gathered on the school playground for a commemorative program featuring short speeches by Israeli diplomats and Israeli singing and dancing. Some non-Jewish children watched the proceedings from the school classrooms.

8. The writer met with Rabbi David Wilfond, representative of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Ukraine and leader of Kyiv Congregation Hatikvah in his office at the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies in Kyiv. Rabbi Wilfond, a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College, is the only Reform (Progressive) rabbi in the post-Soviet successor states.

Rabbi Wilfond, who assumed his position in September 1997, said that his programs include elements of both Reform and Conservative Judaism. According to Rabbi Wilfond, the major difference between Progressive Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, as both are observed in the successor states, is that the former is fully egalitarian, involving women in every role.

The Institute for Modern Jewish Studies is a new two-year program for individuals from all post-Soviet successor states, currently enrolling 12 students in the first year of a two-year curriculum. Nine were present, including both men and women, from Kirovograd (2 individuals), Minsk, Simferopol, Dzhankoi, Cherkassy, Berdichev, Slavutich, and Zvenigorodka. Rabbi Wilfond readily acknowledged the disproportionately large number of students from (a) Ukraine and (b) small Jewish population centers. During the first year of the program, students remain in Kyiv for a full academic year, studying Hebrew, Jewish texts, Jewish history, tefillah (prayer), Jewish music, English, and principles of community work. Students are also required to attend Shabbat services and various community events. Rabbi Wilfond is the principal instructor, teaching in English and using an interpreter (who is one of the students).

Second-year students will be assigned to a nascent Progressive congregation to lead congregational activities, including teaching Sunday school. They will return to Kyiv for two-week seminars at intervals throughout the year. Upon completing the program, most graduates will be assigned to a congregation as a paraprofessional rabbi. Some graduates may enter a formal rabbinical school. In this way, the WUPJ hopes to provide trained leadership to its 50 congregational groups scattered throughout the post-Soviet successor states.8 The Institute is funded by the World Union for Progressive Judaism. WUPJ has recently pub-lished a new Russian-language siddur (prayer book) and has issued a number of other Rus-sian-language publica-tions on Jewish topics.

Students listen in a class at the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies in Kyiv.

Speaking after an Institute class had ended, Rabbi Wilfond said that his Hatikvah Congregation sponsors two all-day kindergartens in Kyiv, each in a different district of the city. Parents are included in holiday programs so that they learn rituals along with their children. A Sunday school closed two years ago when its teachers emigrated and funding ended. Rabbi Wilfond estimated that at least 50 percent of the adult members of Hatikvah, which meets in a former Karaite synagogue, are in mixed marriages in which only the husband is Jewish.

Rabbi Wilfond believes that Jewish life in small towns in the successor states is a "closing chapter", but that the large cities have a critical mass of Jews that can sustain Jewish life. He perceives his role as rebuilding Jewish community. He thinks that most Jews who wish to emigrate have already done so.

In addition to working with individuals in Progressive programs, Rabbi Wilfond has worked with the local Hillel student group. According to Rabbi Wilfond, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, refuses to work with Hillel because some of its members are not Jewish. Rabbi Wilfond said that both Rabbi Bleich and Rabbi Moshe Asman, the Chabad representative in Kyiv, greeted him warmly upon his arrival in Kyiv; however, another Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Berel Karasik, demonstratively turned his back on Rabbi Wilfond.

Rabbi Wilfond continued that his relations with Rabbi Bleich, which initially were quite warm, have turned chilly. He heard "through the grapevine" about the recent conference of Ukrainian rabbis in Dnipropetrovsk and realizes that he was not invited to it. He suspects that his recent meeting with Eduard Khodos in Kharkiv led to his exclusion.

Rabbi Wilfond acknowledged that he had been advised by senior rabbis in the WUPJ as well as others familiar with Jewish politics in Kharkiv to avoid meeting with Khodos, an individual with a criminal past who claims to represent Progressive Judaism in Kharkiv. Mr. Khodos currently lives on the second floor of the Choral Synagogue in Kharkiv, blocking full use of the building by a Chabad congregation, whose claim to the building is more valid than that of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Wilfond agreed that Mr. Khodos' assertion that the synagogue was constructed as a Reform temple in 1909 seems to have little basis in fact. Because Mr. Khodos occupies the second floor of the structure and has rights to half of the basement, the space of the Chabad congregation is effectively limited to the vestibule area of the ground floor and part of the basement, in which a mikveh has been constructed.9

Rabbi Wilfond was also aware of Mr. Khodos' bizarre behavior before, during, and since his recently failed campaign for the office of mayor of Kharkiv. (Mr. Khodos holds strong Ukrainian nationalist and anti-American views. He frequently burns homemade American flags before television audiences, often using the flame of an eternal light at a war memorial to ignite his torch. He always wears a kipa during such flag-burnings as well as during his vitriolic press conferences.)

Nonetheless, certain lay people in the Progressive movement in Kyiv urged Rabbi Wilfond to visit Mr. Khodos and the more than 100 Jews in Kharkiv who have formed two liberal congregations.10 Not certain how to respond, Rabbi Wilfond called both Rabbi Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, and Rabbi Moishe Moskowitz, Chief Rabbi of Kharkiv (whose congregation occupies the other half of the Kharkiv Choral Synagogue). Both men advised him not to meet Mr. Khodos in the synagogue, suggesting that he find another venue for a meeting with Kharkiv Jews interested in Progressive Judaism.

Rabbi Wilfond then drove the Hatikvah congregation "Shabbat bus" to Kharkiv, along with its musical ensemble of 14 Hatikvah congregation children between the ages of nine and 15. The bus was driven into the synagogue courtyard on Shabbat, disturbing Orthodox worshippers, and the 14 young people plus Rabbi Wilfond went to the second floor to meet with 130 people who had gathered there. The musical ensemble presented a concert of Jewish music, and Rabbi Wilfond met with local Progressive leadership, including Mr. Khodos.

Rabbi Wilfond readily concedes that Mr. Khodos manipulated him and further described Mr. Khodos as "power-hungry", a "crook", and "unstable". When Rabbi Wilfond returned to Kyiv, he received a telephone call from Rabbi Bleich advising him that their professional relationship had ended. Rabbi Wilfond expressed bewilderment about future action, but said that one of the second-year students in the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies would be assigned to work in Kharkiv in September 1998.

9. Mordechai (Moti) Paz is the director of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI; Sochnut) in Kyiv and Ukraine. In response to a question, Mr. Paz assessed the recent elections to the Ukrainian Rada (Parliament) in which Communists received the largest vote. The Communists were successful, he said, because they combined communism and Ukrainian nationalism in a way that appealed to elderly and rural people who yearn for the stability of the Soviet period. The Ukrainian nationalism is necessary so that they not appear to be under Russian influence. However, the head of the Communist party in Ukraine is in contact with his Russian counterpart, and Russian interests control all natural resources in Ukraine. The end result of the elections is further instability because the Rada and the government in general are severely fragmented among various interest groups. Additionally, unrest is growing among Tatars in Crimea and Ukrainian nationalists in Lviv. Several Jews were elected to the Rada; their prominence may be risky. Mr. Paz believes that the general economic situation in Ukraine will improve only in 10 to 15 years.

Mr. Paz believes that only about 340,000 Jews remain in Ukraine. The momentum of emigration will encourage many more to leave. The only question is where they will go.

Regarding aliyah, Mr. Paz expects that about 25,400 people will emigrate to Israel in 1998, not including adolescents in the Naaleh program. JAFI officials in Jerusalem anticipate only 23,000 olim from Ukraine; the "excess" aliyah may cause budget problems for the cash-strapped agency. Additionally, Mr. Paz expects 5,000 to 6,000 Jews to emigrate to Germany.

8. A similar program operated in Moscow in the mid-1990s, but has closed. Four individuals from the post-Soviet successor states are enrolled in the rabbinical program at Leo Baeck Institute in London and one is studying for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. However, it is unlikely that all of these students will be assigned to congregations in the successor states upon completion of rabbinic studies.
9. The space available to Chabad and to Mr. Khodos was negotiated in an agreement with city authorities several years ago. Technically, Chabad has the ground floor, Mr. Khodos has the second floor, and the two parties share the basement. However, although the entrance to the main sanctuary is on the ground floor, the entrance to its balconies is on the second floor, thus permitting Mr. Khodos to control the sanctuary space. Chabad has built a mikveh in its portion of the basement; Mr. Khodos recently opened a boxing club in his section of the cellar.
10. One such individual, Dmitry Levin, sends money to Mr. Khodos every month.

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