Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


Mr. Paz expressed increased concern about the work of Christian missionaries in Ukraine, especially those who operate a very popular ship transporting olim from Odessa to Haifa. The appeal of the ship is that passengers may take an almost unlimited amount of baggage with them without charge, whereas shipping belongings by air is very expensive. Proselytization of olim occurs in a hostel prior to embarkation and onboard. He has instructed all JAFI shlichim in Ukraine to cease posting notices of this form of transport to Israel.

Mr. Paz was enthusiastic about the recently concluded joint conference of Ukrainian rabbis and JAFI shlichim in Dnipropetrovsk. JAFI will cooperate with the rabbis about kashrut at all JAFI functions, including JAFI camps, and about observance of Shabbat. Judaism and Jewish holidays will be respected in all Hebrew ulpanim, and the rabbis will introduce more Zionism in their work.11

JAFI shlichim and rabbis will work together to try to reduce Jewish emigration to Germany. In smaller Jewish population centers, they can exert some influence over Jewish community leaders who, in turn, may be able to persuade local Jews to go to Israel instead.

At the end of May, about 200 Ukrainian Jewish and Israeli high school students will join in a seven-day tour of places associated with hasidic history, haskalah, and Zionism -- Zhitomir, Mezhibozh, Vinnitsa, Uman, and Odessa -- and will then travel together to Israel for a seminar. JAFI will provide a small subsidy to each of the local participants, all of whom have a record of involvement with Zionist youth groups. The youngsters will be assigned to mixed groups of about 40 teens.

In general, Mr. Paz strongly supports such youth trips to Israel. However, he is aware that the Israeli segment of several previous tours, e.g., the Exodus expedition that begins in Italy, has been badly managed and has led to anti-Israel and anti-aliyah sentiment among participants.

As he has done in previous meetings, Mr. Paz endorsed the regionalization of JAFI operations in the post-Soviet successor states, noting that each state had its own characteristics that must be addressed independently from events in other countries of the former USSR. Additionally, he said, JAFI teachers of Hebrew in Russia are now being paid substantially more than Hebrew teachers in Ukraine, a situation that might lead to awkwardness in meetings and conferences where teachers from both countries are present.

The issue of religious pluralism in Israel was difficult to resolve and might be of increasing importance in Ukraine as well following the arrival in Kyiv of Rabbi David Wilfond of the Progressive movement. The wisdom of another Rav Kook12 is required, said Mr. Paz.

10. Faina Grinshpoon directs JAFI education programs in Ukraine and Moldova. The writer met with her to discuss Naaleh, a high school in Israel program that has proved very popular among post-Soviet Jewish youth. Mr. Paz joined in the discussion. According to statistics gathered by JAFI, success rates on the Naaleh qualifying exam differ markedly from one city to another. Most successful in Ukraine and Moldova were adolescents from the Kharkiv region, 52 percent of whom passed the test in 1997. They were followed by youngsters from the regions of Lviv (50 percent), Dnipropetrovsk (49 percent), and Kyiv (44 percent). The pass rate depends on the quality of schools in the region (which can differ substantially among cities in any region), which youngsters are recruited for the Naaleh program, parental attitudes toward Naaleh and aliyah, and tutoring programs that may be available to candidates. For example, pupils from Niko-layev, a relatively small and severely depressed city in the Odessa region, might be expected to do poorly on the exams; however, the local JAFI office, which is staffed by indigenous Jews, has developed an excellent tutoring program that enables all Nikolayev youngsters to pass the Naaleh tests.

JAFI continues to recruit adolescents for the program, to operate tutoring courses (Limmudia) for the entrance examination, and to provide food, hotel accommodations, and transportation for youngsters who take the examinations. However, now that the Israeli government has assumed responsibility for the program itself (due to JAFI budget constraints), the Ministry of Education will not permit JAFI to see the exam for which it provides tutorial courses. Further, JAFI is not supposed to conduct follow-up site visits, i.e., visit youngsters at their Naaleh program sites in Israel (although some JAFI shlichim make such visits on their own initiative during home travel to Israel so that they can report to parents in the post-Soviet cities where they are stationed). Obviously, this division of responsibilities does not strengthen the program.

JAFI and the Ministry of Education also administer the program differently. JAFI permitted youngsters to enroll at age 15 or 16, thus providing some flexibility. The Ministry accepts teens only for a three-year program beginning at age 15. It promotes the program as an educational opportunity, advising families that completion of Naaleh will permit graduates to enter post-secondary school programs all over the world. However, JAFI promotes Naaleh as an aliyah opportunity, emphasizing it as the first step to building a new life in Israel.

Ms. Grinshpoon and Mr. Paz predict problems for Sochnut and the Israeli government in early 1999 when the five-year agreement with the government of Ukraine covering Naaleh expires and requires renewal. The Ukrainian government signed the 1994 agreement in the expectation that most of the Naaleh students would return to Ukraine. Ukrainian officials already are inquiring about those young people who left between 1994 and 1996 -- where are they, what are they doing, when are they returning to Ukraine, etc. Ukrainian education authorities asked such questions when they visited Naaleh testing sites this year in Odessa, Kherson, Nikolayev, and Zaporizhya. They are apprehensive about a continuing "adolescent brain drain".13 It is likely that the division of Naaleh responsibilities between JAFI and the Israeli government will prove problematic when the agreement is renegotiated.

Ms. Grinshpoon and Mr. Paz acknowledged that several variables determine the success rate of Naaleh participants once they reach Israel. Some study programs are more sensitive to the needs of immigrant adolescents than others and some offer better supervision than others. Teens are also affected by the attitudes of their parents who remain in the successor states -- the nature of ongoing contact, whether the parents themselves take steps toward aliyah, etc.

11. Dani Gekhtman is now Second Secretary at the Embassy of Israel in Kyiv, which represents Israel in both Ukraine and Moldova. The writer had met him previously when he directed the Israel Cultural Center in Dnipropetrovsk and later when he held a similar position in Odessa. Mr. Gekhtman is now completing his fourth year of government service in Ukraine and expects to return to civilian life in Israel shortly. His current responsibilities in the Embassy include the local Jewish community and Israeli government Jewish education activity in Ukraine.

After four years in Ukraine, Mr. Gekhtman observed that two "systems" serving the Ukrainian Jewish population are working effectively. The first is funding from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (known as the Claims Conference), which provides essential assistance to impoverished Jewish elderly, and the second is the Jewish education system. Mr. Gekhtman commented that some of the local people administering the Claims Conference program "are not 100 percent honest", but that the program works nonetheless.

Mr. Gekhtman said that the Israeli Ministry of Education accredits 11 Jewish day schools in Ukraine and Moldova under its Tsofia program and is likely to accredit three more by the end of the current academic year. Four additional day schools operate in the two countries and are not accredited by Tsofia, mainly due to sponsorship by an organization in a third country, such as the United States. Participation in Tsofia offers the schools two advantages. First, accreditation by and support from the government of Israel may be helpful if the school encounters any difficulties with local education authorities. Second, two Israeli teachers of Judaic subjects in an accredited school are eligible for direct compensation by the Ministry of Education in Israel, thus easing some of the financial burden for the school of providing qualified teachers of Hebrew and other Jewish subjects. A total of 27 certified Israeli teachers are now working in Ukraine and Moldova, most in day schools. Mr. Gekhtman has submitted a request for funding of 35 teachers for the 1998-1999 academic year.

According to Mr. Gekhtman, ORT has decided to cease its subsidy to the Kyiv-Pechersk National Mathematics Lycee in the very near future. An eleven-grade school enrolling over 1,000 pupils, few of them Jewish, the Lycee has been the beneficiary of $100,000 in ORT funding since 1996.14 A recent site visit to the school by ORT officials had persuaded ORT that their support should be applied to educational settings engaging more Jews.

ORT had also given $100,000 for computer technology to the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute (KPI), a large technical university in a remote district of the city that was already well-equipped. The ORT equipment remained unused, still wrapped in plastic, for at least one year after installation because KPI lacked funds with which to operate it. The Israel Cultural Center received permission to open an affiliated facility there in early 1998 and is now teaching computer skills to potential olim in the afternoons and evenings; income provided by rent from ICC permits KPI to use the computers during daytime hours.

Mr. Gekhtman said that ORT has now agreed to discuss all computer technology gifts with the Israeli Ministry of Education before donations are made. He has advised ORT to divert funding previously intended for the Kyiv-Pechersk National Mathematics Lycee to Ukrainian Jewish day schools currently lacking up-to-date computer classrooms, e.g., day schools in Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Zhitomir.

Regarding aliyah, Mr. Gekhtman estimated that about 23,000 Ukrainian Jews would emigrate to Israel in 1998. Perhaps 5,000 would go to the United States and 4,000 would go to Germany. Additionally, some Ukrainian Jews are moving to Russia or Belarus.

The combined forces of emigration, migration within the successor states, aging of the population, and a declining birth rate are reducing the Ukrainian Jewish population by about 35,000 people each year. One hundred nineteen Jewish children were born in Kyiv in 1997 and more than 1,000 Kyiv Jews died in 1997.

11. The Dnipropetrovsk conference was a major triumph for Mr. Paz, who previously had been perceived by many rabbis as anti-religious. In addition to agreeing to cooperate with the rabbis on all issues of interest to them, Mr. Paz, a retired general, regaled them with accounts of Israeli military campaigns. Many of the rabbis were captivated by his reports.
12. The reference is to Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of modern Israel. Rav Kook, respected both secular and religious Zionists, believing that every Jewish soul possessed a divine spark that could contribute to the construction of a Jewish state.
13. In 1994, Ukrainian authorities refused to permit Jewish adolescents enrolled in Naaleh to board aircraft for Israel in time for the beginning of the fall semester. Lengthy discussions ensued. See Baruch Gur-Gurevitz, Open Gates (Jerusalem: JAFI, 1996), pp. 250-270.
14. See the writer's Travel to Jewish Population Centers in Ukraine - March and April 1997, pp. 11-12.

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