Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


The average age of Jews in Ukraine is 55 or 56. It is likely that the Jewish population of Kyiv, now believed to be about 90,000, will decline to about 50,000 within five to 10 years, said Mr. Gekhtman.

Mr. Gekhtman said that only about one-quarter of the youngsters enrolled in the Naaleh program are Jewish according to halakha (Jewish law), but that all are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return. He continued that Rabbi Naftali Lau, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, has given permission to Jewish schools in the successor states to accept children from families in which only the father is Jewish; Rabbi Lau, commented Mr. Gekhtman, is recognizing the reality of Jewish life here.15

With the cooperation of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Embassy of Israel in Kyiv has recently designated consular functions to the additional Israel Cultural Centers outside Kyiv several days each month. These centers (in Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, and Kharkiv in Ukraine and Kishinev in Moldova) are now able to issue visas to olim, saving them the time and expense of going to Kyiv and reducing the bottleneck that the demand for visas caused at the Embassy in Kyiv.

12. David Beinish is Cultural Attaché at the Embassy of Israel. His main responsibilities are Nativ (formerly the Lishkat Hakesher) and cultural activity.

Mr. Beinish said that the recent elections for the Ukrainian Rada will have little impact on the Ukrainian Jewish population. No organized representative Jewish community exists in Ukrainian, so any impact on Jews will be very individual. Some rabbis and other Jews are trying to organize the Jewish population, but many years will pass before an effective Jewish community organization coalesces. Perhaps 250 to 300 Jewish organizations exist in Ukraine on paper, but only about 15 actually do anything and far fewer are effective. From ten to 15 delegates to the new Rada are Jewish, perhaps five percent of the total parliament.

President Leonid Kuchma is much more powerful than the Rada; therefore, the recent elections really were not very important. Kuchma has some major Jewish financial supporters, but he is not dependent on them. Between 20 and 25 Jews in Ukraine are very wealthy, a number of whom actively identify with the local Jewish community. Vadim Rabinovich of the All-Ukraine Jewish Congress is fairly close to Kuchma and may have some influence on him.

Jewish emigration from Ukraine is stable, said Mr. Beinish. Political pressure to leave is minimal. However, aliyah potential remains high. Jewish education and culture will help people grow Jewishly and increase their consciousness of Israel. Programs that attract Jewish young people to Israel -- Naaleh, Sela, and Chalom -- will attract their parents as well. Israel should distribute more information to mass media, subsidize screenings of Israeli films here, and sponsor more cultural events featuring Israeli performing artists.

Mr. Beinish regrets that Israelis and other Jews seem not to know what Nativ actually does in the successor states. Nativ does not advertise its various accomplishments. American Jews should establish a support fund for it in the United States, said Mr. Beinish. The difference between Nativ and Sokhnut is that Nativ has diplomatic status and "we can do anything we want". Nativ has more prestige because it is part of the Israeli government. Nativ sponsors five Israeli Cultural Centers in Ukraine and Moldova, 11 day schools, and 69 Sunday schools.

13. Vladimir Glozman, a well-known activist in Leningrad/St. Petersburg before his aliyah to Israel some years ago, is the new director of the Joint Distribution Committee in Kyiv. He is replacing Leonid Zelikhovsky, who was leaving Kyiv after an unusually brief tenure of seven months. Mr. Glozman had been in Kyiv for only five days at the time of our discussion. Because of the transition then underway and because I was familiar with JDC operations in Kyiv, our discussion was brief and general.

Mr. Glozman said that his priorities are, first, familiarization with the entire JDC program in Kyiv and the situation of Kyiv Jewry in general, and, second, continuing implementation of a diversified program of JDC activity. He hopes to "maintain peace" with everyone.

Mr. Zelikhovsky reported that 12,000 people currently receive various services through Hesed Avot in Kyiv. Of these, 2,500 eat hot meals provided by JDC, including those who receive meals-on-wheels. The hesed was beginning to implement a program for children with cerebral palsy, its first activity for a juvenile group. It is modeled after the children's program at the hesed in Dnipropetrovsk.

Mr. Zelikhovsky explained that the cerebral palsy program was an outgrowth of activity started by Maya Zaitsova, a local woman who has established an organization called Ahava. Ahava is now a registered non-profit agency offering assistance to about 120 families, many of them single-parent and/or including a handicapped child (mainly cerebral palsy or Down syndrome). Ms. Zaitseva owns an insurance company and contributes some of her own money to Ahava. The organization also receives funding from World Jewish Relief (London) and JDC.

14. Julie Davis Fisher is a Political Officer at the Embassy of the United States in Kyiv. Ms. Fisher is concluding a two-year term in the Ukrainian capital, the second year of which has concentrated on issues of human rights. She is highly respected by the Ukrainian Jewish community. Her next appointment will be at the Embassy of the United States in Moscow, where she will serve as assistant to the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Discussion focused on Vadim Rabinovich and the All-Ukraine Jewish Congress and on Eduard Khodos in Kharkiv. Ms. Fisher said that the United States hopes that local Jewry will thrive in Ukraine, building an active and functional Jewish community. Individuals such as Rabinovich and Khodos are a distraction to Jewish community-building. She characterized Rabinovich as a threat and Khodos as more of an annoyance to the Jewish population; she deplored the fact that several American and international Jewish organizations maintain contact with Rabinovich, in particular. The United States government would caution these organizations against further relations with him, but, because each of these organizations is a private agency, such government action would be "crossing a line" and, therefore, inappropriate.

Ms. Fisher suggested that the American Jewish community become more active in the U.S. government Joint Cultural Heritage Commission. American Jewry should develop a list of restitution priorities that could be presented to the Ukrainian government. Conflicts between different Jewish organizations re-garding priorities can paralyze the Commission; for example, some relatively small but very vocal Orthodox group may place great emphasis on restoration of an old and neglected cemetery, whereas other Jewish groups are more interested in recovering buildings that can be used for contemporary needs, such as a school or community center. Funding must be found for compensating those institutions that are asked to vacate formerly Jewish property: Jewish institutions cannot expect that tenants will simply leave quarters to which they have become accustomed, without compensation of some sort.

Ms. Fisher also said that the Jewish community should move beyond personalities into infrastructure development. In many cities, a particular rabbi is the linchpin that holds everything together; if the rabbi becomes incapacitated, as was the case in Kyiv when Rabbi Bleich was unavailable due to illness, community development ceases during his prolonged absence from the city.

The U.S. government supports the efforts of the World Union for Progressive Judaism to establish a presence in the successor states. Ms. Fisher is aware that some Orthodox rabbis oppose such activity. If any individual or institution attempts to impede the operations of the Progressive movement, e.g., by appealing to local authorities to deny registration rights to a Progressive group, the WUPJ group should notify the Department of State, which will then declare the Orthodox rabbi or group to be in violation of human rights. Such sanction could be very troublesome for the offender.

15. Barbara J. Lipman is the NGO and Humanitarian Assistance Advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mission for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Konstantin Yakubenko is her local associate. The writer recounted to Ms. Lipman and Mr. Yakubenko the details of a March 1997 incident in which the writer and Sandra Spinner of Cincinnati brought into Ukraine more than 30 cartons and duffel bags of humanitarian aid. At the demand of Ukrainian customs authorities, this aid had been sequestered in the Kyiv synagogue of Rabbi Yaakov Bleich until it could be inspected by the Ukrainian Commission on Humanitarian Assistance. After intervention by American government officials, repeated inquiries by the synagogue administration, and payment of $1,100 to Ukrainian customs officials, the aid was released for distribution only in January 1998.16

Ms. Lipman commented that individuals who bring in aid are more vulnerable to harassment by Ukrainian officials than are organizations that bring in or ship aid. An element of randomness exists in Ukrainian provocation of individuals, whereas organizations may appear more substantial, official, and more deserving of respect. The United States is making progress in gaining clearance of aid shipped by organizations.

Ms. Lipman advises American groups to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine under the auspices of any of three U.S. government shipping programs, all of which subsidize the shipment and then will intervene on behalf of the shipper if problems arise. These programs are: (1) the Ocean Freight Reimbursement Program, administered by US AID; (2) the Transport of Humanitarian Assistance program, administered by the U.S. Department of State; and (3) the Denton Amendment Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Defense. The first program is the most liberally funded, and the third probably is the least reliable as it is dependent on space available on short-notice training flights. All three sponsoring government departments issue documents attesting to the contents of the shipment.

16. On April 29, the writer attended a festive gala celebrating 50 years of Israeli statehood at the International Center of Culture and Art, a large theater. Sponsored by the Jewish Agency, the program was very well attended by enthusiastic local Jews and featured a variety of performing artists and multimedia displays.

15. Several Chabad schools visited by the writer are now accepting pupils from families in which only the father is Jewish. Some schools under other rabbinic supervision are now making more exceptions for such youngsters.
16. Although he had attempted to help gain the release of the aid items in 1997, Mr. Yakubenko denied awareness of this case during the above meeting.

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