Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


About 45,000 Jews are believed to reside in Odessa today. The city is a regional hub for other cities in southern Ukraine; those municipalities with large Jewish populations are Nikolayev (about 7,000 Jews) and Kherson (perhaps 5,000 Jews). The Crimean peninsula, which most Jewish organizations also serve from Odessa, has a Jewish population of about 13,000. Jewish emigration from the area has been heavy, with a large proportion of earlier departures from Odessa itself opting to go to the United States or to Germany rather than to Israel.

33. Yaron Frank, a pony-tailed Israeli, directs the Israel Cultural Center in Odessa. Its major activities include: operation of a Weizmann Institute mathematics program for adolescents; provision of a local base for the Israel Open University;23 courses for potential olim in management and in small business operations in Israel; a youth club; ulpans enrolling about 200 people; and supervision of 10 Sunday schools, of which two are in Odessa and eight are in the periphery. Mr. Frank said that the ICC is also empowered to act as an Israeli consulate several days each month, during which period it issues Israeli entry visas to olim.

In response to a question, Mr. Frank reviewed the recent (March 29) mayoral elections in the city. Eduard Gurvits, a Jew, was returned to office with a plurality of almost 70,000 votes in a total of 420,000. The election campaign was violent as Mr. Gurvits' opponent (Ruslan Bodelan, Odessa region governor) resorted to kidnappings and several gun battles in which people were killed. There was no open antisemitism, but undercurrents of anti-Jewish bigotry appeared in media interviews and accounts.24

34. Noach Nadler directs Jewish Agency for Israel operations in Odessa and the surrounding region. He supervises small JAFI representations in the periphery, all of them administered by local people, in Nikolayev, Kherson, Belgorod, and Ismailov. Mr. Nadler estimated the Jewish population of Odessa at 45,000 and the total Jewish population of the periphery at 15,000. However, Odessa and the periphery are each providing about 50 percent of olim from the region. Mr. Nadler reported that 2,280 people from the entire area made aliyah in 1995, 2,089 in 1996, and 1,815 in 1997. He anticipates that 2200 will go to Israel in 1998.

Mr. Nadler said that about 60 percent of all emigrating Jews go to Israel and the remainder go to Germany, the United States, and Australia. The major factor driving emigration is the economy. The average monthly salary is $35, but many people have not been paid for six months. Unemployment is very high and many people who have work are not working in the professions for which they have been trained. Medical care is very expensive and crime is rampant. Many people are worried about the future for their children.

JAFI operates 12 Hebrew-language ulpans in Odessa and 14 in the surrounding region. About 2,000 people are enrolled in all ulpan courses. However, the number of ulpans in the periphery is decreasing because emigration is reducing the number of potential students. JAFI is also offering one Yiddish ulpan for older people. In addition to teaching language skills, the ulpans also teach participants about the Israeli economy, schools, defense forces, housing, and other practical information.

JAFI sponsors clubs for teachers, parents with children in the Israeli army, parents with children in Naaleh and Sela, single women, youth, and students. It takes videos of children in Israel and gives them to parents. It sponsors tutoring sessions for Naaleh and Sela. It holds seminars for people in specific professions and hosts job fairs for Israeli employers. (Computer programmers are in huge demand.)

Mr. Nadler said that JAFI, the Israel Cultural Center, JDC, and the two rabbis in Odessa are working together this year more effectively than in previous years. They sponsor joint community-wide celebrations for such holidays as Chanukah and Israel Independence Day.

JAFI sponsors five summer camps in the Odessa region -- two by Sochnut alone for adolescents, two in cooperation with the Betar movement for adolescents, and one by Sochnut for university students. These camps are attended by 1,800 people. Additionally, Sochnut sponsored two winter camps for 60 young people each session, one for adolescents and one for students.

Mr. Nadler praised the work of Rabbi Shlomo Baksht, who operates residential programs for Jewish children in distress. (See below.) However, Rabbi Baksht does not accept children with non-Jewish mothers. JAFI tries to support such youngsters and bring them to Israel as soon as possible.

Mr. Nadler said that it is often difficult to find buyers for apartments and cars here. Once a sale is completed, more problems begin because a banking regulation prohibits international transfers of more than $5,000 per person. People who sell apartments often become targets for thieves.

35. Ohr Somayach International opened a day school in Odessa in 1994. In 1996, Rabbi Shlomo Baksht, the director of Ohr Somayach operations in the city, opened residential facilities for Odessa Jewish children living in conditions of distress, including orphans living in overcrowded and underfunded state institutions and youngsters living in troubled homes.

The day school, which has an enrollment of just over 600 pupils, was closed for Pesach vacation during the writer's visit to Odessa. It operates in three different buildings -- an elementary school and separate high schools for boys and for girls. The curriculum offers strong programs in both secular and Jewish studies. The latter includes eight hours weekly of Hebrew and five of Jewish tradition. The school employs 16 Israelis to teach these classes. The school is strongly Zionist in orientation, urging youngsters to go to Israel at age 15 or 16 to finish high school and to remain in the country as olim. Ohr Somayach has opened boys' and girls' high schools in Jerusalem to accommodate Russian-speaking boarding students.

The residential program in Odessa currently accommodates 31 girls, who live in a section of the girls' high school, and 40 boys, who live in a separate building. According to Ohr Somayach officials, 13 of the girls and 12 of the boys are new to Ohr Somayach this (academic) year. All are six years old or older. At age 16, almost all will go to Israel.

The living quarters are crowded, with as many as 14 girls in one room, but neat and clean. On the day that the writer visited the girls' residence, some girls were preparing to go to a ballet that evening. The girls also participate in various activities in the residence, such as arts and crafts classes and drama groups. Now that local elections have been held, Ohr Somayach will approach municipal authorities for assistance in finding more spacious accommodations.

Most youngsters in the residential program are integrated into regular classes at the Ohr Somayach day school, but some children require special assistance and are taught in a small, separate classroom. Some boys and girls of middle-school age are illiterate upon entering Ohr Somayach and some must be taught how to use a fork and knife.

Rabbi Baksht himself was in Jerusalem, where he lives with his family, during my visit to Odessa. He commutes between Odessa and Jerusalem, staying in each city for several weeks at a time.25

36. State National School #94 is an Odessa school operating under the joint auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education Tsofia program and ORT. It enrolls 340 youngsters in grades one through ten and will add an eleventh grade, the final class in Ukrainian schools, next year. The school was started in 1994 and moved into its current quarters, a former kindergarten building, during the 1996-1997 school year.

Much of the renovation under way last year has been completed, but more remains to be done. Some areas of the school appear dangerous, an observation confirmed by officials of the Embassy of Israel with whom the writer spoke in Kyiv.26 The glass roof of a central courtyard is crumbling, rendering the courtyard impassable.

The ORT affiliation has brought the school a computer classroom with nine Pentium computers in a network arrangement, a scanner, and a printer. Yefim Karpovsky, the chief ORT representative in Ukraine, directs computer education at the school.27 A computerized physics laboratory is being developed in another room.

Three teachers from Israel instruct youngsters in four hours of Hebrew each week, two hours of Jewish history, and two hours of Jewish tradition or music. The school is secular in orientation.

The school accepts children who are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return, whereas Ohr Somayach accepts only those youngsters who are Jewish according to Jewish religious law. It has a large turnover during the school year as children emigrate with their families and new pupils are accepted from a long waiting list. About 10 youngsters leave after ninth or tenth grade every year to go to Israel in Naaleh or other programs. Officials at the school predict that many of their future eleventh grade graduates will enter Israeli universities, probably in the Sela program.

37. The writer met with Sergei Artarov, Assistant Director of the Joint Distribution Committee in Odessa, and with Vladimir Goldman, Director of the JDC Gmilus Hesed Welfare Center in Odessa.28 JDC operations in Odessa receive assistance from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore, a sister-city to Odessa.

23. The Israel Open University offers five Russian-language courses: The History and Culture of East European Jewry; The Holocaust and European Jewry; Introduction to the Oral Torah; Power and Politics in the State of Israel; and Jerusalem
24. President Leonid Kuchma deposed both Mr. Gurvits and Mr. Bodelan in late May and installed presidential appointees in the two positions. Subsequent media commentary has emphasized Mr. Gurvits' reputed ties to organized crime and Mr. Bodelan's alleged Soviet-style corruption.
25. A more thorough account of Ohr Somayach operations in Odessa is included in the writer's Travel to Jewish Population Centers in Ukraine - March and April 1997, pp. 51-55.
26. The writer narrowly missed being hit by falling masonry as she left the school.
27. Dr. Karpovsky was grateful for the Judaic software that the writer brought to the school as a gift, especially the Navigating the Bible program. Although Navigating the Bible was developed by ORT, the organization apparently is not distributing it to its own schools. Dr. Karpovsky had been trying to download the program over the internet and had been appalled by the memory it was consuming.
28. Jonathan Rudnick, the director of JDC in Odessa, was in Jerusalem for JDC staff meetings.

In an effort to emphasize the centrality and continuity over the ages of Jewish assistance to those in need, the JDC welfare center in Odessa is called Gemilus Hesed, the same Yiddish name as that held by the leading Jewish welfare society prior to the 1917 Revolution.

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