Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998


The hesed, which is located in very cramped quarters, reaches approximately 8,000 Jewish elderly in Odessa with a broad range of services. Among these are: a seniors club that hosts about 1,000 people each month; a medical consulting office and pharmacy; weekly hot meals at Ohr Somayach and a café for about 100 people; meals-on-wheels to people in extreme need; home visits (cleaning, cooking, errands) to about 500 house-bound elderly; home repairs of appliances; a medical equipment loan service; winter assistance (warm clothing, blankets, heaters); eight warm homes (meals and socializing in private apartments); food parcels; services to vision-impaired; and holiday celebrations. The hesed recently initiated Ezra, a program that brings food to lonely elderly people in hospitals (because hospitals no longer provide food to patients).

Gemilus Hesed also provides various services to children in the Ohr Somayach residential program, such as medical and dental exams and haircuts. In return, Ohr Somayach musical and drama groups give performances for Gemilus Hesed elderly clients.

In response to a question about contributions from local Jewish people of means, Mr. Goldman identified several Jewish sponsors. An individual who owns a chain of pharmacies provides various medicines as well as food at a significant discount, and a restaurant owner also provides some food. A local optometrist provides five pairs of eyeglasses every month.

The Odessa JDC also supports a Jewish community library and a small community center that operates various clubs. It is the regional hub for JDC operations in southern Ukraine.


38. Dnipropetrovsk (formerly Ekaterinoslav, in honor of Catherine the Great) is the third largest city in Ukraine, following Kyiv and Kharkiv; its current population is about 1.1 million. It was a closed city until mid-1990 due to its extensive military industry, particularly Yuzmash, an enormous installation manufacturing intercontinental ballistic missiles, booster rockets, and related products. A former director of Yuzmash is Leonid Kuchma, who now is President of Ukraine. The Dnipropetrovsk area currently is experiencing severe economic distress as well as massive corruption.

Jews have lived in the area, part of the old Pale of Settlement, since the late eighteenth century. By 1897, the Jewish population of Ekaterinoslav had reached 41,240, more than one-third of the entire city at that time. Pogroms occurred in 1881, 1882, and 1905; the last was the most devastating, killing 67 and wounding more than 100 people. Prior to the consolidation of Soviet authority in the 1920s, the Jewish community was highly organized, maintaining a diverse network of Jewish religious, educational, and cultural institutions. It was an important center of both Zionism and the Chabad movement. A small Karaite community had its own prayer house.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, many Dnipropetrovsk Jews were evacuated from the city as essential workers in defense factories that were hastily moved further east. Nazi forces occupied the city from August 1941 until October 1943. Approximately 11,000 Jews were killed at Zhendarmskaya balka, a gully in an area then considered on the outskirts of town, on October 13, 1941. Perhaps 20,000 more were murdered at other sites.

The current Jewish population is thought to be about 50,000, the fourth largest in the post-Soviet successor states (after Moscow, Kyiv, and St. Petersburg). Dnipropetrovsk is the regional hub for a number of other Jewish population centers, the largest of which are Krivoi Rog (about 12,000 Jews) to the west, Zaporizhya (about 6,000) to the south, and Dniprodzerzhinsk (about 1,500) to the north. Economic pressure is stimulating significant Jewish emigration, most of which is to Israel.

39. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk, remains the central Jewish figure in eastern Ukraine and one of the most respected rabbis in all of the post-Soviet transition states. Politically astute and perhaps the first rabbi in the successor states to accomplish major local fundraising, he has built an unequalled network of Jewish institutions.29 Rabbi Kaminezki was born in Israel and is a Chabad Lubavich hasid.

In discussing current developments, Rabbi Kaminezki spoke of ongoing emigration. He expects the local Jewish population to stabilize at about 20,000 people in five to ten years. Along with departures, some previous emigres -- to Israel, the United States, and Germany -- are returning to Dnipropetrovsk because "they couldn't find themselves" in their new countries. He believes that a Jewish middle class is developing, which he defined as people earning between $700 and $1500 monthly. He noted that Jews are very active in Dnipropetrovsk business.

Rabbi Kaminezki spoke with great satisfaction of the expanding role of the Joint Distribution Committee in Dnipropetrovsk and elsewhere. Claims Conference funding has permitted a welcome expansion of its welfare services to the point where the local hesed is "swallowing" an indigenous welfare group; if the local group is smart, it will work cooperatively with the hesed because the hesed is more professional and has greater resources.30 Rabbi Kaminezki is also enthusiastic about the development of a Jewish community center (Еврейский общинный центр) under JDC auspices because it is involving additional segments of the Jewish population in Jewish-sponsored activities. JDC training programs and publishing services are also providing great benefits to the Jewish community. Both Menachem Lepkivker, the JDC director in Dnipropetrovsk, and Mikhail Bichuch, the local individual who directs the hesed, are well-respected in the community. (A description of JDC activity in Dnipropetrovsk follows below.)

Rabbi Kaminezki recently approved plans for the renovation of the large Golden Rose Choral Synagogue, which will begin soon. Returned to the Jewish community in late 1996 after a long and often acrimonious exchange with the clothing factory that was using it as a warehouse, the building will serve several purposes. Its main hall will be used both as a synagogue and as a facility for community concerts and other presentations. The ground floor will also have a library and reading room, kitchen, dining room, and public café. The second floor will include a conference room and Rabbi Kaminezki's office. The third floor will accommodate several guest rooms and a small kitchen for visitors as well as a terrace on which a sukkah can be built. Rabbi Kaminezki anticipates that remodeling costs will be covered by a combination of international and local donations.

40. The recently renovated Kotsiubinsky street synagogue is too small to accommodate the increasing number of worshippers on holidays and on some shabbats. The Beit Baruch Jewish Center on its premises serves more than 200 hot meals to needy Jewish elderly every day and hosts a number of additional programs for Jewish seniors, including a choir, Yiddish club, video club, Torah study group, holiday celebrations, a modest clinic visited by 300 people each month, and a subsidized pharmacy. Dr. Evegenia Cherkasskaya, the attending physician, coordinates clinic care with that of larger, better-equipped hospitals. The pharmacy also issues medications to Jewish elderly in a number of other cities and towns in the region, including Zaporizhya, Dniprodzerzhinsk, Krivoi Rog, Zheltie Vody, Melitopol, and Novomoskovsk.31

Several younger mentally retarded and mentally unstable Jews seem well integrated into Beit Baruch programs for the elderly population. Additionally, Beit Baruch has become a center for distribution of insulin to diabetics.

The Beit Baruch program is directed by Jan Sidelkovsky, a local person. Mr. Sidelkovsky also manages the sister-city projects of the Boston Jewish community and the Adopt-A-Bubbe project, sponsored by Action for Post-Soviet Jewry in Waltham, MA.

Rabbi Kaminezki anticipates that the renovated Golden Rose Synagogue will replace the Kotsiubinsky Street facility for purposes of worship, but the latter will continue and expand its services for Jewish elderly. Daily minyans will continue to meet at the day school as well.

41. The Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Day School (School #144), which Rabbi Kaminezki established in 1990, enrolled 710 pupils in grades one through eleven in September 1997; by April 1998, emigration had reduced the number of pupils to 675. According to Principal Semyon I. Kaplunsky, Naaleh and other Israeli high school programs are very popular and, as a result, the eleventh grade in the day school is quite small. Many graduates enter Israeli post-secondary institutions through Sela or other programs.

All pupils study Hebrew four hours each week along with two hours of Jewish tradition and two hours of either Jewish history or Land of Israel subjects. Many youngsters participate in the school hesed program, which will be expanded next year under the name of Бабушки и внуки (Grandmothers and Grandchildren).

The computer laboratory at the school has been upgraded and now includes 10 advanced Pentium workstations and other equipment. However, the computer class visited by the writer was attended by about eight high school boys who were using software programs intended for primary school children. Discussion followed with the teacher, Principal Kaplunsky, and Rabbi Kaminezki about improving the teaching skills of the instructor, who is recognized as an excellent technician.

The school occupies two buildings and part of a third facility on a three-building campus. The facades of all three buildings are in poor condition, each requiring repair and repainting. Even the second (yeshiva) building, newly renovated last year, appears in need of restoration.

42. The second building of the day school has been remodeled and now houses the heder and yeshiva day school. The heder enrolls 18 boys between the ages of three and six, and the yeshiva day school enrolls 53 boys between the ages of seven and seventeen. These youngsters have a full program of religious studies, taught by six teachers from Israel and the United States,32 as well as a general curriculum of secular subjects.

29. In discussions with other rabbis and with Jewish Agency officials in Ukraine who had attended the recent conference of rabbis and JAFI representatives in Dnipropetrovsk, two individuals spoke admiringly of Rabbi Kaminezki's "empire" and a third said that he felt "very, very small" when in the presence of Rabbi Kaminezki.
30. The local group to which Rabbi Kaminezki is referring is the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Council, an organization directed by Boris Pessin.
31. Many of the medications -- which include aspirin and aspirin-substitutes, Procardia, Tagamet, Augmentin, and Gaviscon -- are obtained through physicians in the Boston area.
32. Some of the teachers are senior students in rabbinic seminaries.

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