Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

JDC welfare activity focuses on elderly Jews, an increasingly large proportion of Ukrainian Jewry. In some smaller towns, older Jews may constitute as much as 90 percent of the Jewish population. Many elderly in Ukraine must try to survive on monthly pensions averaging about $15, which often are paid several months late. A large proportion of Jewish seniors lives alone without family support, their families having died during the Shoah or emigrated abroad. JDC welfare services are operated from heseds, centers that may include some of the following services: medical and legal consultations, limited distribution of medications, medical equipment lending service, programs for vision- and hearing-impaired, hot meals, meals-on-wheels, “warm homes” (private apartments in which elderly meet for meals and socializing), food parcels, home care, home repairs, small appliance repairs, clothing and footwear repair, winter assistance, telephone hotlines, laundry service, day centers and clubs, social and cultural events, hairdressing, and programs for handicapped children.55

At the request of Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the name of the Dnipropetrovsk hesed, which previously was called Shaarei Hesed, has been changed to Hesed Menachem in memory of the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Rabbi Scheerson, it will be recalled, had family ties to the city. The Dnipropetrovsk hesed and Jewish community center share a large building in the center of the city. The large size of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish population and the relative spaciousness of the hesed/JCC building encourage a broad range of programming.

By the end of 1998, Hesed Menachem served hot meals to over 1,400 clients several times each week at various locations and delivered meals on wheels to over 500 homebound elderly. Its “warm home” program served about 300 people in different apartments around the city. It leased over 100 pieces of medical and health equipment each month. “Patronage workers” visited almost 900 elderly to help with personal hygiene matters, clean apartments, buy groceries and prepare meals, and perform other tasks. A varied program of activities was available at the hesed itself, from medical consultations to hairdressing to clubs and holiday celebrations. Over 500 people participate in a program for the blind and visually impaired. An adult day care program was started, drawing groups of 15 elderly every 45 days for a full range of services.

Under pressure (and with assistance) from activists in Boston, the Dnipropetrovsk hesed was the first in the post-Soviet states to offer rehabilitative, social, and recreational activities for handicapped children, principally those with cerebral palsy. The Tikvah Club now accommodates 80 children and works closely with Rabbi Kaminezki in arranging for children and caregivers to attend sessions at the Chabad summer camp.

Since the writer’s last visit to the hesed in 1998, a basement area had been renovated to provide additional program space. A laundry with four washer-dryers launders clothing and linens of patronage (home visit) clients. A therapy room had been built for Tikvah club children, and a workout room with fitness equipment attracts JCC activists.

Other JCC activities include various arts and cultural programs for children, a community library, women’s club, family club, aerobics classes, and a press center (see below). The JCC sponsors a summer family camp, various holiday celebrations, and matzah-baking experiences for children before Pesach.

The JCC also supports a Hillel student club, which offers various programs for university-age Jewish youth. Unfurnished at the time of the writer’s visit, a room for Hillel activities has been provided in the JCC basement.56

The Press Center of the JCC, directed by Oleg Rostovtsev, consists of one room in the JCC. According to Mr. Rostovtsev, the Press Center provides public relations services for all Jewish community institutions. A JDC-supplied computer and scanner are well-suited to the needs of the center, said Mr. Rostovtsev, but the center’s photography equipment is inadequate. Projects of the center include: providing information about Judaism, Jewish holidays, and the Jewish community to the secular press; preparation of inserts in Shabbat Shalom (the local Jewish newspaper) for the Jewish Agency, Israel Cultural Center, and JCC; production of videos for the Jewish Agency, JDC, and other organizations; development of photographic archives of disappearing small Jewish population centers in the region; and, in the near future, development of Russian- and English-language web sites about the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community.

The Dnipropetrovsk JCC/Hesed Menachem building hosts the Dnipropetrovsk Institute for Social and Community Workers, a branch of a larger JDC institute in St. Petersburg. Serving all of eastern Ukraine, the Dnipropetrovsk institute offers a range of training courses for individuals working in JCC/hesed activities. For example, seminars and workshops are held on operation of warm homes programs, libraries, creative arts for children and adults, programs for handicapped children, family camps, etc.

35. Max Shenkerman, the director of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Dnipropetrovsk, was born in Mogilev-Podolsk in Ukraine, a small city close to the Moldovan border. A 22-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, his posting in Dnipropetrovsk is his first job with JAFI.

The writer met with Mr. Shenkerman immediately after JAFI had dedicated its new centrally-located offices, a major improvement over its earlier quarters on the other side of the Dnipr River. Mr. Shenkerman noted that the new office is well-located relative to local universities, a significant source of aliyah. Premises include one large classroom for Hebrew classes, several smaller rooms, and individual offices.

The Dnipropetrovsk installation is one of four major JAFI offices in Ukraine and includes four oblasts -- Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zaporizhya, and Kirovograd --in its purview. Mr. Shenkerman reviewed the current economic situation in the area, noting that it was based on heavy industry deriving from iron, manganese, coal, and other mineral deposits. Heavily subsidized during the Soviet period, much of this industry is obsolescent and now is working far below capacity. He estimated that only 35 to 40 percent of heavy industry in Dnipropetrovsk is productive.

A middle class, said Mr. Shenkerman, barely exists. Local salaries, when paid, are $30 to $40 monthly. A six to eight months lag in wage payments is common. “People don’t live, they exist.” (“Люди не живут, они существуют.”) Mr. Shenkerman observed that educated people with university degrees are reduced to selling clothing and household items in street bazaars. Young children help their families by begging; older children also beg, but often they keep some or all of the money for themselves and buy vodka. People sell all of their belongings -- and then tax inspectors want everything they earned as taxes or bribes. Young people (молодежь), said Mr. Shenkerman, are in the worst situation of all; they finish university or an institute and can find work only in a street bazaar. The young, he continued, have no hope for the future. Therefore, Jewish young people are leaving.

Mr. Shenkerman estimates that between 100,000 and 150,000 people in his four-oblast region are eligible for aliyah. The Jewish population of Dnipropetrovsk according to halakha is 40,000 to 60,000; according to the Israeli Law of Return, said Mr. Shenkerman, the Jewish population of Dnipropetrovsk may include 70,000 to 100,000 people.

JAFI sponsors a very active youth club, which draws more than 600 participants to special events, such as a Purim party, and 150 to Shabbat events. On a regular basis, its various “circles” (interest groups) attract steady smaller groups. Mr. Shenkerman is seeking larger quarters for the youth club as it has outgrown its current premises. He hopes to lease a detached building; JAFI success in attracting Jewish young people has attracted an unwelcome neighbor—a Christian missionary group.57

JAFI will sponsor three summer camp sessions near Dnipropetrovsk, two for about 150 adolescents (total of 300 teens) between the ages of 13 and 17, and one session for 150 college students. It also will sponsor a camp near Donetsk for about 160 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17.

JAFI is operating 93 Hebrew ulpan courses throughout the four-oblast area this year, compared with 61 last year; the increase reflects increased demand.58 The 61 courses last year enrolled 5,407 students; 2,336 students were enrolled during the first three months of 1999. Forty-two teachers are assigned to the various ulpans. Ulpan teachers have begun to teach some elements of Jewish tradition within ulpan classes, beginning with the Shabbat Shalom kits prepared by the World Zionist Organization Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora and the Jewish Agency.59 Mr. Shenkerman said that some ulpan students appear very uneasy about the introduction of Jewish tradition into Hebrew classes, probably because, in his view, they are reluctant to appear ignorant in the presence of their peers. Mr. Shenkerman believes that participation in Jewish tradition, however, hesitant, is the “first step homeward”, i.e., the first step toward developing a real identification with Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.

As is suggested by the increased enrollment in Hebrew ulpans, aliyah also has increased in 1999. Between January and April in 1998, 1,063 people from Dnipropetrovsk emigrated to Israel; the total for the comparable figure in 1999 is 1,417. In response to a question, Mr. Shenkerman said that the primary motivation for aliyah is the dreadful economic situation in the area; increasing antisemitism may play a small role in the larger figures, but it is not the major factor. He believes that aliyah will continue to increase, but only incrementally.

JAFI organizes a “Day about Israel” (“День об Израеле”) every Sunday in the JAFI office. A different topic, such as health care or education in Israel, is presented each week, attracting 50 to 70 people responding to notices and advertisements about the program. People register when they arrive and receive additional information about aliyah after the presentation. JAFI also arranges information tables at almost all community events.60

Two charter flights, each in aircraft seating 80 to 90 people, bring olim (immigrants) to Israel from Dnipropetrovsk, the departure point for the region, every week. Another 15 to 30 olim travel to Israel on each of the two regular commercial flights between Dnipropetrovsk and Israel every week. Either Mr. Shenkerman or his chief deputy is at the airport for each flight.

55.  The hesed concept (hesed, pl. hasadim; Heb.; charity, aid) centers on the provision of aid to elderly and handicapped Jews. Funding from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (often referred to as the “Claims Conference”) and from several private foundations has enabled JDC to develop more than 60 hasadim in Jewish population centers in the post-Soviet successor states. In large cities, hasadim may be located in buildings purchased and renovated according to dedicated designs. In areas with small Jewish populations, the hesed may consist of a cottage or two or three rooms in an apartment. A new initiative is the “hesed on wheels”, a specially-equipped van offering selected welfare and cultural services that travels to the smallest Jewish population centers. Some heseds-on-wheels are geared to specific holiday commemorations.
56. Rabbi Kaminezki also is including program space for Hillel in the Jewish community center attached to the Golden Rose synagogue. See page 29.
57. The missionaries are local people sponsored by European evangelists. Mr. Shenkerman said that he had located an appropriate building, but that rental costs exceeded current budgetary provisions.
58. Nineteen ulpan courses are being taught in Dnipropetrovsk at three different sites.
59. The Shabbat Shalom kits include a richly illustrated bilingual Russian and Hebrew 96-page handbook about Shabbat, candles, a small bottle of wine, a wine glass, a challah cover, and several kipot. The same organizations have produced a similar Haggadah for Pesach.
60. The writer saw one such table at a JDC-sponsored talent show featuring various performances by children participating in JCC music and dance classes. Various printed materials about Israel, aliyah, and JAFI programs were available and were taken by those in attendance.

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