Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

The most popular aliyah programs, said Mr. Shenkerman are Na’aleh, Selah, First Home in the Homeland, and kibbutz ulpan. Additionally, Aliyah 2000, which focuses on specific positions, is very attractive, especially the tracks for nurses, computer programmers, and truck drivers for the Port of Ashdod. JAFI also sponsors job clubs for middle-age people, who send their resumes to potential employers by e-mail.

In common with other JAFI personnel (and with many others in Ukraine who work with Jewish adolescents), Mr. Shenkerman expressed concern about the expiration on June 16 of the current agreement between Israel and Ukraine about Na’aleh.61 Ukrainian authorities clearly are concerned about “adolescent brain drain” and are harassing JAFI about the program. When JAFI opened its camp for the Na’aleh exams, local SBU authorities came to the camp uninvited and remained there for three hours, related Mr. Shenkerman. They threatened to close both the camp and the JAFI office in Dnipropetrovsk. Later, they summoned Mr. Shenkerman to the SBU office, where he was detained for four hours. They spoke darkly about his future, saying that this visit to their office would not be his last visit to the SBU, and they threatened to expel him from Ukraine as Noach Nadler, the JAFI representative in Odessa, had been expelled for organizing seminars for scientists.

Both Mr. Shenkerman and his chief deputy, also an Israeli, have been attacked and badly beaten up in separate incidents by gangs of toughs. The deputy suffered a brain concussion and was hospitalized in Israel for several weeks, but has since returned to Dnipropetrovsk. Mr. Shenkerman believes that the two incidents may have been intended to intimidate JAFI into curbing its aliyah programs, but acknowledges that other motivations may have provoked the assaults.62

Mr. Shenkerman says that his office works closely with various Jewish communal institutions in Dnipropetrovsk. Local Jews, he said, respect the organizations and ties between the organizations are very tight (очень тесно). Most local Jewish institutions are very helpful to JAFI. JAFI works especially well with the day school, assisting older pupils in finding appropriate educational programs in Israel.
Jewish emigration to Germany continues. It is an attractive destination for some Jews because of the economic benefits provided by the German state.

Mr. Shenkerman outlined several projects that he would like to complete during his time in Dnipropetrovsk. First, he would like to establish a new JAFI youth club in suitable premises. Among many other activities, he hopes to offer computer classes within such a club. Second he would like to organize construction of a monument to local victims of the Shoah at Gendarmskaya balka, a gully in an area then considered on the outskirts of town, where approximately 11,000 Jews were shot on September 13, 1941.63 Third, he would like to organize construction of a monument to Russian Zionist leader Menachem Mendel Ussishkin (1863-1941), who lived in Ekaterinoslav for some years, and sponsor a seminar about his work. Fourth, Mr. Shenkerman would like to offer some assistance to the children’s homes in Dnipropetrovsk, perhaps arranging for the contribution of clothing, food, and or toys and games.

36. The representative of Nativ (formerly Lishkat Hakesher) in Dnipropetrovsk is David Dolev. Among his responsibilities is supervision of the Israel Culture Center in Dnipropetrovsk, one of four such Israeli government-sponsored installa-tions in Ukraine. The territory of this office stretches from Dniprodzerzhinsk in the north to Berdyansk in the south, from Kremenchug and Kirovograd in the west to Tokmak in the east.

Mr. Dolev estimates that 35,000 to 40,000 Jews live in Dnipropetrovsk, “half of whom forget that they are Jews”. It is likely that at least 70,000 local people, including non-Jewish spouses of Jews, are eligible for emigration to Israel.

The Israel Cultural Center sponsors between 13 and 17 Hebrew ulpan classes in Dnipropetrovsk during the year, a large youth club and other activities for children, computer classes for individuals who also are enrolled in ulpan classes, holiday celebrations and concerts, and a local branch of the Open University of Israel. Mr. Dolev readily acknowledged that the ulpan classes and youth club compete with those offered by the Jewish Agency. JAFI and the Israel Culture Center often collaborate in public celebrations of Israeli holidays.

As the representative of the Israeli government, Nativ supervises Israeli Ministry of Education efforts in the region. These include 19 Sunday schools, including nine in Dnipropetrovsk. Israeli government-sponsored Sunday schools are secular in orientation and include instruction in Hebrew, Jewish tradition, and Jewish and Israeli history. The Ministry also provides subsidies to Israeli teachers of Judaic subjects at the two day schools in the area, which are in Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhya.

One of the major responsibilities of the Israel Cultural Center is issuing Israeli visas to those planning to emigrate to Israel. Before February 1998, all visa applicants were required to visit the Israeli Consulate in Kyiv, a major burden on the Consulate there and a major expense to the future immigrants. Mr. Dolev said that the issuance of Israel visas occupies about 50 percent of his time. Individuals who live outside Dnipropetrovsk usually travel to and from the city by slow local trains. Upon arrival in Dnipropetrovsk, they often go directly to the ICC, even if it is the middle of the night. A guard at the ICC will put their names on a list in order of arrival. If the ICC is closed, the future olim often sleep in a local park until it opens. Once the ICC is open, they return to the ICC where they are called in to see Mr. Dolev in the order in which their names appear on the guard’s list.

Mr. Dolev frequently works 14-hour days on the two to three days each week that the ICC provides consular services. He interviews every adult from the region who wants to emigrate to Israel. He hears the entire story of a family through three or four generations, including many tragic accounts of family members slaughtered in the Shoah. He inspects all documents, including certificates marking birth, marriage, and death of parents and grandparents. He must use substantial judgment and logic concerning those people who claim that documents were lost during the Holocaust, World War II, or in other chaotic circumstances in 20th- century Ukrainian history. He realizes that he decides the destiny of an entire family, which is a “very big responsibility”. Unfortunately, some applicants for aliyah are impostors with forged documents. They just want to leave Ukraine because they are hopeless about the future.

Mr. Dolev said that perhaps only 50 percent of visa applicants are halakhically Jewish. Twenty-five to thirty percent have only one Jewish grandparent, a sufficient Jewish background according to the Israeli Law of Return. However, Mr. Dolev observed, many of them do not identify as Jews and some openly acknowledge a Christian faith. If the applicants themselves converted to Christianity, they are ineligible for aliyah; if it was a parent who converted and then raised the child as a Christian, the child is eligible for aliyah. Mr. Dolev expressed concern about the impact of such immigrants on the State of Israel when they do not identify with Israel, the Jewish people, or Judaism. They are just opportunists who want to leave Ukraine and start new lives in another country.

The primary reasons for aliyah, said Mr. Dolev, are: the local economic situation, which generates a sense of hopelessness about the future; opportunities for one’s children, which seem very limited in Ukraine due to economic problems and deteriorating schools; and family reunification, especially parents following children who are participating in the Na’aleh program. Perhaps 20 to 30 percent of olim from the area have first-degree relatives in Israel.

In response to a question, Mr. Dolev said that he thinks that Ukraine will agree to a two- or three-year extension of the current Na’aleh agreement. The Ukrainian government realizes that most Na’aleh youngsters remain in Israel. Ukraine is trying to apply pressure to Israel so that Israel calls upon the United States to intervene. At that point, Ukraine will agree to renew Na’aleh in return for United States support of a loan to Ukraine from the World Bank or some other concession. Ukraine will agree to continuation of Na’aleh because, “They have no choice.”

Antisemitism remains at a low level in Dnipropetrovsk, said Mr. Dolev. The local Jewish community, through Rabbi Kaminezky and a number of wealthy Jewish businessmen, has excellent relations with local authorities. However, antisemitism is a problem in other communities, such as Pavlograd, where the small and weak Jewish population (perhaps 600 to 1,000 people in a city of 100,000) seems to be a scapegoat for poor economic conditions.

The Dnipropetrovsk Israel Cultural Center will be moving to a new centrally-located facility during the summer.

37. Rabbi Meir Stambler is the director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine, an umbrella group for Chabad operations in Ukraine with the “cooperation and support of the Or Avner organization” (при содействии и поддержке организации “Ор-Авнер”). Or Avner, whose major supporter is Levi Levayev, has posted rabbis in ten Ukrainian cities: Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zaporizhya, Kharkiv, Kremenchuk, Zhitomir, Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and Simferopol. Each of these rabbis is responsible for various programs in his city and a surrounding region.

The programs in Zaporizhya (see below), Kremenchuk, and Lugansk are new. Some in Or Avner opposed the assignment of rabbis to the latter two cities because the Jewish populations of both are small, probably about 5,000 Jews in each. However, preliminary Chabad outreach in these areas suggested that local Jewish populations would provide adequate financial support to sustain Jewish communal life if Chabad provided leadership. In fact, Jews in Kremenchuk rented a building for use by the Jewish community under the leadership of the Chabad rabbi. The current Or Avner practice is to cover a salary for the rabbi plus some additional expenses for one year. The rabbi should be able to raise enough money locally (and perhaps from friends abroad) to support himself and various programs within a year. Major activities include coordination of welfare programs (in cooperation with JDC), social and cultural activities, religious observance, and Jewish education. The first priority in Jewish education would be development of a preschool and Sunday school. If these are successful, a day school might be established.

Rabbi Stambler noted that the major role of rabbis in most post-Soviet cities is that of community organizer. The activities that they sponsor build Jewish identity and will help to sustain Ukrainian Jewry as Jews until most younger Jews leave for Israel. In communities with rabbis, observed Rabbi Stambler, many more Jews emigrate to Israel than to Germany. 64

61.  See page 21.
62. The attack on the deputy may have been a robbery. He was carrying a large sum of money that he had brought to Dnipropetrovsk from the JAFI office in Kyiv. It is believed that a local secretary or other local person employed by JAFI was aware of the deputy’s mission to Kyiv and tipped off the assailants. Antisemitism also is considered a plausible motivation for this assault, as well as the attack on Mr. Shenkerman.
63. Development of an appropriate monument at the massacre site has been considered for some years. Reflecting both uncertainty about the precise location of the slaughter and the reality that local university sports facilities may have been constructed (knowingly or unknowingly) over a portion of the site, no action has been taken on such a project.
64. Many rabbis in Ukraine are strongly Zionist in conviction. Some who are less Zionist philosophically are ‘pragmatic’ Zionists, believing that Jewish demographic factors and local economic conditions portend a difficult future for the Jewish population in Ukraine.

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