Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

In common with many others with whom the writer spoke, Rabbi Stambler believes that the Chabad operation in Kyiv will affiliate with the Federation in the future. Some Chabad rabbis, said Rabbi Stambler, would like to reach out to Rabbi Moshe Asman now, but others are hesitant to do so. All realize that the Kyiv situation is sensitive because of the need to avoid any action that might be perceived as threatening to the position or programs of Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a Karliner-Stoliner hasid, who is Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine.

Regional development is a new emphasis in Chabad programming throughout Ukraine. All rabbis are urged to think regionally, to reach out to Jews in smaller Jewish population centers. Every Jew in Ukraine, said Rabbi Stambler, should have a rabbi. Chabad rabbis should visit each small Jewish population center in their regions at least once each month. Seminars that involve Jews from smaller towns should be held at least three times each year. Forty percent of the enrollment in Chabad summer camps should originate in smaller towns. Each Chabad day school should build a dormitory so that youngsters from outlying towns in the region can attend a Jewish high school. Boys and girls from outlying towns who do not attend a Jewish school should be invited to shabbatonim and holiday celebrations in the regional center.

The Federation of Jewish Communities has developed Russian-language booklets on each Jewish holiday, other holiday materials, and a Russian-language textbook entitled Jewish Tradition (Еврейская традиция) for high school students that are distributed throughout Ukraine. Ninety-seven tons of matza were distributed for Pesach, and menorahs and candles are distributed at Chanukah. Rabbi Stambler hopes that a weekly Jewish newspaper (Шомрей шабос) published in Odessa and mailed to many Jewish homes in four south Ukraine oblasts soon will be available throughout Ukraine. The Federation also provides legal advice for communities dealing with local bureaucracies and with national customs officials.

A forthcoming project for the Federation is the development of boarding schools in Israel to accommodate youngsters in their initial steps of aliyah. Initially, the schools may offer only a 12th grade, which would provide a strong preparatory year program for teens finishing the standard post-Soviet 11-grade school and wishing to enter an Israeli university. However, in time, the schools would develop lower grades as well. Youngsters will gain a foothold in Israel and will be joined in aliyah by their parents at a later date.

The paraprofessional rabbi program, starting in Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk with 18 and eight students respectively, is another aspect of regional development. Each Chabad regional center should develop such a program, sending its graduates out to small communities in which they will coordinate religious observance and educational, culture, and welfare programs. Paraprofessional rabbis, all of whom are university graduates, should work several years in Ukraine and then be helped to find appropriate positions in Israel.


38. The city of Zaporizhya (known until 1921 as Aleksandrovsk) is the administrative center of Zaporizhya oblast, which lies immediately south of Dnipropetrovsk oblast. The cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhya are about fifty miles apart. The city of Zaporizhya was established in the late sixteenth century by roving bands of local Cossacks known as Zaporizhya Cossacks. Their descendants remain in the area today, although they are less numerous and less well known than the Don Cossacks to the east and Kuban Cossacks to the southeast.

Extensive deposits of lignite as well as electricity generated by a hydroelectric station on the Dnipr River supported development of an economy based on metallurgy, chemicals, and transportation equipment. In common with other centers of heavy industry in the post-Soviet transition states, much of this enterprise is obsolescent and currently non-operative. Agricultural production (especially winter wheat, corn, and potatoes) in the oblast sustains a food processing industry.

The current population of the city of Zaporizhya is approximately 880,000, including 10,000 to 12,000 Jews. Smaller concentrations of Jews live in Melitopol (perhaps 4,000 Jews) and Berdyansk (1,500), both in the southern part of the oblast, and in nine or ten other cities, each with fewer than 500 Jews.

39. Beginning in 1993, the Joint Distribution Committee allocated significant resources to restoration of a large synagogue building, which includes a spacious sanctuary, several classrooms and meeting rooms, a library, a kitchen, and a dining room accommodating 100 individuals at tables for four. Rabbi Nochum Ehrentroi, a Chabad hasid from Israel, is Chief Rabbi of Zaporizhya. His original employment in the city was under the auspices of JDC, which engaged him in 1996 in the dual capacity of rabbi and JDC representative in Zaporizhya.

In 1998, JDC abruptly ceased payment of Rabbi Ehrentroi’s salary in response to budgetary pressures. However, Rabbi Ehrentroi remained in the city and continued to work on behalf of the local Jewish community, dependent upon the salary of his wife, a teacher at the local day school. After several months, Or Avner assumed responsibility for Rabbi Ehrentroi’s salary, as JDC doubtless assumed that it would. Rabbi Ehrentroi now is officially associated with Chabad and its Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine, rather than with JDC.

40. In a meeting with Rabbi Ehrentroi and Boris Esterkin, President of the synagogue, Mr. Esterkin reviewed recent Zaporoizhya Jewish history . During the Soviet period, the current synagogue had been used for office space and as a dental clinic. In 1989, some Jews in Zaporizhya formed a Jewish cultural organization, which evolved into a religious group by 1994. In Mr. Esterkin’s estimate, about 60 percent of the Jewish population is elderly; about 3,000 Jews are on the rolls of the local hesed. Jewish emigration from the city is significant, especially among the youth, who find the Na’aleh and Selah programs very attractive.

Rabbi Ehrentroi said that many Jews conceal their Jewish ethnicity, managing to have Russian or Ukrainian inscribed on the nationality line of their internal passports. Middle-age and older Jews may come to the synagogue for holiday celebrations, but many Jews between the ages of 35 and 50 are afraid to be associated with any Jewish institution or event.

41. The synagogue building also serves as a Jewish community center. However, because the city of Zaporizhya stretches for some distance along the Dnipr River, it is difficult for people who live at the “ends” of the municipality to participate in synagogue/JCC programs.

About 90 youngsters attend weekly Sunday school classes at the synagogue. A JCC youth group attracts about 120 young people between the ages of four and 24. Children participate in JCC arts and crafts classes,65 a drama group, and other activities. Twenty-five to 30 university students attend Friday evening services and other Friday evening programs planned especially for them. Large community seders are held every evening during Pesach in the spacious second-floor sanctuary. About 15 or 16 women attend shiurim (classes) every Sunday. As many as 800 local Jews participate in holiday celebrations at the synagogue.
An active library, staffed by a trained librarian, contains about 2,500 Russian-language volumes. The JCC also is the main site for the local JAFI ulpan.66

About 50 to 60 individuals attend a daily minyan at the synagogue, which is followed by breakfast. Another 60 elderly Jews gather for lunch at the synagogue, and the synagogue kitchen prepares 60 additional meals for delivery to homebound hesed clients.67

42. In addition to activities at the synagogue/JCC, Rabbi and Mrs. Dina Ehrentroi invite local Jews to their home every Shabbat and on many Jewish holidays. Mrs. Ehrentroi is well-known in the community as she is the head Hebrew teacher at the local Jewish day school.

Five or six young women from Zaporizhya are enrolled at Beit Chana in Dnipropetrovsk, referred there by the Ehrentrois. Rabbi Ehrentroi also has assisted local Jewish boys in unstable homes in gaining admission to the boys’ home in Dnipropetrovsk.

43. Rabbi Ehrentroi does not sponsor a summer camp. However, he cooperates with JDC in offering a ten-day family camp that attracts about 60 families.

44. The Zaporizhya Jewish day school -- known formally as Zaporizhya Muncipal Jewish National Gymnasium Alef -- opened in 1992 under the auspices of the Lishkat Hakesher/Nativ Maavar (now Tsofia) program. It quickly acquired widespread notoriety for its Bundist approach to Jewish education, creating the spectacle of an anti-Zionist school sponsored by the Israeli government. Conflict within its faculty was rife and public, its administration encouraging the anti-Zionist direction and some teachers opposing it. Although resignation of a key official due to illness has reduced visible hostilities within the school, Gymnasium Alef remains an institution mired in discord. All observers ascribe the problems to the principal, a local woman who is militantly anti-religious and anti-Zionist. She actively discourages pupils from participating in the synagogue/JCC, observance of religious holidays, Jewish summer camps, and Jewish Agency and other Zionist programs.68 She is said to be a skilled politician with exceptionally strong ties to local authorities, thus ensuring her continued tenure at the school.69

65.  The teacher of arts and crafts classes is a graduate of Beit Chana in Dnipropetrovsk.
66. JAFI operations in Zaporizhya are supervised from Dnipropetrovsk.
67. JDC subsidizes most meals. The writer did not see other hesed operations, which are located in different premises. It would seem that the synagogue/JCC building could accommodate these programs, but hesed management finds it difficult to work with Mr. Esterkin.
68. A foreign observer with considerable experience in Zaporizhya refers to the principal as a very difficult woman who is “at war with the entire Jewish community”.
69. Both Nativ and Rabbi Ehrentroi have tried to replace the principal. Tension between the principal and Mrs. Ehrentroi, who is the head Hebrew teacher at the school, is palpable.

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