Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

The writer met with Judah Wagner, a Judaic studies teacher assigned to the school by the Israel Ministry of Education.70 Mr. Wagner said that the role of the school was to provide its pupils with “a piece of eretz Israel”. The current enrollment of the school is 310 youngsters, ranging in age from seven to 17. Another 50 youngsters, he said, are on a waiting list for enrollment.71 He did not refer to the ethnic background of Gymnasium Alef pupils; it is widely believed that only about 40 percent are Jewish, even according to the relaxed standards of the Israeli Law of Return.72 Mr. Wagner said that pupils are scheduled for a minimum of eight class periods each week in Jewish studies classes. Four hours are assigned to a combination of Jewish tradition, Jewish history, geography of Israel, and Jewish music; another four hours are assigned to Hebrew; and some classes also have one (non-credit) class each week in Yiddish.

Most of the 16 classes in the school meet on the upper floors of a building shared with a special gymnastics academy. Several lower grades are accommodated in another school building several blocks away. About four or five pupils leave the school every year to go to Israel in the Na’aleh program. Most youngsters want to go to Israel, said Mr. Wagner; their parents also would like to leave Ukraine, he continued, but many fear that they will be unemployable in Israel. Many of the teachers, he said, emigrate to Germany.

45. Rabbi Ehrentroi is frustrated by the non-religious, non-Zionist philosophy of the day school. He would like to start an alternative day school, suggesting that another large synagogue building that he is likely to receive from the city might be an appropriate site. The cost of launching such an enterprise, along with a shrinking enrollment pool due to emigration of young families, suggests that a second day school might be a difficult project. However, the shortcomings of Gymnasium Alef may compel serious consideration of developing a Chabad day school.

46. The synagogue operates a preschool enrolling 60 children between the ages of three and six. Its program begins at 7:00 a.m. and ends at 5:00 p.m., a very popular schedule with working parents. Youngsters are fed breakfast, lunch, and a big afternoon snack. Some children have one non-Jewish parent, but all are Jewish according to the Israel Law of Return. Efforts are made to teach parents about all Jewish holidays. The preschool operates on a year-round schedule, with about 50 percent of the children continuing throughout the year. Two of the teachers are graduates of Beit Chana in Dnipropetrovsk.

Teachers and assistants serve lunch to preschoolers in Zaporizhya. Rabbi Ehrentroi has crouched down to chat with children in rear of photo at left.



47. Dniprodzerzhinsk is located on the banks of the Dnipr River, approximately 22 miles northwest of Dnipropetrovsk. It was founded in 1779 as Kamenskoye (Каменское) and, in 1936, its name was changed in honor of Feliks “Iron Feliks” Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926), notorious head of the Cheka (renamed OGPU in 1922, NKVD in 1934, and KGB in 1953) from 1917 until his death in 1926.73 A massive hydroelectric station provides power for a “black industrial base” focused on iron and steel, industrial chemicals, cement, machine-building, and construction of railroad cars. Dniprodzershinsk is rated one of the ten most heavily polluted cities in all of the post-Soviet success states.

The general population of the city is about 280,000. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews live in Dniprodzerzhinsk, following heavy emigration (perhaps 2,000) in recent years.

48. The writer met with Dmitry Tarnopolsky, president of the local Jewish community, and a group of older Jews at Maayan Hesed, the local welfare center. Maayan Hesed is located in a small single-story house that JDC purchased from its owner, a former activist in the Jewish community, when she emigrated. The building seems warm and homey. Its largest room has a small library, piano, several desks and chairs, a sofa, and various Jewish artifacts. Two smaller rooms, one equipped with two computers provided by JDC, serve as offices. A small courtyard, with one wall decorated to resemble the Western Wall in Jerusalem, provides a pleasant place to sit in warm weather.

Maayan Hesed is located in a small house on this semi-paved street.

The hesed roll includes 675 individuals, most of them elderly. A few middle-age people unable to work because of various handicaps and several invalid children also receive assistance. At the time of the writer’s visit, a local retired physician and another woman were distributing medications to some of the elderly gathered in the house. The physician’s assistant counted out pills, inserted them into hand-made pill envelopes, and handed the envelopes to hesed clients, who signed receipts for the medicine. The physician maintained meticulous records in several account books. All medicines are donated by the Adopt-a-Bubbe/Adopt-a-Zayde project of Action for Post-Soviet Jewry in Waltham, MA.

The hesed also loans JDC-supplied medical equipment and sponsors one JDC-sponsored warm home that accommodates 15 people once each week for a meal and socializing. Liliya Tarnopolskaya, director of Maayan Hesed (and the wife of Dimitry Tarnopolsky), said that some of the warm home clients cried at the first session because they were so grateful for the attention showed to them; others ate quickly and left early because of embarrassment at requiring such assistance. In general, said Ms. Tarnopolskaya, pensions in Dniprodzerzhinsk range from $8 to $15 monthly.74 All elderly need aid for food and medicine, even those who held prestigious positions during their active years. “Their dignity is shattered” when they are forced to ask for assistance. The hesed tries to maintain an atmosphere of love, caring, and hope.

All hesed volunteer workers are required to sign a contract (контракт) in which the volunteer worker and the hesed itself agree to certain conditions.75 As is the situation elsewhere in the post-Soviet states, most volunteers are women in their mid-fifties and older. By law, women are eligible for pensions at 55, and most places of employment encourage their departure at that time. In common with conditions elsewhere in Europe, “volunteers” in this type of work often receive a small stipend for their “volunteer activity” to supplement their pensions.

The writer spoke with one elderly woman whose husband, at age 95, is the oldest hesed client. He is homebound after two heart attacks, unable to walk. He cannot leave their third-floor apartment because the elevator in their building does not work. (It has not worked for 18 years.) He requires adult diapers, but these are rarely available.

49. Maayan Hesed is a base from which a driver takes food, linens, and/or medicine to smaller villages, some with as few as two or three elderly Jews. Maayan Hesed itself is supplied by JDC and by Boston Action for Post-Soviet Jewry (through its representative in Dnipropetrovsk).

50. According to Dmitry Tarnopolsky, the local Jewish community operates an afterschool program in which a bus picks up all Dniprodzerzhinsk Jewish children every school day from the different schools that they attend and brings them to one school in which the community rents several rooms. The children participate in afterschool classes in Hebrew, Jewish tradition, and Jewish history and culture. They also are provided with a nutritious dinner. The parents, who are very grateful for the constructive supervision of their children and for the meals, pay whatever they can for the program.

70.  The writer had met Mr. Wagner several years earlier in Kyiv, where he was working for JDC. The principal of the school was out of town.
71. In another context, Mr. Wagner said that many Jewish children in the city attend other schools with higher standards in general academic courses.
72. It is not unusual for Nativ schools to enroll a significant number of non-Jewish pupils, but the proportion in Gymnasium Alef seems exceptionally high and, doubtless, is a factor in the retention of an anti-religious and anti-Zionist principal.
73. Dzerzhinsky died from a heart attack at the 17th Congress of the Communist Party of Russia. In addition to his secret police responsibilities, he also served as Commissar of Transport (in which capacity he reorganized and expanded the Soviet railroad system) from 1921, and as chairman of the Supreme Council of the National Economy (in which capacity he exercised the leading role in developing Soviet heavy industry). Simultaneously, he was responsible for liquidating the bezprizorniye or tens of thousands of homeless orphans who wandered throughout Russia in the aftermath of revolution and civil war.
74. Pensions across the post-Soviet states are lower in smaller cities and towns and paid even less regularly than in larger cities.
75. For example, the worker must agree to: fulfill responsibilities according to plan and within an agreed-upon timeframe; be friendly, neat, good-natured, tolerant toward others and demanding of oneself, and respectful of the dignity and culture of other people; not divulge confidential information entrusted to him by the client or the hesed; and not enter into a[ny] business relationships with the client. At the same time, the volunteer worker has the right to: freely choose the [nature of his] work in accordance with his wishes and physical capacity; enroll in a course of study [relevant to his work] and continue to study during his tenure; regularly receive both an oral and a written performance review of his work that is expressed in a positive, encouraging (поощряемым) manner; and participate in monthly seminars and workers’ meetings.

The hesed, “respecting human rights and the principles of voluntarism, will fulfill the following obligations: present the volunteer with a choice of activities in consideration of the volunteer’s inclinations and abilities, and also in consideration of the needs of the hesed; provide regular transportation to the place of work, necessary equipment, and encouragement; guarantee attention, respect, and a tactful attitude to each volunteer; support the initiatives of volunteers and their suggestions as full and equal members of the hesed; and promise the volunteer an interesting and active life and support in complicated situations.”

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