Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

51. A former synagogue is located a short distance from the Maayan Hesed house. Now being used as a general theater, it is large and in good condition. Some of the features of an Orthodox synagogue, such as a women’s balcony, are clearly visible. The structure would be a good community building for a larger and more vital Jewish population than that currently in the city.


52. Novomoskovsk is located on the right bank of the Samara River, about a 20-minute drive across the Dnipr River from Dnipropetrovsk. Its general population is about 79,000, among whom are 100 to 150 Jews.

53. About 30 elderly Jews eat a free dinner five days each week at a rented hall, and another 14 older Jews receive community meals at home. The community would like to recover its synagogue, which now is used as a sports hall.

54. More than 40 Jews attended a kabbalat Shabbat meal at which the writer was present. A few of the mostly elderly participants arrived early at the hall in order to consult with a local physician. Igor Darievsky, President of the Jewish community and a man in his forties, greeted many of the individuals by name. Two women read Shabbat prayers from a manuscript and others attempted, usually with considerable hesitation, to follow a modified Shabbat ritual. Two tzedakah canisters were passed around the table during the meal; the proceeds were to be used for assistance to individuals who are ill.

Following the meal, the writer spoke with the only child in attendance, an eleven-year old girl. In answer to a question about other Jewish children in the city, the girl responded in English that there were “practically none”.


55. Located about 120 miles to the east of Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk is a major city of slightly over one million inhabitants and is the administrative center of Donetsk oblast. It is the leading city of the Donbas (Don River basin) region, an area whose economy is based on overworked and underproducing coal mines (and related heavy metallurgical and chemical industries). Donetsk is severely depressed and frequently in the news for strikes by unpaid miners and for mine disasters.76  Estimates of the number of Jews residing in the city range from 15,000 to 30,000.

56. During the writer’s only previous visit to the city, in 1994, Jewish communal life had been dominated by a major rift between activists, who were divided into two groups, appropriately designated Aleph and Bet. Each sponsored its own social/cultural organization and activities for children. Although the immediate cause of the friction, a troublesome woman, had emigrated, the two groups persisted in their enmity. A young Israeli Orthodox rabbi posted to the city by JDC was unable to cope with the situation.77

57. Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, an Israeli associated with the Chabad movement, arrived in Donetsk in 1995, shortly after the departure of the first rabbi. He dealt with communal conflict by ignoring it and by establishing a network of inclusive institutions. Now Chief Rabbi of Donetsk, Rabbi Vishedski is highly respected throughout Ukraine for his great energy and numerous accomplishments.

Rabbi Vishedski is an enthusiastic advocate of Rabbi Meir Stambler’s regional approach to Jewish communal programming. Eight Israeli yeshiva students who are learning in Donetsk spend weekends and other blocs of time in surrounding smaller communities, leading Shabbat and holiday activities and working with Jewish youth and other groups.78

58. A Donetsk synagogue has been extensively remodeled in a contemporary style. In addition to a large sanctuary, it has a small museum, a community library, and several classrooms and meeting rooms. It houses or manages a number of programs focusing on different segments of the Jewish community.

In cooperation with JDC, it serves hot meals to between 40 and 50 elderly Jews every day and prepares additional meals to be delivered to homebound seniors. Its “Golden Age Club” offers various religious, educational, and cultural programs for Jewish elderly.

A machon or educational institution for adolescent girls and young women attracts 22 participants between the ages of 14 and 22 twice each week for instruction in Torah, other Judaic studies, and music. The program is organized into two age groups.

Thirty to forty young men between the ages of 18 and 35 study in an afternoon yeshiva three times each week. Eight individuals learn more intensively and are expected to assume paraprofessional positions in smaller Jewish population centers within a few years.

A youth club attracts about 40 youngsters on Sundays. They participate in informal Jewish education activities, Hebrew classes, a variety of recreational pursuits, computer studies, and holiday celebrations.

A student club sponsors discussion groups, computer studies, Hebrew and Judaic classes, and recreational and social activities. About 25 students participate on a regular basis.

The synagogue sponsors its own Hebrew ulpan, in addition to those offered by the Jewish Agency.

Rabbi Vishedski hopes that a former Jewish communal building will be returned to the Jewish community soon. He hopes to convert it into a dormitory for youngsters from outlying cities and towns who will attend the local Jewish day school.

59. Rabbi Vishedski started a Jewish day school in September 1996, which now enrolls 250 pupils in grades one through seven. Successive grades will be added each year until the full 11-year curriculum of Ukrainian schools is offered. Ninety percent of pupils are Jews according to halakha and the remainder are Jews according to the more liberal provisions of the Israeli Law of Return. Thirty to 35 youngsters leave the school each year, most emigrating to Israel with their parents.

The school is located in a large building some distance from the center of the city. Five buses and two vans are used to transport youngsters between their homes and the school.

Three teachers from Israel teach all pupils three classes in Hebrew each week, two classes in Jewish tradition and two in Torah, plus one class hour in Jewish music. Pupils celebrate all Jewish holidays.

A computer room has 10 Pentium 233 computers. At the time of the writer’s visit, a sixth grade class was learning how to use computer graphics programs. Art classes also seemed advanced, and the school building is pleasantly decorated with student artwork depicting various scenes in Israel and aspects of Jewish life.

The school sponsors extracur-ricular groups in music, dance, and theater. It has better physical education facilities than are found in many schools, including an adjacent soccer field. However, the soccer field requires significant renovation.

Members of a Donetsk Jewish day school boys’ dance ensemble practice their routine. They have performed in several cities.

In addition to preparing meals for school pupils, the school kitchen prepares JDC-subsidized “take-out” meals for 88 elderly Jews three times each week. School buses transport the seniors to the school to pick up the food and then return them to their apartments.

60. A Jewish preschool, which was started in 1994, now enrolls 30 children between the ages of three and six. A large and well-equipped fenced-in playground is adjacent to the school.

61. Joint Distribution Committee operations in Donetsk are supervised from Dnipropetrovsk. The writer spoke briefly with Iosif Khazin, the local Donetsk JDC representative. Mr. Khazin began his remarks by referring warmly to Rabbi Vishedski who, said Mr. Khazin, unified the Jewish community after a bitter conflict had split local Jews into two mutually hostile factions.

Mr. Khazin said that the local hesed, Hesed Tzedekah, provides service to 6,150 elderly Jews in Donetsk oblast, 3,300 of whom live in Donetsk itself. A nutrition program provides hot meals to 450 individuals at several sites, including the day school. One-hundred twenty homebound seniors receive patronage (home assistance) services; additional Jewish elderly require such aid, but the hesed lacks appropriate funding, and inadequate municipal transport systems cause difficulty for current patronage workers trying to reach their intended work assignments. The hesed offers several services on its own premises, including clubs and socializing opportunities, Shabbat and holiday celebrations, medical and dental care, rental of medical equipment, programs for vision-impaired people, and hairdressing for both men and women. JDC has provided a monthly budget of $350 for local purchase of medicines, an amount that Mr. Khazin considers very inadequate; he has been promised an increase in this budget line.

76.  The most recent mine explosion occurred on May 24, 1999, taking the lives of 39 miners. A total of 358 miners were killed in local mines in 1998.
77.  At the time, JDC supported rabbis in four post-Soviet cities and was seeking candidates to fill rabbinic posts in another four cities. Budget pressures forced the termination of the rabbinic placement program by the late 1990s.
78.  See pages 49-50. Smaller Jewish population centers in Donetsk oblast include Artyemovsk, Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Yenakievo, Slavyansk, Konstantinovka, Makeyevka, Krasnoarmeisk, Druzhkovka, and Shakhtyorsk. The Jewish population in each of these cities ranges from 20 to 500. Rabbi Vishedski also worked in Lugansk (3,500 to 5,000 Jews), the center of neighboring Lugansk oblast. His outreach efforts led to the appointment of a fulltime Chabad rabbi in that city, Rabbi Sholom Gopin, who supervises both religious activities and JDC operations in Lugansk and about 10 smaller Jewish population centers, none with more than about 200 Jews. Rabbi Gopin arrived in Lugansk in May 1999.

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