Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

Without prompting from the writer, Mr. Feingold acknowledged that the 1997 organization of a JDC representation in Kharkiv was late.87 However, he continued, JDC now has an “empire” in the city and the oblast. Indeed, the JDC budget for Kharkiv is higher than that for several other post-Soviet cities in which the Jewish population is larger.

Mr. Feingold observed that Jewish young people were emigrating from Kharkiv in large numbers, pushing the proportion of elderly Jews in the city to more than 70 percent.88 JDC hesed services reach 11,000 individuals in Kharkiv and additional elderly in smaller cities in towns in Kharkiv, Poltava, and Sumy oblasts. In his view, the distribution of food parcels is the most important form of aid extended to Jewish seniors, continued Mr. Feingold, but the Kharkiv hesed (Hesed Maalot) also serves hot meals to 1,200 people four to five times each week in nine different locations89 and operates 22 “warm homes”, each serving about 15 people three times weekly. Hesed patronage services reach almost 1,000 individuals with various home services (various forms of personal assistance) and truly “save lives”. Hesed Maalot also provides medical consultations, clubs and other socializing opportunities, holiday celebrations, repair services, and elder day care.

JDC opened a Jewish Community Center in January (see below) and now is hoping to expand its programs for individuals in the “post-Hillel” age group, that is, between 25 and 60. Mr. Feingold said that his office also offers planning and other assistance to twelve different community organizations, including a local Jewish theater, weekly Jewish television program (Mishpocha), Jewish war veterans group, ghetto prisoners group, Drobitsky Yar Memorial Center, Hillel, Open Jewish University, Jewish day schools and preschool, the Orthodox Union and Aish Hatorah programs, a Maccabee sports group, and the synagogue.

75. The writer met separately with Sviatoslav Dolgin at Hesed Maalot, which is located in a building recently remodeled to JDC specifications. A room for social gatherings is on the ground floor, and other services are dispensed from the second floor. Second-floor premises include medical consultation offices, a medical equipment distribution center, a library, hairdressing facilities, and offices for the coordination of patronage services, food distribution, and other activities.

Mr. Dolgin, a local man, said that the average monthly pension in Kharkiv, a large industrialized city, is $17 to $20, but that most elderly assisted by Hesed Maalot receive about $15. The most severely impoverished are disabled people who have not yet reached retirement age; their monthly disability payments, he said, may be only $8.

The hesed tries to ease the financial burden by arranging with two pharmacies in the city to provide certain pharmaceutical products to hesed clients at discounts of ten percent to 90 percent. Individuals seeking such a discount must present a prescription verified by a hesed physician. The hesed pays the drugstores about $1,000 monthly to cover this service. Hesed Maalot has received one shipment of medicines from the Ted Meyers JDC program, but this endeavor is difficult to sustain due to ongoing problems with Ukrainian customs authorities.90

In answer to a question, Mr. Dolgin said that Hesed Maalot had not yet developed any special programs for handicapped children. However, families of such children receive medicine from the hesed, medical equipment, food parcels, and meals-on-wheels when needed.

Mr. Dolgin outlined the new programs that Hesed Maalot had implemented since the writer’s last visit one year previously. A mobile hesed visits 280 elderly Jews who live in outlying areas of Kharkiv oblast, often no more than one to five individuals in any village. The hesed brings them Jewish literature, a cultural program, medicines, and medical equipment. Second, a day center for elderly Jews operates three times weekly at Hesed Maalot, providing seniors with medical care, a hot meal, various cultural programs, and hairdressing services. Third, patronage service to homebound elderly and handicapped now includes a laundry component. Hesed Maalot arranges for the laundering of garments and linens by a commercial laundry. Fourth, a psychologist is now advising patronage workers how to work with difficult clients. Fifth, the hesed had launched a “serious program” for World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors; they are receiving food parcels once or twice each month, medicines, and reading material geared to their interests.

Among the hesed priorities for new services, said Mr. Dolgin, is a program for vision-impaired children. He would like to include arts and crafts, singing, and dancing -- activities that he believes would boost the self-esteem of such youngsters.

Mr. Dolgin said that Hesed Maalot has enlisted more than 400 volunteers who assist in the provision of various services. For example, volunteers manage the hesed library and supervise the distribution of medical equipment.

76. A Jewish Community Center had opened in Kharkiv in January, occupying the ground floor of a building in the center of the city. At the time of the writer’s visit, work crews were preparing the facility for a formal dedication scheduled for June. The JCC includes a room used both as a gymnasium and a dance studio, an arts and crafts room, an auditorium, a kitchen, and an office for the Hillel student organization. When fully operational, the JCC will offer 22 programs, including: classes in various Jewish subjects and in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English; Jewish cooking; arts and crafts; computer technology; klezmer music; and several types of dance.

77. Miron Lahat, the representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel, had assumed responsibilities in Kharkiv two weeks before the writer’s visit to the city. He had come to Kharkiv from a similar position in Ekaterinburg (Ural Mountains area in Russia); his predecessor in Kharkiv, Grigory Masezhnik, had replaced him in Ekaterinburg. The exchange of positions had been necessitated by an agreement between the Ukrainian and Israeli governments that Mr. Masezhnik would leave Ukraine after a JAFI aliyah recruitment program targeting Kharkiv Jewish scientists angered Ukrainian security officials.91

The Kharkiv JAFI office is responsible for JAFI operations in four oblasts -- Kharkiv, Poltava, Sumy, and Lugansk. Mr. Lahat said that aliyah from these oblasts had decreased 20 percent since the first of the year, but predicted that it would rise shortly as it always has in the warmer months (and particularly after the school year ends). He noted that the closure of JAFI offices for Pesach in late March and April had reduced the flow of emigration during that period.

Mr. Lahat believes that about 60,000 Jews reside in the entire area, but the specific number of Jews and the course of aliyah are difficult to determine with precision. Many “closet” Jews remain; some emerge after several generations of concealing their origins and ask JAFI to assist them in finding documentation to support their claim to make aliyah. Others, however, will continue to conceal their ethnic backgrounds.

The Kharkiv JAFI office supports 70 ulpan classes throughout the region in 1999, 29 of which are/will be in Kharkiv. Fourteen hundred individuals were enrolled in ulpan classes during April. In smaller towns, said Mr. Lahat, enrollment in an ulpan class is indication of intention to make aliyah soon; in fact, many Jews from smaller towns remain in an ulpan only two or three months before leaving. In larger cities, many ulpan students are thinking about aliyah, but have not yet established a departure timetable.

JAFI in Kharkiv had recently received six computers, a gift that will enable them to offer professional ulpans that combine Hebrew study with the computer training necessary for many professional positions in Israel. Mr. Lahat hoped to begin ulpan-related computer classes in June and to have additional computer activities ready for youth and young adults shortly thereafter.

The Kharkiv JAFI office maintains a very active youth program, attracting about 1,000 youth (400 in Kharkiv alone) between the ages of eight and 18 on a regular basis to various activities in ten youth clubs across the region. The Jewish Agency also sponsors separate clubs for university students.

JAFI planned to operate six summer camps in the region in 1999. It would repeat a popular program first offered in 1998 and subsidized by UJA-Federation of New York. Two eight-day sessions, each accommodating 160 children, will be open to youngsters between the ages of eight and ten. Parents of campers will be invited to spend two nights with their children. Such programs have been effective in encouraging aliyah among young families. Single eight-day camp sessions will be offered for 160 youngsters each in the 12 to 14 and 15 to 17 year-old age groups as well as for university students. Finally, JAFI will subsidize the Orthodox Union/National Conference on Synagogue Youth summer camp.92

Mr. Lahat hopes to recruit outstanding youngsters from the various camps for a trip to Poland in September. En route to Poland and a visit to Auschwitz, the group will stop at several sites of Jewish interest in western Ukraine. However, budget provisions for such a project remain uncertain.

When asked if circumstances surrounding the forced departure of his predecessor, Grigory Masezhnik, were having any impact on his own situation in Kharkiv, Mr. Lahat responded that his arrival in the city was so recent that he was unable to form any conclusions about the aftereffects of this situation. Mr. Lahat had not yet met with any local officials. However, he assumes that he should be very careful. He intends to watch his steps because he realizes that others are watching his steps.

Mr. Lahat said that he would like to work on collaborative projects with others in the local Jewish community and with any Americans who are interested in working with JAFI and with him. He is intrigued by the Kharkiv-Cincinnati sister-city relationship because he spent two months in Cincinnati in the early 1970s as a representative of the Israel Air Force at the General Electric plant there.

87.  Prior to the establishment of the Kharkiv office, JDC had attempted to manage its Kharkiv operations from its Kyiv base, including Kyiv and Kharkiv in an administrative area known to JDC as “northern Ukraine”. Ukraine is divided more naturally into eastern and western regions plus a southern region around Odessa. JDC organized its Ukraine Eastern Region only in 1997.
88.  A 70 percent proportion of Jewish elderly (in Ukraine, 60 years of age and older) is common in smaller post-Soviet Jewish population centers, but unusual in larger concentrations. Following her discussion with Mr. Feingold, the writer checked his estimate with several other Kharkiv Jews in positions of community responsibility; one expressed skepticism, positing a proportion of Jewish elderly at 60 percent, but three others found Mr. Feingold’s estimate plausible.
89.  The nine different locations include both Chabad school buildings, the Chabad synagogue, the OU school, the OU youth center, Hesed Maalot, and three restaurants with which the hesed has contracts.
90.  Dr. Ted Meyers is a physician associated with JDC who has established a list of essential medicines that are shipped to hasadim from Amsterdam. Customs authorities in the post-Soviet states, apparently motivated by both corruption and officiousness, routinely create barriers to the import of medicines and other welfare goods designated for non-profit use.
91.  See p. 23 of this report.
92.  See page 67.

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