Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999


78. The Ukrainian Jewish population is in a state of catastrophic demographic decline. Its average age is about 56. Its death to birth ratio is 13:1. Its numbers diminish by about 40,000 every year due to emigration of the more vital segments of the population and the low birth rate, high mortality rate, and assimilation of those who remain. Although the total Jewish population of Ukraine is popularly reported to be between 300,000 and 400,000, a forthcoming report from the Division of Demography and Statistics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem places the “core” Jewish population of Ukraine at the beginning of 1998 at 132,000.

Emigration, which occurs disproportionately among younger segments of the population, is likely to continue at a high rate and, in some areas, to grow. Departures are spurred by local economic distress, greater opportunities in other countries, desire for reunification with family members already abroad, and local antisemitism. Interest in emigration to Israel is substantial, as is shown by pressure exerted on the Jewish Agency to open additional Hebrew ulpan classes in many cities. Similarly, enrollment in Jewish day schools, another indicator of interest in Hebrew and Israel, remains stable in most areas and is growing in some regions, notwithstanding emigration of many young families.

Jewish demographic decline has obvious implications for community-building and for such pragmatic issues as communal property acquisition. It does not appear that all Jewish organizations active in Ukraine have devoted adequate attention to this situation.

As the “core” Jewish population declines, the issue of the high rate of intermarriage among Ukrainian Jewry looms ever larger. Whereas almost all day schools under Chabad auspices declined to accept non-halakhic Jewish children during the first half of the 1990s, many record a substantial minority non-halakhic Jewish enrollment as the decade ends. Representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the State of Israel report that the Jewish identity of large numbers of individuals planning aliyah is increasingly tenuous.

79. Among the differences between Russian and Ukrainian Jewry is the existence in Ukraine of several major and influential Jewish population centers outside the national capital. In general, this pattern corresponds with the demographic pattern for the larger Soviet and post-Soviet Ukrainian population. Casual Western observers of Ukrainian Jewry rarely venture beyond Kyiv, Odessa, and one or more former Kyiv-region shtetls, ignoring the large eastern industrial cities of Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Donetsk. Just as these cities produce significant leadership in the national government of Ukraine, they also are producing notable Jewish leadership. For the immediate future, this leadership appears vested in rabbinic ranks -- especially Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki of Dnipropetrovsk, Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski of Donetsk, and Rabbi Meir Stambler, the Dnipropetrovsk-based head of Chabad operations in Ukraine -- but lay leaders may emerge from this region as Ukrainian national Jewish organizations stabilize. In contrast, it is difficult to envision national Russian Jewish leadership, rabbinic or lay, rising outside Moscow.

80. Antisemitism, too, differs in character and extent between Russia and Ukraine. Contemporary Russian antisemitism appears to be driven by a number of circumstances, including: a generalized bigotry and intolerance in Russia directed toward various minority groups; escalating Russian nationalism, fed in part by a sense of humiliation and frustration at the loss of Soviet superpower status; a need in some sectors of the population to find scapegoats for current economic distress; prominence of Jews among “oligarchs” with broad influence in the Russian economy and media; a strong Communist party characterized by steadfast Russian nationalist and antisemitic dogma; an underdeveloped legal culture; a legal system unable to protect human rights; and a readiness to exploit these conditions in political rhetoric for election campaigns.

Despite some expansion in visible Ukrainian anti-Jewish bigotry in recent months, its expression appears much more muted than is the case in Russia. Except in western Ukraine, long an incubator of Ukrainian nationalism, popular antisemitism is much less generalized. Superpower status -- past or present, real or perceived -- is not an issue in Ukraine. Ukrainian oligarchs, Jewish and non-Jewish, are less flamboyant than their counterparts in Russia. Ukrainian Communists are weaker and less dogmatic than Russian Communists. Although antisemitism did erupt in the last stages of the recent Kyiv mayoral campaign, it appeared episodic and limited.93

81. Although continuing to permit Jewish departures, Ukraine has raised more impediments to Jewish emigration than has been in the case in other post-Soviet states in the western area of the former USSR. Harassment of Jewish Agency emissaries and Jewish Agency operations has increased in recent months. Complaints against ‘brain drain’ are common and reflect the high rate of Jewish departures from Ukraine. Most observers believe that Ukraine will continue to allow emigration if only because the right to free emigration is a critical issue in both Israel-Ukraine and United States-Ukraine bilateral relations. However, tension is likely to continue between the Jewish Agency for Israel and Ukraine.

82. The issue of Jewish children in distress persists in Ukraine and may even intensify as the Ukrainian economy remains paralyzed. The four residential programs in Ukraine for Jewish children -- in Dnipropetrovsk, Korosten, Kyiv, and Odessa -- are overextended and underfunded, without assurance of ongoing support. (The Orthodox Union program in Kharkiv may be considered a fifth program as some of its boarding pupils are from troubled homes; however, the intent of Lycee Sha’alvim is much less social welfare than education and aliyah.) The Ahava day program in Kyiv that works with both able and disabled Jewish children from economically-disadvantaged families also has been unable to attract comprehensive assistance from either domestic or foreign sources.

83. Ukrainian Jewish organizations and institutions continue to be troubled by a dearth of responsible indigenous leadership. Individual initiative, tolerance, and accountability were little valued in Soviet society and are scarcely understood in post-Soviet Ukraine. Consensus-building, planning, and priority-setting are elusive skills. Whether in an indigenous organization or in a local branch of an international agency, effective and honorable native leadership has been slow to emerge. Rabbi Yaakov Bleich of Kyiv and Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki of Dnipro-petrovsk are rare in their commitment of time and energy to mentor local individuals in developing communal leadership skills.

Too often, those who step forward as leaders are motivated by visions of economic gain, raw power, or, in the case of Vadim Rabinovich of United Jewish Community of Ukraine, the hope of legitimacy and credibility against potential prosecution for criminal activity.94 Although Mr. Rabinovich, as well as Eduard Khodos of Kharkiv,95 are extreme cases, numerous other indigenous Jews have emerged as local tyrants, obstructing community as they claim to build it. Their shortcomings are magnified by respect conferred upon them by poorly informed representatives of foreign organizations.96 In at least a half dozen cities across Ukraine, disreputable individuals have been accorded recognition as legitimate Jewish leaders by organizations attempting to operate Ukrainian programs by remote control from Jerusalem or other distant centers.

Several organizations, from Chabad to more secular groups, have found that even two-year programs of leadership education are inadequate for the transformation of Soviet-style bosses into responsible civil leaders. For the Joint Distribution Committee, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and even the few local efforts of B’nai B’rith, eagerness to create local representations without the investment of substantial resources in leadership selection and training has undermined potentially credible programs and created local autocracies reflecting badly on the parent organizations.

Committee, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and even the few local efforts of B’nai B’rith, eagerness to create local representations without the investment of substantial resources in leadership selection and training has undermined potentially credible programs and created local autocracies reflecting badly on the parent organizations.97

84. From Jewish communities in eastern Ukraine to those with both local and national perspectives in Kyiv, hostility and resentment in the Jewish community toward the institutional demeanor and spirit of the Joint Distribution Committee are mounting.98 On one level, the exasperation reflects organizational jealousy borne of the extraordinary resources and authority granted to JDC by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany. However, antipathy extends beyond classic institutional rivalry and addresses a number of basic Jewish community issues. For example, it is broadly felt that JDC seems more concerned with fulfilling specific centrally-determined program objectives than with relating to individuals in need. Similarly, JDC is perceived as imposing its own institutional models (such as heseds, Jewish community centers, or Hillel student organi-zations) upon local communities, often ignoring and eventually overwhelming parallel nascent indigenous groups with potential to thrive if patiently nurtured. Further, most communal organizations formed under JDC guidance appear remarkably similar from community to community, even when conditions between communities differ substantially.99 By the sheer size of its externally-imposed agenda, it is not surprising that JDC is perceived by some to be destroying the local community that it claims to be building.

JDC is viewed as being condescending and patronizing toward smaller organi-zations, even as some of these grass roots groups are accomplishing tasks at which JDC itself has had only limited success, for example, distributing pharmaceutical products to elderly Jews in smaller population centers. It has shown a marked reluctance to consult with locally-based hasidic rabbis on policy issues, although many of these rabbis have been in their positions for eight or more years, building relationships with local Jews and government authorities that elude representatives of JDC and other external organizations, who usually remain in a locale for periods of one to three years.

Its lack of internal research capacity, combined with an apparent unwillingness to consult external Soviet/post-Soviet area specialists, has generated some questionable JDC policies. For example, the cited decision to form a “northern Ukraine” operational region when basic political and economic conditions suggest the greater practicality of other regional configurations, the primacy accorded various community-building initiatives when local conditions indicate that aliyah-oriented programs for younger segments of the Jewish population might be more prudent, and its often nonchalant approach to local Jews of questionable back-ground all bespeak a strange indifference to its own institutional credibility.

85. The public resignation of Yaakov Kedmi (Kazakov), a former refusenik, as chief of Nativ after 22 years in the organization occurred while the writer was visiting Ukraine. His forthcoming departure was greeted with great satisfaction across the spectrum of individuals with whom the writer conferred. Mr. Kedmi is widely perceived as small-minded and living in the past -- a past dominated by the Soviet Union that no longer exists.100 The appointment of Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia, as Mr. Kedmi’s successor, was widely applauded. The installation of Mr. Magen as the new chief and concurrent installation of a new Israeli government have created expectations of a comprehensive review of Nativ operations and subsequent new mission state-ment defining significantly circumscribed Nativ responsibilities.


Betsy Gidwitz
June 30, 1999


All translations and photographs in this report are by the author.

93.  Some have theorized that the presence of dozens of Holocaust memorial sites throughout Ukraine reminds even those Ukrainians who do not care to be reminded that antisemitism can bear terrible consequences. Whereas German forces occupied all of Ukraine during World War II, only a small portion of Russia came under Nazi control.
94.  As this report was being completed toward the end of June 1999, Mr. Rabinovich’s apparent strategy had failed. He was denied entry to Ukraine for five years because he engaged in “activities [that] seriously damag[ed] the [Ukrainian] economy”. He was permitted to leave for Israel, where he had acquired citizenship and owned property, several hours before Ukrainian secuirity forces announced his banishment. See pp. 4-6.
95.  See pp. 62-64.
96.  See p. 16 regarding the attitude of Hillel in Ukraine toward Mr. Rabinovich. It is possible that Mr. Akselrod was reflecting the policy of JDC, the local supervisor of Hillel in the successor states.
97.  Rabbi Bleich has approved inclusion of several individuals with questionable track records in the administration of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, fearing that their exclusion might create enemies for the nascent organization. Unlike organizers of the agencies named above, Rabbi Bleich is aware of the leadership styles of specific individuals. His own base in Ukraine is more likely to enable careful monitoring of Confederation activities and intervention in a timely manner when such becomes advisable.
98.  Institutional demeanor and spirit should not be confused with certain specific JDC programs, especially those that address the needs of elderly Jews, which are broadly admired by many in local and national Jewish communal organizations.
99.  For example, the general competence and institution-building capacity of local rabbis differs markedly from one Jewish population center to another. Similarly, emigration is greater from some Jewish population centers than from others.
100.  Nativ, formerly known as the Lishkat Hakesher (in English, Liaison Bureau), was established in 1952 as a semi-clandestine entity attached to the Office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel. Its purpose was to develop and manage Israeli state policy concerning the large Jewish population of the then Stalinist Soviet Union. It has continued to operate in the post-Soviet era, although its mission is unclear and many of its self-designated tasks appear better suited to other organizations with defined standards of accountability, such as the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Jewish Agency Department of Jewish Zionist Education. Nativ’s methods of operation have been criticized severely in periodic reports of the Israeli State Comptroller.

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