Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

The Chabad nursery school and Jewish day school in Kyiv remain under the supervision of Rabbi Yosif Aronov of Israel. (See below.) A summer camp previously operated by Rabbi Asman will not be operated in 1999 due to a shortage of funds.

Rabbi Asman acknowledges the unsavory reputation of his only major sponsor, Vadim Rabinovich, who, as of mid-May 1999, had given $100,000 to the synagogue for payment to the puppet theater to encourage its departure from the synagogue premises. Mr. Rabinovich has promised additional funds, but has made no further donations. Defensive about his relationship with the notorious figure, Rabbi Asman said that Mr. Rabinovich offered help when he (Rabbi Asman) was experiencing “hard times” [regarding the continuing occupation of the synagogue by the puppet theater]; therefore, he continued, he is obligated to assist Mr. Rabinovich when he is having difficulties. He added that Mr. Rabinovich was careful to offer only kosher food at the organizing conference of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine.

Aware of the historical significance of the Brodsky synagogue and its advantageous location in a central area of Kyiv, Rabbi Asman declared, “This can’t be a shtiebel.” In his fundraising booklet, he refers to the structure as “The Great Synagogue of Kyiv and Jewish Community Center”.

4. Rabbi David Wilfond, an American, represents the World Union for Progressive Judaism (Reform movement) in Ukraine. Arriving in Kyiv in September 1997 shortly being ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Rabbi Wilfond is leaving Ukraine in June 1999 to accept a rabbinic post in a Boston-area Reform temple.

Rabbi Wifond’s responsibilities included leadership of the WUPJ Hatikvah congregation in Kyiv and supervision of the Kyiv-based Institute for Modern Jewish Studies, a two-year program designed to prepare individuals for ‘para-rabbinic’ positions in nascent Reform congregations in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Rabbi Wilfond also worked with the other 17 Ukrainian Reform congregational groups, most of which are in smaller Jewish population centers and none of which has a rabbi.

The Hatikvah congregation gathers in the former Karaite synagogue, which it rents for several days each week. The Joint Distribution Committee pays 50 percent of the rent. In addition to regular worship services, the 40-family congregation sponsors various educational programs and holiday observances. Rabbi Wilfond noted the prevalence of family breakdown in Ukraine, observing that very few “normative families” were members of Hatikvah. The congregation had become their stable family, he said.

The Institute for Modern Jewish Studies will move from Kyiv to Moscow in the fall and will be supervised by Rabbi Haim Ben-Yakov, the Moscow native who began to work in the Russian capital in mid-1998. The current first-year class includes 13 students, both men and women; two are from Belarus, three are from Kyiv, one is from Kharkiv, and the remaining six are from small towns, including three from Zholtiye Vody (Yellow Waters), a town with perhaps 300 Jews in Dnipropetrovsk oblast.20 Their curriculum includes Hebrew language, Jewish texts, Jewish history, tefillah (prayer), Jewish music, and principles of community work.

Ten of the 13 students enrolled in the inaugural first-year course in 1997-1998 are now completing the second year. Each is assigned to a nascent WUPJ congregation, often in or near their hometown, and returns to Kyiv for two-week seminars at intervals throughout the year. They are posted in Minsk, Kharkiv, and eight smaller Jewish population centers. Although it was hoped that they would open Sunday schools, none is doing so. Most are leading a Shabbat service on Friday evenings and a chavurah group on Saturdays, said Rabbi Wilfond. He expressed some exasperation with the program, saying that the first year intensive course in Kyiv was too brief to cover the material that was necessary for effectiveness in future community work. Perhaps more important, concepts new to Ukrainian life after 70 years of communism -- such as individual initiative, accountability, and tolerance -- are difficult to instill in a short time period. Further, Rabbi Wilfond could not supervise the students in their fieldwork because he lacked the time and funds necessary to travel around Ukraine and observe them in their positions. The World Union had entrusted a Kyiv “lay leader” with the payroll and program budget for their labor; with these resources, the lay leader had become the de facto supervisor and, in effect, had sabotaged the program. The lay leader established impractical working hours for the student interns and generally bullied them.

Rabbi Wilfond noted with some annoyance that the same lay leader, who is President of the Association of Congregations for Progressive Judaism in Ukraine, had affiliated that organization with Vadim Rabinovich’s United Jewish Community of Ukraine and had become a UJCU vice-president -- without ever discussing the matter with Rabbi Wilfond. Rabbi Wilfond expressed his agreement with the observations about post-Soviet indigenous leadership that this writer had made in a recent monograph,21 adding that those who came forward as leaders often were more interested in “controlship” than in leadership. The individual in Kyiv was not the only WUPJ community leader who was causing difficulties for the Progressive movement in Ukraine, he said.

The WUPJ was no longer working with Eduard Khodos, the problematic lay leader in Kharkiv, said Rabbi Wilfond.22 Mr. Khodos and the President of the Association of Congregations for Progressive Judaism in Ukraine were in serious disagreement with one another over a personal issue and could no longer work together. Both of the two different WUPJ congregational groups in Kharkiv, each of which had been controlled by Mr. Khodos, have been dissolved. Rabbi Wilfond observed that Mr. Khodos had manipulated each of the groups for his own purposes, “looking for an air of authenticity or credibility with a respectable group”. He added that Mr. Khodos’ intentions in appropriating a Jewish communal leadership role appeared to be similar to those of Vadim Rabinovich.

Rabbi Wilfond will be succeeded in Kyiv by Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny (formerly Beliatsev), a 48-year old recent graduate of the Leo Baeck Institute, the WUPJ-affiliated rabbinic seminary in London. A native of Kyiv, Rabbi Dukhovny had been one of the founders of the Hatikvah congregation and had previously worked for the Joint Distribution Committee and for Intourist.23 Some discussion ensued about the appropriateness of Rabbi Dukhovny’s lifestyle for a rabbinic role in the post-Soviet successor states and about the evaluation process used by WUPJ in selecting citizens of the post-Soviet states for rabbinic training. Rabbi Wilfond noted that another newly-ordained post-Soviet rabbi had worked in Ukraine for about six months before terminating her agreement with the World Union and emigrating to Canada. A better assessment process would have detected her lack of suitability for congregational and community work before she had embarked upon the costly Leo Baeck course, he said.

5. The Jewish Gymnasium (School #299) enrolls about 425 pupils in three different buildings: a preschool and lower school for both boys and girls in one facility, and a middle/high school in separate buildings for boys and for girls. Operating under the supervision of Rabbi Bleich, the school curriculum includes daily instruction in Hebrew and two daily class periods in Jewish tradition.

6. The Simcha day school is operated by Tsirei Chabad, the Chabad group identified with Rabbi Yosif Aronov of Israel. Enrolling 92 youngsters at the time of its establishment in 1992, it now has 80 children in four pre-school classes and 355 pupils in grades one through eight. According to school Principal Igor Hilemsky, Simcha intends to add grades nine through eleven, the final three grades in Soviet/post-Soviet schools, in the near future.

The preschool and grades one through four meet in a former preschool building in a new area of Kyiv. The building is filled to capacity. It appeared exceptionally neat and clean, and its hallways were tastefully decorated with art by pupils and a variety of professionally prepared materials about Israel.

The middle school classes, which the writer did not visit, are held in a section of a public school. Mr. Hilemsky indicated that such an arrangement was unsatisfactory and that both pupils and teachers were eager to move into a recently completed new middle/high school that is housed within half of another former preschool building located in the same general neighborhood as the preschool/lower school. (Simcha would like to renovate and use the second half of the building as well, but lacks the funds to do so.)

Although the school year was due to end about two weeks after the writer’s visit, Mr. Hilemsky hoped to move into the new building before the start of summer vacation. A computer classroom was furnished with modern computer desks, but had no computers due to a funding shortfall.24 Until the school is able to install computers, said Mr. Hilemsky, it will teach “computer theory” one period each week to pupils in the middle and upper grades. Mr. Hilemsky added that the school lacks not only a computer laboratory, but also other types of technical and electronic equipment necessary for contemporary education.

According to Mr. Hilemsky and a visiting associate of Rabbi Aronov in Israel, the school has two Israeli teachers as well as three young women from a Chabad seminary in Israel as assistant teachers of Jewish subjects. Pupils have four hours of Judaic studies each week, including both Hebrew language and Jewish history and culture. It is hoped that the total number of Judaic studies class periods will be increased to six in 1999-2000.25 One room in the preschool/lower school building is designated for religious studies and contains attractive displays of various Judaica, such as Shabbat candlesticks, and wall mountings explaining rituals and holidays. The school appears to be strongly Zionist in its orientation.

The Simcha school operates an eight-hour day, a schedule that is very attractive to parents. Three meals are served to all pupils each day, and four leased buses transport youngsters between their homes and the school buildings. The relationship between the school and Rabbi Aronov in Israel limits its appeal to other potential sponsors, either individual or institutional, local or international.

20. An oblast (область) is an administrative region in Ukraine (and Russia) with authority between that of a county and a state in the United States. Ukraine contains 26 oblasts, two of which are cities with oblast status; these are the capital city of Kyiv and the military district/seaport of Sevastopol. Kyiv oblast refers to territory around Kyiv, not the city itself. (Crimea has the status of a republic within Ukraine.)
21. See Betsy Gidwitz, Post-Soviet Jewry: The Critical Issues (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 1999), pp. 23-24, and note 8 on pp. 64-65.
22. The writer informed Rabbi Wilfond of recent developments in the Khodos situation in Kharkiv, having been in that city during the previous week. See pp. 62-64.
23Dukhovny (духовный) means “spiritual” in Russian. One of Rabbi Dukhovny’s ancestors is said to have been named Dukhovny, a not uncommon Slavic Jewish surname.
24. According to Ehud Balser, First Secretary at the Embassy of Israel in Kyiv, the Simcha school will receive computers through ORT in autumn 1999 or in 2000. See below.
25. Most schools in the Chabad Or Avner network have at least eight hours of Judaic studies weekly, four of which are in Hebrew language instruction and the other four in Jewish tradition and Jewish history or culture. The Simcha school is not associated with Or Avner.

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