Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

7. School #128, which the writer visited in 1998, is the third Jewish day school in Kyiv. Operated by Nativ and the Israeli Ministry of Education, it shares a building with a secular school on the left bank of the Dnipr River. Each of the two schools enrolls about 300 pupils.26

A second Israeli-government school will open in Kyiv in September 1999. A building has been secured for a full gymnasium, which, Israeli government officials believe, has the potential to attract 300 to 400 pupils.27 Officially, both the new school and the Jewish section of School #128 will continue to operate because they are in different areas of the city, but some observers expect that the Jewish section of School #128 will be absorbed by the new school because the existing mixed school arrangement is awkward.

8. Yad Yisroel, the Karliner-Stoliner support organization for its programs in the post-Soviet states, operates a boarding school for boys in Kyiv, in addition to its day schools in Kyiv (#299) and Lviv. Currently in its second year, the program enrolls 42 boys under the overall supervision of Rabbi Moshe Fima, a native of England. Inna Yoffe, a local woman, is the deputy head with specific responsibility for the dormitory.

All of the boys are from Ukraine, most from unstable homes. The majority are from Kyiv and small Jewish population centers in central and western Ukraine, the areas in which the Karliner-Stoliner presence is strongest.28 Some of the youngsters are so troubled or have attended such inferior schools in the past that they are two years behind appropriate grade levels.

Anticipating such conditions, the residential program was designed to have its own school with very small classes, rather than enroll youngsters in School #299. Classes are held in a building adjacent to the Shekavitskaya street synagogue, and include five class periods every day in secular subjects, two in Jewish tradition, and one in Hebrew. The secular program employs 14 local teachers and the Judaic curriculum employs four instructors, two from Israel and two from Ukraine. On Sundays, the boys are taken to School #299 for computer studies and classes in physical education. Tours to places of Jewish interest in Ukraine are included in the program.

It is expected that all boys in the program will continue their post-secondary education at institutions in Israel, Britain, the United States, or Canada with which the Karliner-Stoliner movement has ties. Parents are informed of this expectation when boys enroll in the boarding school and are consulted about the destinations of their sons. It is unlikely that any of the boys will remain in Ukraine as adults. Most of the seven boys in the 1999 graduating class, the first in the two-year history of the program, will go to Israel. Some are entering Machon Lev/Jerusalem College of Technology and others are enrolling in preparatory year courses for entrance into Israeli universities.

The program will expand in fall 1999 to serve 98 boys between the ages of 10 and 17. They will be accommodated in a large former pre-school building remodeled to include housing arrangements (in rooms with three or four beds) on its second floor and classrooms and other activity space on its ground floor. Rabbi Fima anticipates no problems in recruiting enough boys for the program. A similar program for girls will open in part of the building used for the preschool and lower grades of School #299. The program receives funding from several individual donors and from World Jewish Relief (London).

9. The Hillel Jewish student organization established a unit in Kyiv in 1994. The writer met with its director Yosif Akselrod and his two associates, Sasha Koifman and Yulia Belitovskaya, at Kyiv Hillel, a ground floor apartment consisting of a meeting room, a publications center, and several small offices. These premises serve as headquarters for Hillel throughout Ukraine (including other groups in Lviv, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odessa) and Belarus and as a base for Kyiv Hillel activities. Because the meeting occurred on a public holiday, no Hillel members were using the facility at the time.

Mr. Akselrod said that Kyiv Hillel has 200 members, 60 to 70 of whom are activists. It is the largest youth organization in Ukraine. The Hillel unit is an outgrowth of a group originally called Aviv, which was a student club at International Solomon University29 in Kyiv. According to Mr. Akselrod, about 75 percent of Hillel members are students at ISU; the remaining Hillel members are enrolled at six or seven other post-secondary institutions, including Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, a finance institution, a physical education institute, and other state and private colleges.

Kyiv Hillel has four goals, said Mr. Akselrod. The first is to create conditions for a Jewish renaissance. Hillel should help Jewish students return to their Jewish roots. It includes families in its programming, such as holding a seder for Hillel student families and organizing a Hillel family camp this summer.30 Second, Hillel prepares future leaders for the Jewish community. Five former Hillel members are now employed by JDC, and Hillel professionals Mr. Koifman and Ms. Belitovskaya are former Hillel activists. Third, Hillel teaches students to care for others in the Jewish community. Hillel members work with Hesed Avot (the JDC-sponsored Kyiv Jewish welfare center) in several program areas, such as leading Shabbat observances in the hesed and in “warm homes”,31 holiday celebrations, home visits to homebound sick and elderly Jews, and delivery of JDC food parcels to needy Jewish elderly. Fourth, Hillel provides Jewish students with many opportunities to spend their free time in Jewish surroundings, thus encouraging a strong Jewish identity and combating assimilation.

Kyiv Hillel offers a number of specific programs. Its Hebrew Club, which had two members last year, now has 18 to 20 regular participants. The Israel Cultural Center (attached to the Embassy of Israel) provides a teacher without cost, who is an excellent instructor. Another educational program is “English tea”, a weekly session for members who wish to practice their English language skills. Hillel holds both traditional and non-traditional Shabbat activities, and also sponsors a “Shabbat-on-wheels” program in which students celebrate Shabbat with elderly Jews in their own apartments. Hillel members make three-day visits to small Jewish population centers in which they observe Shabbat with local Jews by leading Shabbat services, directing Jewish youth activities, visiting Jewish elderly, and conducting havdala rituals. Hillel organized student Rosh Hashana services at the synagogue of Rabbi Bleich; 100 young people attended these observances, and another 500 students participated in informal Rosh Hashana activities.

The 1999 Pesach project with American students from Hebrew University (Jerusalem) involved 50 Kyiv Hillel members. The mixed teams of American and Ukrainian Jewish students held seders for 3,700 people in 31 cities, including 50 seders in “warm homes” and 40 mini-seders for house-bound seniors in their own apartments.

Kyiv Hillel produces its own newspaper and sponsors a vocal ensemble of eight girls. The ensemble has a repertoire in Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and English, and has given many performances. A Hillel drama group has a professional director and is beginning to perform throughout Ukraine for participants in local heseds. Hillel sponsors various intellectual contests on Jewish themes and operates its own Internet website. Hillel also offers monthly lectures by Jewish speakers, which are presented in a talk-show format and held in local restaurants.

Mr. Akselrod said that the Hillel process enables student members to feel empowered and responsible. Kyiv Hillel holds a reception every fall to welcome new students and invites members to create their own programs. They would like to start a family club so as to involve students’ families in an organized manner.

Speaking of Hillel operations throughout Ukraine, Mr. Akselrod said that a conference of all Hillel directors in the country would be held shortly. He added that Hillel intended to invite Vadim Rabinovich of United Jewish Community of Ukraine to attend these meetings. When questioned whether an invitation to Mr. Rabinovich was wise in view of international Jewish opposition to Mr. Rabinovich’s participation in Jewish communal activity, Mr. Akselrod responded that Hillel should work with all Jewish communities in Ukraine. He commented that Mr. Rabinovich had not yet provided any funding to the Hillel organization in Ukraine or in Kyiv.

Addressing the Hillel aspect of the Chicago-Kyiv sister-city relationship, Mr. Akselrod said the Kyiv Hillel would like to develop strong ties with Illinois Hillel. It would be possible, he said, for some Kyiv Hillel members to host Illinois Hilllel students in their homes. He hopes that the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago will be able to extend some financial assistance to Kyiv Hillel, just as the Boston Jewish federation had helped the new Hillel group in Dnipropetrovsk.32 Mr. Akselrod expressed disappointment that an article about Kyiv Hillel that had been sent to Illinois Hillel was not printed in any Illinois Hillel publication. He said that many Jewish young people lived in both Kyiv and Odessa and that he foresees a “great future” for Jewish young people in these areas.

10. Rabbi Yaakov Bleich has been contacted recently by representatives of the Israeli government about the possibility of opening a Jewish studies center in cooperation with a prestigious Ukrainian university, such as Kyiv Shevchenko University or Kyiv Mohilansky Academy (KMA). An institution of this type would be similar in structure to the Center for Jewish Studies and Civilization in Moscow, a joint venture between Hebrew University and Moscow State University (along with the indigenous Jewish University of Moscow).33 The benefits to Hebrew University and the State of Israel of such an arrangement are: (1) access to Jewish resources in Ukraine34 ; (2) academic positions for young Russian-speaking Israeli faculty; (3) potential influence in Ukrainian Jewish studies; and (4) enhanced relations between Israel and Ukraine. For Ukrainian institutions, the primary gains from the relationship would be: (1) funding resources for study and research; (2) access to models for institutional organization; and (3) association with recognized scholars and institutions.

26. See Betsy Gidwitz, Visit to Jewish Communities in Ukraine and Moldova, April 1-30, 1998, pp. 8-9.
27. Interview with Ehud Balser. See below.
28. Three additional residential programs for Jewish children exist in Ukraine. Homes for about 70 boys and girls are operated by Chabad in Dnipropetrovsk (see below) and by Ohr Somayach in Odessa. The former tends to draw children from eastern Ukraine, although youngsters are referred to it by Chabad emissaries in other parts of Ukraine and in Russia. The majority of Ohr Somayach children are from Odessa and southern Ukraine. A smaller program for about 12 youngsters is operated in Korosten. A Kharkiv-based boarding school supported by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America is less focused on accommodating youngsters from unstable home situations.
29. International Solomon University is a for-profit business venture enrolling about 1,200 students. Although often described as a Jewish university, it enrolls a very large proportion of non-Jewish students.
30. Typically, many more post-Soviet students attend post-secondary institutions in their home cities than is the case in the United States. Thus, inclusion of student families in Hillel programming should be easier in the successor states than it might be in the U.S. Mr. Akselrod observed that parents were very proud of the roles of their children in leading the seder.
31. A “warm home” is a private apartment in which a specific group of elderly Jews meets on a regular basis for a meal and socializing.
32. Through the International Center of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the Boston Jewish federation (Combined Jewish Philanthropies) has provided $5,000 to Dnipropetrovsk Hillel for Pesach seminars and for transportation and other expenses of one Dnipropetrovsk Hillel student leader to attend the 1999 Hillel Leaders Assembly in the United States.
33. The Moscow Center, which is of recent origin, is planning divisions of: Jewish languages and literature; Jewish history; and Israeli society, government, and economics. It also will relate to the Moscow State University Center for Classical Hebrew and Biblical Studies and have ties with an institution preparing professionals in Jewish communal service.
34. Extensive archival material regarding Jewish history is believed to exist in Kyiv, Lviv, Odessa, and several other cities, but is not being explored in a systematic manner.

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