Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

The development of a Jewish studies center would fill a critical need in Ukraine. Although some associated with International Solomon University had hoped that it might develop the capacity for advanced work in academic Judaic studies, the profit-making goals of its management have precluded evolution into a serious graduate institution. The Vaad-related Center for Jewish Education in Ukraine (a teacher-training institution) and the Institute for Jewish Studies (a research institution) are in serious difficulty due to organizational and funding problems.

11. The writer was unable to confer with Vladimir Glozman, the director of the Joint Distribution Committee in Kyiv, because he was out of town. JDC operates a welfare program and hesed (Hesed Avot) in Kyiv and is preparing to open a Jewish community center in a rented facility in the city.

12. Ahava is a registered non-profit organization concerned with the welfare of Jewish families and children in distress. It is an outgrowth of Chava, a women’s club at the Shekavitskaya street synagogue founded in 1992 at the suggestion of Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich. Initially, the club was led by an Israeli woman then living in Kyiv; it consisted mainly of educational programs related to Jewish holidays. After the Israeli woman returned to Israel, local women at the synagogue were unable to continue the educational focus on their own. Instead, realizing that many women in their midst were single parents trying to raise children in a collapsing Ukrainian economy and that existing Jewish welfare efforts concentrated on the dire situation of many elderly Jews, they formed Ahava (in Hebrew, love) to work with Jewish families and children suffering from various problems.

Now seven years old, Ahava tries to purchase food and clothing for such children and provide various activities for them. It currently aids 307 youngsters up to the age of 18, and believes that many more Jewish families require some assistance. With the exception of a single Jewish father responsible for his three children and 18 orphans living with Jewish grandparents, almost all of the family units now served by Ahava are headed by Jewish women without spouses. (One woman has five children, several others have four youngsters.) The children include 46 or 47 youngsters classified as “invalids”; most have Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Such families turn to Ahava for assistance after reading about it in the Jewish newspaper Водрождение-91 (Revival-91), hearing about it by word of mouth, or receiving a referral from Hesed Avot, the JDC welfare program that concentrates on elderly Jews.

According to Maya Zaitseva, a leader in Ahava, many of the single mothers lack qualifications for well-paying employment. Another problem is that Ukrainian schools are not obligated to accept handicapped children. Few schools are accessible to physically handicapped youngsters, and no service exists to transport such children between home and school.

The Ukrainian Vaad has helped Ahava in organizing summer camps for some of the youngsters or in sending children to existing camps, but such efforts are very expensive. Even transportation to camp can be too costly for many families or for Ahava. Further, few camps in Ukraine are accessible to handicapped youngsters.

Ahava is dependent on a several foreign organizations for assistance. A Canadian Christian group called Mir (in Russian, either Peace or World) has provided some funding and a French Protestant group sends some clothing and shoes. Several Jewish groups in Britain also have provided assistance. Rabbi Bleich supplies matza at Pesach and has been helpful in organizing excursions to points of Jewish interest in Kyiv. JDC makes promises (обещания) to help, but does not actually offer any assistance.

In response to a question about the priority needs of Ahava, Ms. Zaitseva said that the greatest need was for its own meeting place (which, obviously, must be accessible to handicapped individuals). Second, a computer would be helpful for record-keeping, organizational work, and Internet access to potential donors. Third, Ahava always needs food (or cash to pay for food) to help needy families. Some children served by Ahava are very hungry. Many of the mothers work, but do not earn enough to feed their families adequately; other mothers have been laid off due to the poor economy. Fourth, Ahava always needs clothing for the children.

Expanding on her comments about priorities, Ms. Zaitseva said that her dream (мечта) is to create a Center for the Jewish Family, which would include easily accessible Jewish education facilities, space for a variety of health and recreational programs, and a kitchen and dining room for hot meals. Perhaps such a center could also train mothers in a marketable skill, such as computer use, and also could teach adults how to be good parents, especially how to work with their handicapped children.

Local people do not seem to understand the concept of tzedakah,35 lamented Ms. Zaitseva. She added that Ahava trains the children in their programs about tzedakah, often giving them money so that they can decide how to make their own contributions.

In response to a question about Ahava assistance to families after children have reached the age of 18, Ms. Zaitseva said that the organization is unable to do very much. They would like to help families pay for tuition at post-secondary school institutions, but they cannot afford to do so. They do try to persuade Hesed Avot to send food parcels to needy non-elderly families.

13. Ehud Balsar is First Secretary at the Embassy of Israel in Ukraine and head of Nativ (formerly Lishkat Hakesher) in Ukraine. Nativ is an Israeli government entity within the Office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel concerned with Jews in the post-Soviet states.

Mr. Balsar believes that fewer than 300,000 Jews remain in Ukraine, but acknowledges that some local Jews assert that the Ukrainian Jewish population exceeds 600,000. The Jewish population is declining rapidly, he said, losing more than 40,000 people every year due to a low birth rate, high death rate, and continuing emigration. The large mass of Jews in eastern Ukraine wants to leave the country as do those Jews who live in Crimea.

Between 22,000 and 24,000 Ukrainian Jews emigrate to Israel every year, said Mr. Balsar. About 8,000 Jews go to Germany annually, and another 2,000 to 4,000 leave for the United States, Australia, Canada, or other countries. “And, of course, people die,” he continued. In 1996, 1,248 Jews died in Kyiv, but only 119 Jews were born in the Ukrainian capital. The demographic decline is so severe that Mr. Balsar questions the wisdom of making major capital improvements to some Jewish communal structures.

Through its Tsofia program, the Israeli Ministry of Education pays the costs of about 40 Israeli instructors teaching Jewish subjects in 12 Ukrainian Jewish day schools. Another four day schools will be accredited by next year. One of the few Ukrainian Jewish day schools that is not accredited by the Ministry of Education is School #41 in Chernovtsy. When asked if its lack of accreditation is due to its association with Midreshet Yerushalayim, the Russian outreach department of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, an institution of the Conservative (Masorti) movement in Israel, Mr. Balsar responded, “Probably”.

The Ministry also is supporting about 70 Jewish Sunday schools in Ukraine. It is likely that some will close before the next academic year, said Mr. Balsar, because both pupils and teachers are emigrating.

In response to a question, Mr. Balsar said that antisemitism causes few problems in Ukraine, although the situation is worse in western Ukraine. President Kuchma has many contacts in the Jewish community; Rabbi Yaakov Bleich has access to him. Antisemitism is much more severe in Russia, said Mr. Balsar, echoing a widely held view. Mr. Balsar said that he has felt very comfortable in Ukraine.

One of the responsibilities of Nativ is issuing Israeli visas to those who are making aliyah. In 1998, the Israeli government gave authority to the three Nativ offices outside Kyiv (Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa) to issue visas to Jews in those regions, rather than require all future olim to come to Kyiv. The new policy had alleviated almost unbearable pressure at the Embassy in Kyiv and had also eased the emigration process for Jews as they could now obtain visas at the Nativ office closest to their homes. (Nativ installations usually are called Israel Cultural Centers.) Mr. Balsar interviewed prospective olim for visas several days each week, often working with individuals whose Jewish ancestry (and, therefore, eligibility for aliyah) was difficult to prove. Sometimes multiple appointments were required as applicants were sent to various government offices to obtain documentation about their forebears.

The Israel Culture Center is located on the fifth floor of the Embassy of Israel in Kyiv. It includes a large hall, classroom, library, computer room with six computers, and several offices. The Center sponsors a variety of programs, including ulpans enrolling 500 people in various parts of Kyiv, computer training for people enrolled in ulpans, and clubs for Jewish children and young adults.

14. The Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut) office in Kyiv is headed by Eli Yitzhaki, a veteran Sochnut professional. Mr. Yitzhaki explained that the JAFI mission in Ukraine maintains major offices in Kyiv and in three other cities -- Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa -- and smaller offices in Lviv, Simferopol, and Kishinev (Moldova). Each of these offices, which is directed by an Israeli and has an Israeli core staff, is responsible for between eight and 25 smaller JAFI representations in a region, each headed by a local person. Some of these representations, which total 98, have their own offices, but many are operated from the apartments of the local director.

Under budgetary pressure, the Israeli shaliach (emissary) was withdrawn from Donetsk several years ago and replaced with a local individual. The Donetsk office is supervised by the shaliach in Dnipropetrovsk. Mr, Yitzhaki believes that Donetsk should have its own shaliach because it is generating 1,700 olim every year and, given the depressed economic conditions in the area, could do even better. He will place a shaliach in Donetsk by September, but, to do so, he will need to reduce Israeli staff in the Odessa office by one person.

35Tzedakah means ‘just behavior’ in Hebrew. The concept of tzedakah refers to an obligation to meet the needs of those who are unable to meet their own needs. Ms. Zaitsova, who is in the insurance business, contributes her own funds to Ahava, but cannot provide the entire budget for the organization.

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