Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

Mr. Yitzhaki said that most of the regional offices are inadequately staffed due to budgetary constraints. Further, there are no national directors for education, student activities, or aliyah. A veteran officer of the Israeli Defense Forces, Mr. Yitzhaki said that he is “a general without colonels”. He thinks that he should visit each of the seven main offices on a monthly basis, but such a schedule would be impossible to maintain. However, he tries to spend each Shabbat in a different city.36

Aliyah has decreased in the past year, said Mr. Yitzhaki, mainly because 75 percent of the total emigres from smaller towns are going to Germany. The majority of these individuals are older people attracted by generous German housing and pension benefits. The Selah, Chalom, and Na’aleh programs37 all are doing well, he said, but would be even more successful if JAFI would be permitted to advertise them. Ukrainian concern over emigration of its young people had led to government prohibitions against certain types of publicity for these programs.

Individuals in the Embassy of Israel predict that aliyah will increase during the summer months, as usual, but Mr. Yitzhaki is wary of such a prediction. The momentum in smaller cities is toward Germany and trends may continue in that direction. Another problem facing potential olim is the difficulty in the current economic environment of selling their apartments for a good price. The money gained from such a sale would be used by most as a down payment on an apartment in Israel.

The Na’aleh program remains a question mark as Ukraine has shown no inclination to renew it when the relevant agreement between the two countries expires on June 16. It is likely that 35 percent to 45 percent of those who completed the entrance exams for Na’aleh will be admitted. These youngsters need to know by the end of June whether or not they have been accepted because they will want to make plans to go to Israel or, alternatively, to explore other options for completing high school. He fears that Ukrainian authorities will delay signing the agreement for several months and then will capitulate and issue visas after school has started in September; by that time, many of the teens will have made other arrangements and will drop out of the program. Ukrainian authorities may then say that interest in Na’aleh has diminished and seek to cancel the program.

JAFI is now facing three or four lawsuits because overzealous officials at the Israel Ministry of the Interior, which is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, have refused to issue visas to some academically qualified youngsters, saying that they are insufficiently Jewish. In fact, each is Jewish according to the Law of Return. Families of such teens are suing the Jewish Agency for breach of contract; in Odessa, a family is trying to recover $500,000 from Sochnut in such a case. These lawsuits have received wide publicity in the press, which has reflected very badly on JAFI and on Israel and aliyah in general.

Most of those who fail the entrance exams for Na’aleh do so because a psychological assessment suggests that they are insufficiently independent to leave their families for such a long period. Many become very bitter and “turned off” about aliyah and Israel. JAFI and other Israeli bodies should develop alternative programs that would meet the needs of these youngsters.

Mr. Yitzhaki acknowledged that Chalom and Selah may address the maturity factor in that they are intended for more mature young people, i.e., for those who already have finished high school. Sixty to seventy percent of those who take qualifying examinations are successful in gaining entrance to these programs. It is likely that 450 to 500 young Ukrainian Jews will enroll in Chalom or Selah this year.

The First Home in the Homeland aliyah program, in which younger families live on a kibbutz for one year while attending ulpan and working on the kibbutz, is so successful that two to three times more places on kibbutzim are needed. Aliyah 2000, in which individuals are recruited for specific jobs with specific housing arrangements, has slowed down for some reorganization. It is now training olim for positions that have greater career opportunities.

JAFI will offer fewer places in summer camps in 1999 than in 1998 due to budgetary constraints. Whereas they had hoped to enroll 5,300 Ukrainian young people in 25 different camp sessions, it is likely that they will enroll 3300 youth in 19 sessions (10 sites) and 680 university students in seven sessions (six sites). Funding from some sponsors, especially Netzer (World Union for Progressive Judaism youth movement), is uncertain. Further, the Israeli government which now operates Na’aleh, insisted that the qualifying exams for Na’aleh be given in camp settings. Because JAFI actually administers the tests, it had to take money from its camp budget to pay for the Na’aleh camps. The government has promised to reimburse JAFI for the expense, but has yet to do so. Each camp session will last eight days.

Mr. Yitzhaki believes that summer camps for university students are less effective than those for adolescents because very few college students will disrupt their post-secondary education in mid-course to move to Israel. However, adolescents are more likely to transfer from a local high school to a secondary school program in Israel.

Mr. Yitzhaki hopes to consolidate many Kyiv JAFI activities into one downtown center, rather than operate three different ulpan sites as it now does. The Kyiv urban transportation system, especially the underground Metro, can transport people from all over the city with ease. A single center will accommodate all levels of ulpan instruction, professional ulpans (ulpans targeting specific professional groups and sometimes including computer instruction), youth and student clubs, and aliyah counselors. A smaller staff and less equipment will be required if all programs operate from one site.

Jewish day schools are a major factor in encouraging aliyah, said Mr. Yitzhaki, because almost all have Israeli teachers, use Israeli materials, and celebrate Israeli holidays. About 10,000 Jewish children in Ukraine attend Jewish day schools. JAFI enjoys good relations with almost all rabbis in Ukraine, Mr. Yitzhaki said, because most are Zionists. The only ones who are non-Zionists are Rabbi Mordechai Bold in Lviv and Rabbi Yitzhak Lifshitz in Simferopol.

In response to a question about the most pressing JAFI needs in Ukraine, Mr. Yitzhaki said that the greatest need was for two more aliyah emissaries, one in Kyiv and the other in Donetsk. Second, JAFI needs more staff generally, particularly in positions that can improve coordination between Kyiv and the various regional offices. Third, summer camp funding should be increased. Fourth, JAFI should replace its three Kyiv ulpans and two offices with one consolidated downtown central service facility.

Mr. Yitzhaki was asked to comment on recent JAFI problems in Kharkiv and Odessa. Following is a summary of his remarks, with additional information gathered in Kharkiv and in Jerusalem. The JAFI Department of Aliyah and Klitah invited 30 to 40 Jewish scientists from various points in Ukraine to explore the possibility of aliyah. Some of the scientists had advanced knowledge in areas that require security clearance, especially in missile systems. Some were unemployed, reflecting cutbacks in research laboratories and defense production following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of economic turmoil in the post-Soviet states. Three seminars were scheduled -- in Odessa, Kharkiv, and in Israel. Amos Lahat, Acting Director of the JAFI Department for the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, advised his colleagues in Aliyah and Klitah against proceeding with such a program, warning that it would be provocative and would anger Ukrainian security forces. Mr. Lahat’s admonition was ignored, and the seminar series began. Noach Nadler, the JAFI head of mission in Odessa, was declared persona non grata and was expelled from Ukraine. After negotiations between Israel and Ukraine, Grigory Masezhnik, the JAFI head of mission in Kharkiv, was permitted to leave Ukraine without being expelled in a formal sense.38 It appears that all of the scientists have been interviewed by the SBU, Ukraine’s successor to the KGB.

15. The writer attended a meeting on restitution of Jewish property in Ukraine that was convened for the purpose of expressing Jewish communal concern to Ambassador Henry L. Clarke, Senior Advisor for Property Restitution, Bureau of European Affairs, the Department of State. Representing the Jewish community were: Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine; Iosif Zissels, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine; and Genrikh Filvarov, Director of the Institute of Urban Planning in Kyiv and also Chairman of the Confederation Committee on the Preservation of the Jewish Heritage (Комитет Сохранения Еврейского Наследия). Ambassador Clarke had spent the previous two days in Lviv and elsewhere in western Ukraine, accompanied by Bryant Trick, a political officer at the Embassy of the United States in Ukraine.39

Mr. Clarke stated that, as a matter of United States policy, he had asked the Ministry of Religion in Ukraine to effect the restitution of all confiscated property of religious bodies to the respective religious communities. However, said Mr. Clarke, the Ministry appears to think that it knows best about which properties should be returned [and that all properties need not be returned].

Mr. Filvarov reported that as many as 2,000 buildings that had been confiscated from Jewish groups during the Soviet period remained standing in Ukraine. Of these, more than 450 had been identified and their origins well-documented. Most were in Kyiv and in western Ukraine (especially in Lviv, Chernovtsy, and the Carpathian Mountains area). Several of these structures were very important in Jewish history. Among the buildings are former synagogues and prayer halls, Jewish schools, Jewish hospitals and orphans’ homes, and Jewish theaters. Additionally, many Jewish cemeteries are no longer accessible to the Jewish community; most require significant restoration.

Mr. Zissels said that perhaps 15,000 Jewish community buildings in western Ukraine had been destroyed during World War II. It is understood, he continued, that these structures cannot be re-built and returned to the Jewish community; however, the community has a legitimate interest in the land on which these buildings stood. The restitution issue is very complex for several reasons. Some of the existing community buildings, particularly former synagogues and hospitals, have been “privatized” already and have been turned into small factories. Some Jewish buildings in western Ukraine have been taken over by other religious and ethnic groups, such as one or another Ukrainian church, Poles, or Germans. The Ukrainian government has imposed a moratorium on privatizing additional social, cultural, and religious structures, but has not demanded the return of already privatized buildings to their original owners. Further, when Jews or others request the return of a building now used by others, the group that will be displaced from the structure demands compensation, which the Jewish community cannot afford.

36. Mr. Yitzhaki’s family remains in Israel while he is in Ukraine.
37. Selah attracts young people wishing to attend university in Israel, Chalom is for young adults interested in vocational training in Israel, and Na’aleh enables adolescents to finish high school in Israel.
38. Mr. Masezhnik subsequently was appointed JAFI emissary in Ekaterinburg, Russia, and the then JAFI emissary in Ekaterinburg, Miron Lahat, replaced Mr. Masezhnik in Kharkiv. See pp. 71-72. Observers have pointed out that relations between Ukraine and Israel have been strained due to the failure of Israel to post an ambassador to Ukraine for an entire year after Ambassador Zvi Magen became Ambassador to Russia in 1998. Further, five ministers in the Netanyahu cabinet separately canceled planned visits to Ukraine within a short timeframe.
39. Mr. Trick had fallen ill and could not attend the meeting.

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