Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

Mr. Zissels continued that local Jewish communities do not have sufficient means to restore buildings that might be returned, and acknowledged that different Jewish groups within a Jewish population center may be unable to agree upon the use of returned buildings. Mr. Zissels also expressed strong criticism of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which, he charged, was demanding so much that it is an impediment to resolution of property issues. Further, it was the policy of WJRO that all recovered property and funds be placed in a central “bank” and then distributed, primarily to Shoah survivors and various organizations that provide services to survivors. Mr. Zissels believes that local communities should receive a significant share of recovered assets for use by all segments of the current Jewish population.40

Discussion ensued on a number of these and other topics.


16. Dnipropetrovsk (formerly Ekaterinoslav, in honor of Catherine the Great) is the third largest city in Ukraine, following Kyiv and Kharkiv; its current population is about 1.1 million. It was a closed city until mid-1990 due to its extensive military industry, particularly Yuzmash, an enormous installation manufacturing intercontinental ballistic missiles, booster rockets, and related products. The Dnipropetrovsk area currently is experiencing severe economic distress.

Jews have lived in the area, part of the old Pale of Settlement, since the late eighteenth century. By 1897, the Jewish population of Ekaterinoslav had reached 41,240, more than one-third of the entire city at that time. Pogroms occurred in 1881, 1882, and 1905; the last was the most devastating, killing 67 and wounding more than 100 people. Prior to the consolidation of Soviet authority in the 1920s, the Jewish community was highly organized, maintaining a diverse network of Jewish religious, educational, and cultural institutions. It was an important center of both Zionism and the Chabad movement. A small Karaite community had its own prayer house.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, many Dnipropetrovsk Jews were evacuated from the city as essential workers in defense factories that were hastily moved further east. Nazi forces occupied the city from August 1941 until October 1943. Approximately 11,000 Jews were killed at Zhendarmskaya balka, a gully in an area then considered on the outskirts of town, on October 13, 1941. Perhaps 20,000 more were murdered at other sites.

The current Jewish population is thought to be between 40,000 and 46,000 according to halacha, i.e., matrilineal descent, and perhaps as high as 60,000 according to the Israeli Law of Return. It is the fourth largest Jewish population center in the post-Soviet successor states (after Moscow, Kyiv, and St. Petersburg). Dnipropetrovsk is the regional hub for a number of other Jewish population centers, the largest of which are Krivoi Rog (about 10,000 Jews) to the west, Zaporizhya (about 12,000 Jews) to the south, and Dniprodzerzhinsk (about 1,500) to the north. Economic pressure is stimulating significant Jewish emigration, most of which is to Israel.

However, emigration and a declining birth rate are offset to a limited extent by Jewish in-migration from smaller cities in the region, including Dniprodzerzhinsk and Novomoskovsk. Additionally, about 50 Georgian Jews have settled in Dnipropetrovsk, and perhaps more than one hundred families have returned to the city from Israel. (Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the chief rabbi of the city, estimates that 30 to 40 pupils in the day school have spent some time in Israeli schools.) Some Jews from outside the city who attend local universities decide to remain in Dnipropetrovsk.

17. Historically, Dnipropetrovsk has played a prominent role in Ukrainian national and former Soviet politics. Its best known Soviet political figure was Leonid Brezhnev, a native of Dniprodzerzhinsk who began his career as a Communist Party apparatchik in Dnipropetrovsk before earning a position in Moscow. He brought many of his Dnipropetrovsk comrades with him to Moscow; collectively, they were known as the “Dnipropetrovsk mafia”. The critical role of the city continues in the post-Soviet era as both the President and the Prime Minister of Ukraine are from Dnipropetrovsk. Leonid Kuchma, a former director of Yuzmash, is now President, and Valery Pustovoitenko, a previous mayor of the city, is now Prime Minister. In April 1999, the then major, Nikolai Shvets, was appointed governor of Dnipropetrovsk oblast by President Kuchma. It is widely believed that President Kuchma wanted to secure the loyalty of Shvets, who is known for his independence, prior to Ukrainian Presidential elections in October 1999.

Several nationally important Jewish businessmen also are from Dnipropetrovsk. Viktor Pinchuk, Gennady Bogolubov, and Igor Kolomoisky are active in the Jewish community.

18. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk, remains the central Jewish figure in eastern Ukraine and one of the most respected rabbis in all of the post-Soviet transition states. Politically astute and perhaps the first rabbi in the successor states to be successful in major local fundraising, he has built an unequalled network of local Jewish institutions. Rabbi Kaminezki was born in Israel and is a Chabad Lubavich hasid.

In response to a question, Rabbi Kaminezki said that the most important developments in the Jewish community since the writer’s last visit in April 1998 are the following: (1) increased aliyah, due to economic distress in the region; (2) establishment of a formal Jewish communal structure; (3) a “huge renaissance” (огромное возрождение) in “Yiddishkeit”, i.e., more religious circumcisions, traditional weddings, and Bar Mitzvahs; (4) beginning of renovation of the Golden Rose choral synagogue; and (5) establishment of a new Jewish cemetery. (Most of these developments will be discussed below.)

Regarding the economy, Rabbi Kaminezki said economic conditions remain the major factor in generating aliyah. Growth of a middle class, which he defined as people earning about $1,000 monthly, is now stalled at perhaps 20 percent of the population. The middle class, which includes many Jews, consists mainly of owners of small businesses, such as shops, restaurants, and garages. Many of these enterprises are in difficulty because fewer people can afford their services. However, some individuals who have become wealthy are supporting local cultural institutions and thus enriching the life of the city. The writer attended an evening of chamber music by the New Chamber Orchestra of Dnipropetrovsk, one such beneficiary, which included works by Tomaso Albinoni, Johann Sebastian Bach, Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Mozart selection was his Requiem, presented in observance of the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. The benefactor of the New Chamber Orchestra is Viktor Pinchuk.

18. Antisemitism, provoked by economic turmoil and the need by some people to find a scapegoat for their economic distress, is increasing in Dnipropetrovsk, said Rabbi Kaminezki. The appearance of local supporters of Russian National Unity (Русское национальное единство), known by its Russian initials, RNE), a neo-Nazi group, is a secondary, but troubling factor. About 20 people affiliated with RNE and attired in Nazi-like regalia have held demonstrations in a central park. Many Jews are concerned.

19. Rabbi Kaminezki has invested a major portion of his time during the past year to strengthening the foundations of the local Jewish community. Under his guidance, local Jews formed the Philanthropic Fund of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Community (Благотворительный фонд Днепропетровского еврейского общины) in October 1998. The Board of Trustees (Попечительский совет) of the Philanthropic Fund includes 45 local Jews, and a Presidium of nine individuals is responsible for day-to-day oversight. Gennady Bogolubov is President of the organization and chairs its Welfare Committee, which oversees the work of its Welfare Department and works closely with JDC. The Treasurer is Igor Kolomoisky, who also chairs its Mass Media Committee.41

Other departments (or направления, сферы деятельностей) are: Education; Sports and Physical Culture; Culture; Religion; and Regional Activity. Each is supervised by a committee chaired by a Presidium member. The Education department, which is the main priority of the Fund and has the largest budget, oversees the day school, pre-school, heder, yeshiva, Beit Chana Jewish Women’s Pedagogical Institute, and the popular Jewish university. Each department is headed by a paid professional staff member.

Rabbi Kaminezki observed that, initially, few members of the Board understood the meaning of “involvement” or “leadership”. However, after some months and many meetings, they are beginning to embrace their responsibilities. They are thinking communally and developing a keen interest in all matters related to their respective portfolios.

Forty individuals have agreed to contribute specific sums of money to the Fund on a monthly basis. These gifts total $35,000 to $40,000 each month ($420,000 to $560,000 annually). Three individuals each contribute monthly gifts of $5,000. Allocations to specific departments and institutions are made in full consideration of other funding sources, such as Or Avner (the Chabad umbrella organization), the Joint Distribution Committee, the Israeli government, the Pincus Fund and Jewish Agency, and individual donors outside Dnipropetrovsk. Most of the institutional donors now transmit allocations to local institutions through the Philanthropic Fund. Pledge payments by local individuals are made by bank transfer or in cash.

Vyacheslav (Slavik) Brez is the Executive Director of the Fund. He indicated during a discussion that he perceives his major responsibility as monitoring cash flow. Other paid staff of the central Fund include the chief fund raiser (who also supervises reconstruction of the Golden Rose synagogue; see below) and a bookkeeper. Rabbi Kaminezki also receives a salary from the Fund.

It appears that three factors motivated organization of the Fund: (1) a need to introduce order and routine into a Jewish community with a growing number of communal institutions; (2) a need to secure adequate financial resources to support Jewish communal institutions and endeavors; and (3) interaction with the Jewish federation (Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston) in Dnipropetrovsk’s sister city and the desire to establish a comparable institution. Other Jewish communities in the region are aware of the Philanthropic Fund in Dnipropetrovsk and send representatives to Fund Board meetings to observe procedures. These communities include Zaporizhya, Donetsk, and Lugansk.

40. WJRO has proposed that 55 percent of recovered resources be distributed to Shoah survivors, 25 percent to survivor support groups, and 20 percent to educational and commemorative programs. Mr. Zissels’ views are common among Jews in the countries in which the Holocaust occurred.
41. The Department of Mass Media oversees (1) a community press center, and (2) the production and/or distribution of four Jewish periodicals and a weekly television program. It also monitors the local and regional press.

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