Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

20. Renovation of the Golden Rose Choral Synagogue has been delayed by difficulty in collecting pledge payments during the current economic crisis. In all, about $1.5 million is required to complete the job. One pledge of $200,000 from a partner of former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko probably is uncollectible.42

The choral synagogue, which was used as a warehouse by an adjacent clothing factory until recovered by the Jewish community in late 1996, contains a very large sanctuary. It will be used both for worship43 and as a community auditorium. A community center building under construction behind the synagogue will include various communal facilities, including offices, a computer training center, an office and meeting rooms for the local Hillel student group, and a dormitory.

21. The Beit Baruch Jewish Center, which includes the current small synagogue, may be converted into a service center specifically for Jewish elderly. Its kitchen and dining room already provide more than 200 JDC-subsidized hot meals to Jewish elderly every day. It hosts a number of other activities for seniors, including a choir, Yiddish Club, Torah study group, holiday celebrations, and a modest clinic.

The Beit Baruch choir includes veterans of the Great Patriotic War. An elderly woman (below) is among many who attend Victory Day celebrations.

The ninth of May is the date on which the Soviet Union and its successor states commemorate Victory Day, the triumph over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet/post-Soviet name for World War II. A choir of day school pupils presented a concert at the synagogue for Jewish war veterans. At its conclusion, the youngsters distributed gifts of personal care items to each person in attendance, and the synagogue delivered similar gifts to those too frail to attend the performance. Additionally, the synagogue gave $10 to each of the 150 known Jewish World War II veterans in the city.

Dr. Evgenia Cherkasskaya is the attending physician at the Beit Baruch clinic.44 She sees about 300 patients each month, keeping careful records and coordinating care with hospitals and other medical facilities. In the 45 years that she has been practicing medicine, she said, the situation has never been as bad as it is now. Hospitals are empty because few people can afford to use them; patients must bring their own linens, food, and medicine. Some hospitals will not admit anyone over the age of 55; others will admit people over 55 only if a geriatric specialist intervenes. Hospitals and specialized clinics limit the tests that they will do.

The local radiation level is very high due to radiation from the Chernobyl power station disaster and from the atomic power station in nearby Zaporizhya. Tests show that local sidewalks are radioactive and that local soil is full of settled strontium and beryllium. Automobiles abandoned during the evacuation of Chernobyl have been stripped and their radioactive parts are being sold in local markets.

The health conditions of many residents have been weakened by these and other environmental factors. Even children have cancers associated with Chernobyl, which is 300 kilometers away. Morale is very poor.

The largely elderly population that she sees in the clinic suffers from problems related to heart failure, high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, gastro-intestinal difficulties, and various cancers. She dispenses large quantities of aspirin and aspirin-substitutes, and always is in need of Procardia, Lotensin, insulin, Relafen, Gaviscon, Zantac, Cardura, and multivitamins. She is dependent upon Action for Post-Soviet Jewry in Boston for “99 percent” of the free medicine that she dispenses and that she manages to distribute to smaller cities in the region. In response to a question, Dr. Cherkasskaya said that she and her patients believe that insulin produced in the United States is more effective than any other insulin. When American insulin is unavailable, they purchase insulin from Switzerland or India; however, it is just as expensive as American insulin and less effective.

This elderly woman is one of many who utilizes Beit Baruch services.

Most elderly Jews using Beit Baruch receive monthly pensions worth $12 to $15, said Dr. Cherkasskaya. If they are veterans of World War II, they receive a supplement to the base pension. Few people can manage on such income, and they certainly cannot afford to purchase medicine. Former blue- and white-collar workers, teachers, and members of the intelligentsia are suffering more than others. One pharmacy in the city gives a discount of 25 percent to elderly people.

22. The Jewish community has recently acquired land for a new cemetery. It is a walled-off section of a larger general cemetery and fully compliant with Jewish law.

23. The Philanthropic Fund is negotiating acquisition of a building in the middle of the city at little or no cost. The structure would be used to accommodate a JDC-subsidized dining facility for 500 people and a second pre-school.

24. Rabbi Kaminezki and his colleagues had recently interviewed 103 candidates for conversion to Judaism. All are married to Jews and many wish to emigrate with their Jewish spouse to Israel. Conversion prior to resettlement in Israel will ease their absorption into Israeli society. Supervision of the conversion process and the conversion itself is directed by an Orthodox rabbi who works with Rabbi Bleich in Kyiv. The Kyiv-based rabbi will come to Dnipropetrovsk in the near future to complete the conversion process.

25. Rabbi Kaminezki spoke at some length about a discussion with Rabbi David Wilfond, the Reform rabbi in Kyiv, and about his own perspective on a potential Reform Jewish congregation in Dnipropetrovsk. (Rabbi Kaminezki is aware of exchanges between the writer and Chabad officials in Moscow regarding efforts by individuals associated with the Chabad movement to delegitimize Reform Judaism and to impugn the credentials of a prominent non-hasidic Orthodox rabbi in Russia.)

Rabbi Wilfond had contacted Rabbi Kaminezki to inform him that the World Union for Progressive Judaism intended to register a congregation in Dnipropetrovsk. The putative leader of the group was well known to Rabbi Kaminezki as he had been employed at the local hesed and was fired for stealing money from it. Rabbi Kaminezki informed Rabbi Wilfond of this individual’s background and suggested that WUPJ withdraw its support for him. The individual had complained to an official in the Ukrainian Ministry of Religion that Rabbi Kaminezki was “old-fashioned” and approached oblast religious authorities for permission to register a Reform congregation. However, in the end, the individual did not file registration forms because he was confronted by other local Jews who feared that the emergence of a WUPJ-affiliated group would divide the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community and would generate additional antisemitism in the city. The individual apparently has lost interest in forming a Progressive congregation.

Expanding on the subject, Rabbi Kaminezki said that he is “a liberal in his soul”. Pluralism already exists in the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community, he said, because both the JDC-related Jewish Community Center and the local Hillel student group observe Jewish tradition in a non-Orthodox manner. If individuals do not want to practice Judaism according to Chabad custom, they should participate in the Jewish programs of the JCC or Hillel.

The Jewish population in Dnipropetrovsk is united as one community, said Rabbi Kaminezki. As Chief Rabbi of the city, he does not want to work with competing congregations of Jews.

Rabbi Kaminezki continued that Dnipropetrovsk must be preserved for Chabad because of the sacrifices that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Schneerson made while serving in the city. (Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Schneerson, the father of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, served as rabbi of then-Ekaterinoslav from 1909 until imprisoned by the KGB in 1939 for operating Chabad activities against orders from Soviet authorities. He subsequently was sent into exile in Kazakhstan, where he died in 1944.)

Rabbi Kaminezki said that he has made no attempt to interfere with the organization of Progressive groups in two other cities in Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Zholtiye Vody and Kirovograd. He would even offer help to Reform groups elsewhere in the oblast because they can help people. He concluded his remarks by saying that, in his opinion, Reform Judaism is not Judaism, but is a new religion.

26. Rabbi Kaminezki sponsors a continuum of educational institutions from preschool through yeshiva and pedagogical college. A preschool enrolls 75 children between the ages of three and six. It is a full-day program and operates throughout the year, including summer. Parents pay 30 hryvna (about $7.50) for monthly tuition, including meals, which is less than charged at other preschools in the city. Nonetheless, the families of five children have requested subventions; four pay 10 hryvna each and one receives a full scholarship. The school quarters are very crowded.

27. The Jewish day school (School #144), the largest in the post-Soviet successor states, enrolls 720 pupils between the ages of seven and seventeen in separate classes for boys and girls. Although Rabbi Kaminezki once limited enrollment to children who were Jewish according to halacha, about 20 percent of the current enrollment consists of youngsters who are Jewish only by patrilineal descent.45 According to school administrators, the number of youngsters from single-parent and/or low-income homes has increased in recent years; about 70 percent are given free school meals, and 130 receive free school uniforms (which cost about $30).

42. Mr. Lazarenko fled Ukraine in early 1999 shortly before he was to be indicted for embezzlement and other misuse of government funds. Currently imprisoned in California, he is fighting extradition to Ukraine and to Switzerland.
43. The existing small synagogue cannot accommodate all who come to services on major holidays.
44. Supported by a small pension and a larger subsidy from a son who is a successful local businessman, Dr. Cherkasskaya works in the clinic as an unsalaried volunteer.
45. Encountering the reality of an intermarriage rate as high as 70 percent in some areas of the successor states, many Chabad institutions are now accepting students who are only partly Jewish.

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