Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

Although the school loses many pupils every year to emigration, enrollment remains stable. School administrators say that the appeal of the school to parents is threefold: (1) its good teachers and strong academic reputation; (2) its assistance to families, including free school meals and uniforms for those in need; and (3) an increasing interest in Judaism among local Jews. For those families considering aliyah to Israel, instruction in Hebrew is a strong attraction.

Six youngsters with cerebral palsy have been integrated into regular classes, a significant accomplishment in a society that often fails to provide any educational opportunities for handicapped children. A small exercise room with various therapeutic equipment has been provided for their use; however, physical access to this facility is difficult and adequate supervision is lacking. Anna Yakovlevna Kaplunskaya, a school administrator with a background in special education, would like to open a boarding school to serve a broader range of Jewish “invalid children”, but it is unlikely that funds will be available for such a program.

A hesed club of about 85 older pupils volunteers to assist about 60 homebound elderly Jews and 50 handicapped Jewish children who cannot be accommodated in the day school. The pupils visit the seniors or children every week at their homes, often bringing food provided by JDC, personal care supplies, Jewish holiday items, toys or games for children, etc.

The Judaic curriculum has been strengthened by the employment of five Israeli teachers. Most pupils have eight class periods of Jewish studies each week, four in Hebrew language and four in Jewish tradition.

In response to a question, school administrators said that the greatest needs in the school are for various capital repairs and for updated equipment of all kinds, e.g., additional computers, microscopes for science classes, and musical instruments. The Philanthropic Fund of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Community has secured access for physical education classes to a stadium on adjacent property, thus alleviating pressure on inadequate gymnasium facilities in the second building on campus.

28. A heder and yeshiva day school in the second building enrolls 53 boys between the ages of three and 17. The largest single group of these pupils are youngsters from the boys’ home. (See below.) These boys study a dual curriculum of religious and general studies. The religious classes are taught by two qualified teachers and six yeshiva students from Israel.

Rabbi Kaminezki had hoped to start a more intensive course of Jewish studies for girls during the 1998-1999 school year, but could not obtain the necessary space in the third building to develop the program. It is likely that the program will be initiated at the beginning of the 1999-2000 school year.

29. The Beit Chana Jewish Women’s Pedagogical Institute is concluding its fourth year of operation, enrolling 106 older adolescent girls and young women from Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. Enrollment at the beginning of the academic year was 128, but some girls dropped out for academic or social reasons and others emigrated to Israel.

The initial goal of Beit Chana was to educate Russian-speaking Jewish young women in a tuition-free program of Judaism and pedagogy for the many teaching positions available in Jewish preschools and elementary schools throughout the successor states. It offers study concentrations in preschool education and elementary school education, both in secular and Jewish subjects. It added a concentration in music education in 1997-98 and is working toward inclusion of a special education major. Realizing that some girls are unable to manage the academic intensity of a dual curriculum of Judaic studies and education courses, Beit Chana is searching for a non-education concentration for less capable students. It would like to offer courses in secretarial work and office management and has turned to ORT for assistance in establishing such a program. However, ORT has been slow to respond and the problem has not yet been resolved.

During its first three years of operation, the program offered a four-year curriculum for girls entering after ninth grade (at age 15) and a two-year curriculum for girls entering after eleventh grade. However, after several years of experience, school administrators determined that the two-year curriculum provided an inadequate timeframe for the inculcation of Jewish values and Jewish knowledge. Beit Chana has since extended its two-year curriculum to include a third year.46

The Judaic studies program has been strengthened through an affiliation with Orot Women’s College in Israel. Teachers from Orot now teach at Beit Chana and, as part of their last year at Beit Chana, most students will spend four months (September through December) learning on the Orot campus. The September-December time period will allow observance of the Tishrei holidays in Israel.

According to Rabbi Meir Stambler, Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine,47 and Rabbi Moshe Weber, Director of Beit Chana, admission to Beit Chana now is competitive, with approximately 50 percent of applicants being admitted. Publicity about Beit Chana is distributed by Chabad rabbis, in Chabad schools and camps, and in Chabad and other Jewish publications. Beit Chana brochures also were distributed along with boxes of matza prior to Pesach.

Rabbi Weber stressed that each student at Beit Chana is an individual regarding five factors: knowledge of and attitude toward Judaism; level of general education; home life; social skills; and goals in life. Nearly all are “totally ignorant” of Judaism, and many come from smaller cities and towns in which the level of general education is very weak. Approximately 70 percent of Beit Chana students are from broken homes. The major attractions of Beit Chana to them and their families are: free tuition, accommodations, and meals; a wholesome atmosphere; and, for those from small towns, a guided way out of the stifling atmosphere of small towns. The specific Judaic components attract few of them, and Beit Chana administrators are under no illusions that all of the young women will remain religiously observant. However, Beit Chana will have provided them with an education, a sense of direction, and self-confidence.

In addition to tuition, accommodations, and meals, Beit Chana provides students with medical care, clothing, and other assistance. Some girls arrive at the school with only the clothing that they are wearing and only sandals or bedroom slippers in place of shoes. Some have no knowledge of basic hygiene.

Approximately 20 percent of the girls are not Jewish according to halakha. Conversions are arranged for them.

Beit Chana students do practice teaching in Dnipropetrovsk Jewish schools and work as counselors in the local Chabad summer camp. Participation in Dnipropetrovsk synagogue life is difficult because the dormitory building is too far away from the synagogue to permit students to walk to the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays.

The Beit Chana program is subsidized by the Israeli Ministry of Education and its credentials are recognized in both Ukraine and Israel. It is strongly Zionist in focus. After several years of teaching in Ukraine or elsewhere in the former Soviet states, local rabbis are expected to help graduates find positions in Israel.

30. A paraprofessional rabbinic training program was inaugurated in fall of 1998, enrolling 18 young male university graduates in a two-year fulltime course of Jewish studies. All of these individuals had been learning part-time during the past few years in a program designed for university students and were well-known to Rabbi Kaminezki and Rabbi Haim Ber Stambler.48 The fulltime program is designed to train paraprofessional rabbis for Jewish population centers that are too small to attract ordained rabbis, such as Krivoi Rog, Dniprodzerzhinsk, and Poltava. Graduates also will serve in outlying districts of Dnipropetrovsk, where Chabad may open as many as four small synagogues. Participants receive stipends of $120 each month while studying and will receive regular salaries while working. Candidates are required to sign contracts committing them to at least one year of service in a designated Jewish population center. Rabbis Kaminezki and Stambler anticipate that some will remain in the successor states for several years, but that all participants eventually will emigrate to Israel. It is possible that some will enter a yeshiva in Israel, but unlikely that all will do so.

Rabbi Kaminezki listed several advantages of training local people for such positions: their compensation will be much less than that required for rabbis hired from abroad; they will be respected locally for their strong educational backgrounds in secular studies; they understand the local population; and they are amenable to local conditions. Rabbi Stambler said that a similar program enrolling fewer young men already is operating in Donetsk and, eventually, should be operating in all of the larger Jewish population centers in the post-Soviet successor states.

31. Rabbi Kaminezki was the first rabbi in the successor states to establish residential facilities for Jewish children in distress. Initially, he rented apartments for them and employed appropriate adults as caregivers. In 1997, with the support of an American donor, Rabbi Kaminezki was able to open two purpose-built children’s homes, one for girls and one for boys.49

Initially, Rabbi Kaminezki decided to accept youngsters between the ages of ten and 17. However, circumstances have forced acceptance of children as young as five. Most had been living with a single parent unable to cope with the needs of active, growing children due to chronic health problems, mental instability, alcohol abuse, or narcotics addiction. Some had been living with grandparents, and perhaps 25 percent had no family caregivers.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki stands with the three youngest boys in the Dnipropetrovsk boys’ home. The boy in the center is seven years old; each of the other two youngsters is five years old.

46. It was noted that Ukrainian licensing authorities are having some difficulty with the concept of a three-year program because no other three-year program exists in the country. Therefore, it may be necessary to register the program as a two-year curriculum with a one-year internship (or a similarly creative appellation).
47. The Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine is the national organization for all Chabad representations in Ukraine, except those in Kyiv.
48. Rabbi Haim Ber Stambler is an uncle of Rabbi Meir Stambler. The former is responsible for local programs in intensive Jewish education.
49. The building for girls is a new structure. The boys’ home is in a remodeled former Chabad synagogue.

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