Kiev to Israel

From Kiev, Ukraine, to Israel by Rabbi Michael Dolgin — February, 2013

Thursday, February 14, 2013

While it has taken me a number of days to summon the energy to describe the many days we packed into Sunday here in Israel, the people we met are still clear in my mind. We met them in places that tourists don’t normally go: Ashdod, Ashkelon (and to a lesser extent), Beer Sheva. We encountered people who have immigrated to Israel from different regions of the FSU and at different stages of life.

In Ashdod, Israel’s busiest port city, actually tied with Haifa, we met young doctors who have actually been recruited to come to Israel to respond to the doctor shortage there. Some are fresh out of school and others have professional experience. In six months, they learn to speak Hebrew (four months) and modern Hebrew medical terminology (two months). After only a few months of ulpan, we were able to have a conversation with most of them in Hebrew. Very impressive! Some have a long-time connection to Israel and their Judaism while others may have more tenuous ties that have evolved recently. Nevertheless, they seemed quite enthusiastic, even Vladimir, who practiced as a surgeon in St. Petersburg before coming to Israel. His wife is Jewish and he is not. He seems ready for Israel — I hope Israel is ready for him and his wife! Another woman poured out her heart to the group, sharing her pain of formally converting to Judaism, having had a father who was Jewish and a mother who was not. The state-controlled Orthodox Beit Din refused her four times. While she is now Jewish, the scars still remain. Synagogue and state can be a very dangerous combination!

In Ashkelon we visited with elderly Jews who have come from the FSU later in life, some without any family in Israel. They were taking a computer class so that they can be in touch with family in other cities in Israel or around the world. These simple moments help address the isolation they often live in. They are also matched up in groups of five or six to socialize, support one another, and in effect be family for one another. We have much to learn from this kind of community networking! Israel is second in the world with the highest percentage of seniors who live in private homes rather than facilities. Our donations through UJA Federation help make that happen.

In Beer Sheva we met with young people and their counselors, all of them from the southwestern region of the FSU: Georgia, Circassia, Azerbaijan, etc. Families came from those communities in the ‘70s and then again in the ‘90s. This community has had trouble adapting to Israel, to the degree that the name of their community has become a slang term for young, troubled adults. With the support of the Jewish agency and by helping one another, they are turning that around. We spoke to a young man who had dropped out of high school and was headed in a bad direction. Thanks to these youth centres in his neighbourhood, he is back in school and has goals he is aiming for! As we left, a young woman wanted to sing for our whole group. Did she sing a regional folk song? A new Israeli melody? No, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”! The tune was familiar. I hope the spirit will be! We could use more like her everywhere.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Shabbat in Israel—JFNA Rabbinic Cabinet

Shabbat in Jerusalem is always special. I know that sharing it with 31 other rabbis over Shabbat dinner would take things to a different level. However, I could not imagine that we would be joined at dinner by Yoseph Begun. Along with Natan Sharansky, he was among the best known refusniks in the late ‘80s, punished severely and extensively for his stated desire to escape the USSR for Israel. Having come only that morning from Ukraine, here was a living symbol of the survival of Jews beyond the Soviet times and of the difference made when Jews of North America would not sit quietly by while our brothers and sisters suffered. He described what he went through before he was allowed to make aliyah to Israel. Somehow, singing Hebrew Shabbat songs with him was part of the story. Kol HaOlam Kulo, Gesher Tzar M’od, v’ha’ikar lo lefached klal! The whole world is a narrow bridge. The heart of the matter is not to allow fear to overcome us! Those words will always have additional meaning when I sing them. I will remember how the Jews of the FSU did embody them and continue to live them.

At the end of Shabbat we heard from a panel of speakers about social change and religious pluralism in Israel. Even though the story is difficult, these are optimistic moments here in our homeland. We heard one of the two ultra-Orthodox members of the new Yesh Atid party speak about the reality of Haredi integration into Israeli society. He sees it coming in the next few years. Change is not easy, but many here believe that it is now possible. It is wonderful to feel that hopeful attitude even in challenging times!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Our last full day in Kiev was full indeed. We visited a number of local Jewish institutions, some more impressive than others. We visited the Great Choral Synagogue complex, made up of a synagogue, a community centre, a yeshiva, a school, a hotel and a matzah baking factory. We went to a Chabad school and shared in a community heritage program with teens housed within it. We drove by the newly purchased Reform Jewish congregational centre, which will have room for 450 people to share in services at one time, and met in the Conservative movement’s premises here in Kiev.

The leaders made more of an impression than the places. Rabbi Bleich of the Choral Synagogue has been in the community longest and has built an empire. He talked of community cooperation, but the tone and timing of his comments made me wonder. Rabbi Alex Duchovny of the Reform movement grew up in Kiev and has been here as a rabbi for some 14 years. He had much to say about his city and his community. Rabbi Reuben is a newly ordained Conservative rabbi, a native of Crimea, a southern autonomous region of Ukraine, and has been here a year. His fresh, eager approach to his planned initial tour of duty of three years in Kiev was inspiring.

However, the local young adults of Kiev will stay with me a very long time, much more so than the rest. In the evening, two colleagues and I went to Hillel, here a single centre that serves all university-age youth from one location. Fifteen young adults came to talk with three rabbis from different perspectives about the possible merits of marrying another Jewish person. We learned from each other. They are so different from our young adults and yet the discussion was so familiar. They are stepping forward to claim a Jewish identity that most of them have to fight for. Two new students signed up for their first Shabbat because they were interested in tonight’s topic but couldn’t come. Sometimes, we can make a difference in the lives of those we don’t even meet.

Today, my most profound lens was a 28-year-old leader (madricha) named Alena. She has been involved as a leader with the JDC (which supports the building of local community) for two years. She was with us in the morning at Babi Yar, the sight of the Nazi slaughter of Kiev’s Jews from the beginning of the occupation of this city that lasted from 1941-1943. I noticed her crying during our ceremony and asked her whether she had been here many times. She had, but somehow this moment was more emotional. She later told me that this moment with us was the first time that prayer has touched her so personally. Standing in the place where a Jewish community was extinguished, it was profound to see her experiencing the tradition that the Nazis were trying to destroy. Later, she told me her story. Her parents have been divorced since she was three years old. She lived with her mother, who was not Jewish. Three years ago, she found out by accident that her father is a Jew. She has been married for seven years. She didn’t share her new Jewish journey with her husband until this year. He was patiently waiting for her to be ready to discuss it with him. He has been supportive and has been exploring Judaism for himself.

I am still amazed by the kind of Jewish identity these young people are working to build with many fewer tools than we ourselves have at home in Canada. What support do we owe them? What does their example urge us to ask of ourselves?

Monday, February 11, 2013

On Wednesday in Kiev, we learned about the mission of Jewish organizations on the ground and then met the reality behind it. Amir ben Zvi runs the JDC programs that are funded by money from Federation campaigns. These efforts provide a safety net to an aging and exposed Jewish community in a country with no such social programs. The first of the two missions of the JDC here is to support the seniors of the community and to help families in impossible situations. The second effort, to rebuild a local Jewish community, is the subject of tomorrow’s program.

In the morning, Amir and a few colleagues and I visited Nenil. She is an older woman with only a sister for support. She lives in a communal apartment. That means that she lives in a room that is half the size of my office in the synagogue. She shares a washroom and a kitchen with 4-6 other such “apartments”. She had stroke six years ago and is afraid to go down the stairs from her fourth floor living space for fear that she will not be well enough to come back up. She has not been outside of building since her stroke. Without the twelve hours of personal support from JDC, she could not continue. This time includes someone shopping for her with the food subsidy card she receives from us (indirectly, but truly!). She worked in a factory for her earlier years and receives a disability pension of $120 a month. While we were there, her heating bill arrived that was $30 this month. The poverty is equal in severity to the loneliness. We may have relieved it for a moment with our visit and our prayers for her sister who has been too sick to visit her for the last three weeks.

In the afternoon, we visited Katya and her 11 year old daughter Ivanna. Katya is a single mother and Ivanna has cerebral palsy (CP). Ivanna is confined to a wheelchair and is non-verbal. She was clearly aware that guests had arrived and has a bright face. We sang a few songs for her as a break from their small apartment and television. Katya has to be home as much as she can to help her daughter. Katya’s mother has an important job in nuclear energy. This allows her to provide some economic support to her family but leaves little time for visits. While Katya has a better wheelchair to take Ivanna outside, she cannot do it alone. There is an elevator in the building, but there are a few short steps at the front door. She could get a ramp put in, but must collect signatures in favour of the change from 90% of her neighbours. They probably would not help, but she lacks the time and effort to ask them.

It was not an easy day. It was sad yet rewarding to visit these homes and see the work of the JDC. Harder even than the visits themselves was becoming aware that, of the 11,000 needy Jews/Jewish families in Kiev, available resources only allow for monthly support of 6500. The rest get contact once or twice a year. Our local representatives do amazing work in impossible circumstances. Certainly we can provide them more tools to perform these powerful mitzvot!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Shabbat shalom to all in Toronto! I look forward to sharing the rest of my experience in Kiev with you. Our days have been too full to include time to finish writing out the moments I have experienced here. I will share those thoughts at the beginning of the week from our homeland!

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

When we arrived in Kiev on Tuesday, we did some touring in the afternoon. We had dinner in the only kosher restaurant here and then were addressed by two speakers. I say “were addressed” because most of us had trouble listening much through the jetlag. What came through was the challenge of Jewish life in Kiev.

There are approximately 65,000 Jews in Kiev. Before World War II, there were more like 400,000. While I may not have the numbers exactly right, the contrast is bigger than the numbers. Before Hitler and Stalin, this was a major Jewish centre with an active, rich Jewish life. Now, generations later, it consists of younger people admirably striving to recapture their tradition and older women. This country lost an entire generation of men to the fight against Hitler. The Jewish community losses were multiplied as those who were not murdered by the Nazis died fighting them. What remains is a needy population of Jews without cultural memory or communal structure to support them.

Thanks to the good work of the JDC and JAFI, supported by donations collected by UJA Federation, this is a “post-assimilationist” community. A local community is beginning to grow again that will have its own identity and leaders. Those who would likely have drifted away from Jewish history have begun to reclaim their heritage in seniors day programs, Jewish schools and summer camps, synagogues and cultural programs. This miracle is in progress, but only about 25% of the needs here are being met.

Tomorrow I will describe what it is like to meet members of the local community and see their plight and their potential.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

From February 4 to 13, I have the privilege of participating with the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America on a mission to Kiev and Israel. In both places, we are learning about the Jewish individuals and communities of the former Soviet Union. We will meet those who remained in Kiev and those who made aliyah to Israel. Surprisingly, the learning began in New York at JFK airport.

There, I met a group of 36 rabbinic colleagues from across the Jewish spectrum. I knew immediately that the issues we would consider together would be larger than a particular movement or philosophy. This was confirmed before we left for Kiev when we heard from Dr. Misha Galperin, whose book on Jewish Peoplehood we studied two years ago between Pesach and Shavuot. Dr. Galperin is in charge of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s International Development efforts. In short, the funds that are gathered through UJA Federation that go anywhere in the world but Israel and our local institutions reflect his guidance. He spoke personally of how he immigrated to New York from Kiev (indirectly) and how the Agency helped him. He described the incredible challenges of helping each and every Jew remaining in Ukraine and the FSA even though they are scattered over thousands of locations. I was struck when he mentioned in passing that 52% of the Jews in the world now live in five major urban centres, three in Israel and two in the U.S.

We in Toronto are among the other 48%; however, we are really part of the almost 80% of Jews who live in cities and have access to community, institutions, schools, professionals, resources. If we are not able to help those Jews who are isolated and especially those who have been victimized by the great, anti-Semitic criminals of the 20th century, what does that say about us? Those Jews who survived yet live in the shadows of Hitler and Stalin. Supporting them and helping them learn, survive and thrive in all of their locations is a modern Jewish moral imperative.

Even these abstract ideas really hit home with me. Their power has been conveyed much more personally by my experiences here in Kiev. I will begin to share those in my next notes.