Jewish Leaders Meet At Ukrainian Forum

by Baila Olidort - KIEV, UKRAINE

September 28, 2004

On a listing of Jewish population centers, Ukraine comes in fifth at 400,000. So the quality of life for the country’s sizable Jewish population is a matter of interest and concern to its Jewish leadership. It was also at the heart of a conference: The Forum of Jewish Communities of Ukraine that opened on Sunday.

Organized by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, the largest Jewish organization in the country representing 173 communities and some 40 rabbis, the two-day conference attracted an estimated 4,000 members and leaders of Jewish communities from 200 cities in Ukraine.

With some 160 Talmud Torahs (Sunday Schools), 30 Jewish Day Schools, 95 preschools and three Jewish universities in the region, it is no surprise that Jewish education was high on the agenda. Among the workshops and sessions that covered every aspect of Jewish communal life were many devoted to enlarging and enhancing the quality of Jewish education in the region: Teacher certification, recruiting Jewish children into the Jewish educational system, helping children negotiate the messages of Jewish values that they receive at school with an absence of these values in the home, were some of the issues explored at these seminars.

Proposed legislation to combat anti-Semitism was another. According to Rabbi Mayer Stambler, director of the FJC in Ukraine, "Anti-Semitism is a serious concern in this region, and the initiatives considered at the Forum will be brought to the Ukrainian Parliament with the hopes of introducing new laws against anti-Semitism."

Arriving at the National Palace Ukraina in Kiev—the country’s largest concert hall, the 4,000 guests were treated to an exhibition of the growth of Jewish communal life in the region. With exhibits by numerous individual Jewish communities tracing their respective developments over the last 15 years, "visitors gained a perspective of the magnitude and liveliness of Jewish community life in Ukraine," says Rabbi Stambler.

Indeed, according to Rabbi Avraham Wolff, Chabad representative to Odessa, "there are numerous tiny cities with no more than a handful of Jews in the region. For lay leaders and Jewish residents of these cities to see that they are a part of something so dynamic and large was simply inspiring and uplifiting." A press conference addressed many questions by various Ukrainian media agencies attending the conference.

Inspirational performances by Jewish children's choirs and Klezmer groups from various Ukrainian Jewish communities performed, along with a line-up of popular Jewish singers kicked off the event. In terms of numbers alone, the event was inspiring to the participants. "There has never been an event of this nature--of this many Jews coming together in Ukraine before," says Rabbi Stambler.

Congratulatory messages from Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich applauding the Jewish contribution to life in Ukraine were read by Ukraine's Minister of Culture.

A cocktail recpetion followed the concert, where representatives and philanthropists of the 173 communitied had a chance to exchange greetings with Mr. Lev Leviev, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities, and Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Finance Minister, among others.

"Developments in Jewish communities have proven that it is not only possible to revive Jewish life in Ukraine, but that it can actually thrive, developing successfully thanks to the support of local philanthropists and on the strength of community members' efforts," said Mr. Leviev.

The former Israeli Prime Minister recalled conversations he had with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, reminding the audience that the Rebbe himself was born in Ukraine and was responsible for keeping Jewish life alive here even when communism made it dangerous to do so, and subsequently, by sending his Shluchim to rebuild Jewish life after the fall of communism.

Fifteen years ago, the Rebbe sent his first official representative to the region, following the fall of communism. Since then, Chabad has been penetrating every backwater in the region to reach every Jew possible. "There isn't a Jewish woman or girl we know of, in Ukraine who didn't receive Shabbos candles before Rosh Hashana," says Rabbi Wolff, pointing out that the same is true with Chabad's distribution of matzah for Passover, and Chanukah menorahs before Chanukah. "We are determined to discover every Jew and involve them in the vitality of Jewish life that is now available to them in Ukraine."

One of the challenges, according to Rabbi Stambler, is reaching those Jews between 40-55, a particularly tough demographic. "Many in this age are comfortably settled, content with life as it is--and are not searching for spiritual fulfillment," explains Rabbi Stambler. How to penetrate this demographic as well was another issue explored at the Forum.

Within the next week or two, says Stambler, the results of the workshops will be studied, and steps will be taken to follow up on the proposals. "We anticipate the next 15 years of Jewish communal development here to grow both qualitatively and quantitatively, to exceed even that of the last 15 years."

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