Monday, July 26, 1999

Visit to Ukraine

The struggle for Soviet Jewry as we knew it ended years ago. The exodus of more than one-million Jews, mainly to Israel and this country, eliminated the need to march and protest, to demand the release of prisoners of conscience. Our militancy had paid off, in one of the great success stories of contemporary Jewish life.

Another Jewish struggle is now being waged in the former Soviet Union. Because it does not take place on Fifth Avenue or in public view but in unfamiliar distant places, we hear far less about this story than we heard about Natan Sharansky and the refuseniks. Once more, however, what is at stake is Jewish survival.

I learned about some of this struggle in a recent visit to Ukraine, a land steeped in Jewish history and in Jewish blood, where an estimated 500,000 Jews continue to live. In Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk I saw how people of extraordinary commitment are rebuilding meaningful Jewish life in a race against time to reverse more than two generations of extreme Communist repression of everything that was Jewish.

What I saw is only a part of an heroic picture. In Kharkov, through the valiant efforts of the Orthodox Union and its visionary former president, Shimon Kwestel, and others, a vibrant community has emerged. To one extent or another this is true throughout the FSU in all places where Jews live in significant numbers. Schools have been opened and shuls restored. There are children’s homes, programs for the elderly, food for the poor, community centers – in short, the framework for Jewish communal life. The Jerusalem Post has estimated that there are perhaps 400 Jewish organizations and institutions in Ukraine alone.

All told, there may be more Jews now in the FSU than the number that had been estimated twenty years ago when Jews were first allowed to leave. This is because of what might be called the Madeline Albright syndrome. During the terrible Stalinist years, many Jews suppressed their identity because they believed that it could result only in ill for them and their families. Many tens of thousands of their children were never told of their heritage.

Whatever the number of Jews remaining in the FSU, it is certain to decline, as age and assimilation exact an irreversible toll. Emigration, especially to Israel, remains a factor, as among the young who benefit from the newly established Jewish activities, there is a strong inclination to live in the Jewish State.

This outcome and much of the beneficial activity to assist Russian Jews result in large measure from the role played by the Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Agency. They have committed funds and personnel, working with Chabad and the mainly Orthodox groups that are leading this new struggle for Russian Jews. This was evident in Dnepropetrovsk, where Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky of Chabad has created an impressive infrastructure of Jewish life.

JDC’s cooperation with the Orthodox is predicated on the simple calculation that if it wants to accomplish its goals in the FSU, it needs to work with the groups that are in the field. Neither ideology or theology come into consideration. As a result of the good relations that have developed, immense benefits have come to Jews living in the FSU, as well as to world Jewry.

This apparently is not good enough for the Reform movement. Eager as always to rain on any Orthodox parade, Reform leaders have demanded that JDC terminate support for programs directed by Rabbi Yaakov Bleich of Kiev, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine. This eruption, the latest in an endless series of anti-Orthodox rhetoric and advocacy, was a response to Rabbi Bleich’s position that Jewish communal property in Ukraine should not be given to the Reform movement which never owned any of it.

Still a young man, Rabbi Bleich went to Kiev nearly a decade ago on behalf of the Karlin-Stolin chassidic group which has its roots in the area. Small in number and with quite limited financial resources, these chassidim have sacrificed much as they have built a revived Jewish community in the city of slaughter, in the city where Babi Yar is located.

Rabbi Bleich is an heroic figure. He is intelligent and he knows that he cannot go it alone. He has established good relations with the non-Orthodox and in his own activities and rulings he has shown understanding and tolerance. Truth to tell, his activities are sorely underfunded. The buildings that house the schools are desperately in need of repair and there is much more that he could accomplish if he had additional support. As it is, he relies on volunteers, primarily from the U.S., who come as counselors for his camps and to work in other programs.

This pattern of Orthodox volunteerism is evident throughout the FSU. Young Orthodox men and women of commitment forego financial gain and physical comfort as they embrace the opportunity to serve Jews in far-off places.

There is a message in this for the Reform, if they could wean themselves away from the great temptation to take potshots at the Orthodox from their places of comfort and prosperity. Rabbi Bleich cannot prevent the Reform from coming to Ukraine and establishing its own projects. This is a movement that is a thousand times more affluent than the Orthodox and, we are told, three to four times more numerous. We are being told that its young people are imbued with a new sense of Jewish commitment.

Let some of these people go to Ukraine and elsewhere in the FSU. Let them set up schools and camps, tend to the elderly and feed the poor. No one could stop them or would try to. Likely, such activities would attract JDC and Jewish Agency support.

This has not happened and isn’t likely to because the Reform movement is bereft of a sense of sacrifice. Its leadership attacks the Orthodox, in some measure because there are those in the media who foolishly pay attention but primarily because that is the only option the movement has.

Jews in Ukraine and the FSU, overwhelmingly irreligious as they may be, respond to the loving kindness and giving spirit of the Orthodox because there has been so much hardship in their lives and they welcome the goodness that is being shown by people from the outside.

People respond to goodness, not to press releases issued thousands of miles away which have as their only message an attack on those who are doing good.