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Behind the Headlines: from Shtetl to Struggling Community: Ukrainian Jews Reach out to Each Other

Once thriving Jewish shtetls, small towns outside of Kiev today encompass some 3,000 Jews who are in the midst of rediscovering the Jewish life that they lost.

In Ukrainian towns such as Korsun-Shev-chenkovsky, Periaslav-Khmelnitsky, Boguslav, Zvinigorodka, Shpola, Zolotonoshe, Smela and Pollonoye, religious and cultural life was devastated during World War II and then repressed during the Soviet era.

But now, even as many emigrate to Israel, Jewish life is once again reviving in what is now the independent country of Ukraine.

As part of this revival, 10 Jewish community groups in the area have created a regional association, which held its first-ever conference last month in preparation for the Jewish new year.

The participants included 17 activists, many of them elderly.

“We organized the association because we are small and we are only going to become smaller,” explained the association’s executive director Klara Petrovshanksy, who oversees a new Jewish library here.

“But we have to be together,” she said, adding theirs are small towns with their “own special problems.”

“Ten years ago, it was forbidden to even think about this; they wanted us to assimilate. Only in 1989, when (former Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev came to power and the Jews had permission to go to Israel did Jewish life begin to revive,” she said.

‘MANY JEWS AFRAID TO COME OUT’

Korsun-Shevchenkovsky’s Jewish community, which was a catalyst for establishing the regional association, received a special push from Sallie Gratch, a Chicagoan who visited the town a few years ago and suggested a communal Rosh Hashanah celebration.

“Many Jews were afraid to come out, someone even proposed that we invite the police,” recalled Petrovshansky. “But the event was a success. We sang and danced, and afterwards the young people asked me when will we have the next celebration.”

From this event an organized community began to develop nand reach out to surrounding towns, which in turn created their own organizations and eventually set up the Regional Association of Jewish Communities of Small Towns in Ukraine.

Their premiere conference took place in Korsun’s youth center last month inside a large, airless room dominated by a larger-than-life white plaster status of Lenin. Lenins’s right arm was outstretched in what could be interpreted as a welcoming gesture toward the twin flags of Israel and Ukraine standing nearby.

Reporting on their recent activities, many representatives spoke of cemetery restoration projects, new monuments to the Holocaust, holiday celebrations, assistance to the elderly and the creation of new Jewish Sunday schools and Hebrew classes.

Delegates spoke of their common problems in developing Jewish communal organizations when so many people are leaving for Israel. They also spoke of the difficulty of restoring Jewish traditions in towns lacking rabbis, synagogues and people conversant in Jewish rituals.

This last complaint was met with practical advice when two young women, who recently received Jewish training in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, rose and described in great detail Jewish holiday traditions, including suggestions on how to turn classrooms and community centers into sites for Jewish celebration.

Two representatives from the Ukraine office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which sponsored the event, attended the conference.

The JDC representatives asked for lists of people who would require food packages for the holidays. After handing out a book describing Jewish holidays, they brought forth a shofar, which was handed around the room, examined with great interest and then blown.

The squeaky, shrill noise that echoed around the room inspired laughs, cheers and a boisterous round of clapping.

After the conference, the participants retired to a Ukrainian inn for a celebratory banquet accompanied by music from a local Jewish musical group.

At the inn, some of the activists described their lives in the smaller towns of Ukraine. Many said they were having a hard time getting by, noting that they were either unemployed, on forced “vacations” from non-working factories or earning tiny state salaries of less than $30 a month.

“My salary is not even enough for a dress,” said Rima Rob, 25, who works as a music teacher and whose husband is an unemployed shoemaker.

“The situation is so difficult in all industry in Ukraine, and especially in small towns,” added Petrovshanksy, whose husband is a senior official in a factory where only half the workers are needed — and even they haven’t received pay for three months.

She inclined her head toward the Jewish music and dancing filling the banquet room.

“This,” she said, “is the only place in our hard lives to feel joy.”

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