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Around the Jewish World: Ukraine Orphanages Offer Refuge for Jewish Children

Two Jewish homes for children have opened in an attempt to confront a dire social situation in the former Soviet Union.

A new facility, which opened last week in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, is providing a home for 35 Jewish girls, aged 10 to 16, from Ukraine and Russia.

The orphanage, known as the Esther and William Benenson Home for Girls, was organized by Tzivos Hashem, an affiliate of the Lubavitch movement that works with children.

A corresponding home for boys, housed in a temporary facility since last fall, will move to a new location in Dnepropetrovsk after renovation work at the site is completed.

Each facility will house 50 children, who will stay until they are old enough to look after themselves.

Dnepropetrovsk, located in southeastern Ukraine, has a total population of 1.2 million and close to 100,000 Jews.

Rabbi Benjamin Brackman, director of Tzivos Hashem in the former Soviet Union, says the two homes are sorely needed.

"The need for a Jewish facility for these children has never been greater," he says. "Every day the situation gets worse. We must get them off the streets and out of the state-run homes."

He adds that the need for Jewish children’s shelters is far greater than what the two orphanages can provide.

"Unfortunately, we could fill up two, three orphanages in Russia because of the type of circumstances that we’re in."

Since the fall of communism six years ago, children in the former Soviet Union have suffered greatly as the region undergoes convulsive economic changes, experts say.

These changes have affected children because the standard of living has fallen significantly, says Tatyna Vorozhtsova of Russia’s Federal Committee for Youth Affairs.

"Parents are now forced to pay more attention to earning a living and less to raising children," she said.

According to one expert with the Russian Parliament, there are now more than 4 million homeless children in Russia — more than after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and ensuing civil war devastated much of the country.

According to UNICEF estimates, more than 60 percent of Russian families with children under the age of 7 are living in poverty.

Food, particularly meat, is scarce, and poor nutrition has left both children and adults susceptible to disease.

Moreover, alcoholism and domestic abuse are on the rise, tearing apart many families.

Not all of the children in state orphanages have lost their parents. As a result of the region’s dire economic and social climate, many children were abandoned to state care.

There are now some 81,000 children living in orphanages across the former Soviet Union.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky, chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, says that Jewish families are generally faring better than non-Jewish families in the former Soviet Union.

"But there are many serious cases we have to take care of," he adds.

The Jewish girls’ home in Dnepropetrovsk is located in a converted mansion. The mansion’s owner decided that his palatial home would attract anti-Semitic attention to himself and that it could be put to better use as a children’s home.

The Jewish boys’ home will be housed in the former synagogue of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, father of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Before World War II, Levi Yitzchok Schneerson served as Dnepropetrovsk’s chief rabbi until he was removed from the post by the Communist authorities and sent into exile.

The Communist government subsequently confiscated the synagogue and converted it into a clothing factory.

The Ukrainian government recently returned the synagogue to the local community, and the building is now being renovated.

"The situation of these Jewish children in our orphanage reflects the increasingly tragic condition of children across the former Soviet Union," says Kaminetzky.

Jewish children are referred to the two homes in Dnepropetrovsk by Jewish community activists and Lubavitch emissaries throughout the former Soviet Union.

One mother brought her son to the orphanage to keep him out of his alcoholic father’s reach.

Kaminetzky tells of a 12-year-old girl recently taken to the orphanage because her mother is a drug addict and could not care for her.

Jewish children currently in state-run homes are facing a threat to their very heritage.

Because the understaffed and underfunded state orphanages welcome any foreign visitors or potential donors, American and European missionaries are allowed to visit the orphanages, shower the children with toys and candy, and encourage them — especially the Jewish ones — to convert to Christianity.

Some state orphanages are under the patronage of the Russian Orthodox Church.

One Jewish girl was recently taken from a state-run orphanage in Dnepropetrovsk to the new Jewish home on the eve of her planned baptism.

The two Jewish homes in Dnepropetrovsk have a minimum- age requirement.

Says Kaminetzky, "Sadly, in the meantime, we cannot take children under the age of 10 because of the special care the younger children require."

Children from the two orphanages attend a nearby Jewish day school run by the Lubavitch movement.

"We want to give the children not only family warmth but also a good Jewish education," Kaminetzky says.

The Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk now boasts the largest Jewish day school in Eastern Europe — it has more than 700 students — as well as a number of other religious and social institutions.

In addition to the day school, a yeshiva, a teachers’ seminary, two kindergartens, soup kitchens and a youth club have been established during the past six years.

Despite this communal boom, Jews are emigrating from the area to Israel, United States and Germany in significant numbers because of economic and social instability and because of the anti-Semitism that has a long history in Ukraine.

Kaminetzky says that about 100 students from the Jewish day school have left Ukraine during the past year.

He hopes that most of the children who have found a home in the orphanages will go to Israel when they grow up.

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