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Locals build JCC in Ukraine

NIKOLAEV, Ukraine, Nov. 15 (JTA) — JCCs aren’t usually considered architectural gems. But the new JCC in this Black Sea port is an impressive structure for a city that hasn’t seen much new construction since the fall of the USSR more than a decade ago. “Now we have a home of our own, no more renting space on the side,” said Yefim Itin, a 72-year-old retiree, echoing the pride that one could see on the faces of those members of the 7,000-strong Jewish community that gathered Nov. 9 for the building’s official opening. The center’s three-story building features a contemporary design and interiors not usually seen in this region. The 5,400-square-foot center includes a Jewish museum, library, classrooms, a computer class, drawing room and a social hall for meetings and holiday celebrations. “The opening of a Jewish center is an important event both for the Jewish community and for the city of Nikolaev,” said Vladislav Pronin, head of the department for national minorities and migration with the Nikolaev Region State Administration. Most of the facility’s cost was covered by local donors — the Goldenbergs of Nikolaev; the Hersonskys of Kiev; the Maksimovs, immigrants to Israel from Nikolaev; and the family of Selwyn Forman of Britain, which has roots in Ukraine. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped with the final push. In addition to obtaining most of the funds from the local community, which is still seldom seen in Jewish projects anywhere outside of the bigger cities of the former Soviet Union, one of the most important features of the new construction was the significant role of volunteers. From the nicely finished stairway to the photographs on the wall that trace the history of this building from an empty construction site covered with industrial waste, the input of community volunteers at ever step of the way is evident. “We cleaned up the rooms; we plastered and papered the walls,” said Polina Rysker, a local Jewish activist. Galina Romanenko, a fellow member of the community, echoed her: “We simply washed all the floors. It is what we do at home. So we volunteered to do it here, and now this is our home.” The idea of the center is the brainchild of Misha Goldenberg, head of the Nikolaev Jewish Culture Society, who four years ago first saw the need for a single address that could unite his community, whose constituents range from secular Jews to the fervently Orthodox to Reform Jews. But Goldenberg said credit should be divided between him and an American, Martin Horwitz. Horwitz, director of the Jewish Community Development Fund in Russia and Ukraine, a project of the American Jewish World Service, was instrumental in supporting the “programs that came out of our own needs and our own dreams,” said Goldenberg. The fund first got involved in Nikolaev, a city of half-a-million people, a decade ago when it funded a Jewish community computer center. “That computer class was not only for children, but it was also a way to draw their parents into the life of the community. And it worked,” Horwitz said. The fund later went on to support the Nikolaev Jewish community’s Web site, a klezmer band and an oral history project that involved local Jewish WWII veterans with a local museum. Horwitz said his group’s philosophy was simple: Local Jews always know how to build Jewish community. Goldenberg said the fund “helped us to realize that we could bring to life programs that we ourselves had conceived instead of bringing in standardized programs developed somewhere else. This gave us a confidence to dream about our new center.” Audrey David, a board member of the JCC of Upper Manhattan who attended the dedication ceremony in Ukraine last week, presented the community with a small collection of Jewish children’s books. She described how meeting Goldenberg a few years ago at a conference in Moscow led her to establishing a relationship between the children of both communities. Many Jewish children attend the local JCC programs. “This is like my second home,” said 8-year-old Katya Akmanova. “I like to sing Jewish songs.” Children from New York and Nikolaev exchanged letters and gifts. The Nikolaev children sent photos, along with stories about their summer camp. The kids from New York sent their photos, mezuzah holders and challah covers in response. Meanwhile, Jewish leaders believe their new JCC can help unite different Jewish organizations and Jewish streams. “This will be a good basis for the coordination of activities of the different organizations,” said Naum Grabak, leader of the local group of former prisoners of ghetto and Nazi concentration camps. Speaking at the official dedication, Horwitz said: “The opening of the JCC in Nikolaev is a good example of what different ethnic minorities and Jews in particular can achieve in today’s independent Ukraine. You should all understand that nowadays much depends on your energy, your ideas and your actions.”