Future for rural Ukrainian Jews seen as bleak


MUNKACS, Ukraine, Aug. 20 (JTA) — Rabbi Chaim Hoffman doesn’t see a Jewish future here in rural Ukraine.

“The elderly will pass on, and the place of the young is in Israel. I feel it as a mitzvah to bring all of them to Israel,” Hoffman recently told JTA.

Despite the gloomy prediction, Hoffman and his wife, Esther, left their 11 children in Israel seven years ago to come work for the 2,500 Jews in the Trans-Carpathian Mountains.

Esther Hoffman runs a Sunday school for girls. Her husband, the chief rabbi of the Carpathians, officiates at Jewish rituals, runs charity programs for the elderly and distributes two freshly baked Sabbath challahs to every family in his dwindling community.

Yosef Zissels, a Ukrainian Jewish leader, is also pessimistic about the future of the Jewish community in rural Ukraine.

Recent statistics showing high rates of mixed marriages contribute to his pessimistic outlook for this region, where many predict that Jewish life will disappear in a generation.

If so, it will mark the end of a rich history.

In the 19th century, when it was part of Hungary, the area was a center of Orthodoxy and Chasidism. It became part of Czechoslovakia after World War I and later became part of Ukraine.

Chaim Hoffman — who is a Vishnitz Chasid, another group that hails from this region — was born in Hungary and survived Bergen-Belsen as a child.

Other local Jews were less fortunate.

In the spring of 1944, Hungary’s pro-Nazi regime began deporting Jews from the countryside. By June 1944, tens of thousands of Carpathian Jews had been deported by train to Auschwitz.

Only several thousand came back, mostly young Jews who were able to work, Eva Sarayeva said. The parents of Sarayeva, who now works with Rabbi Hoffman, were among this group.

Before World War II, Munkacs had 37,000 Jews, 30 synagogues and a Jewish high-school with subjects taught in Hebrew. Now there are about 500 Jews, one synagogue and two Sunday schools.

But not everyone agrees that Jewish life is ending in Western Ukraine.

Indeed, Munkacs last week hosted a seminar for Jewish teachers in Ukraine sponsored by the Israeli branch of the Conservative movement. The seminar featured lectures by Israeli professors on religion, Jewish culture and Hebrew.

Gila Katz, a former Ukrainian school teacher who currently heads the Russian desk of the Masorti movement, as Conservative Jewry is called in Israel, praised the Jewish high school with 250 students that the movement runs in Chernovtsy in Western Ukraine.

The Conservative movement has become active in Western Ukraine recently, having opened several Sunday schools.

Despite this growth, young Jews continue to leave this land, known for its beautiful landscape, for what they consider greener pastures in Kiev, Moscow, Germany, Israel or North America.

Pyotr Khorodny, 27, a teacher of Jewish history at the Chernovtsy day school, was trained as a computer programmer but lost his job because of Ukraine’s economic situation. He plans to move to Toronto in a few months with his wife and daughter.

If the Jewish future is questionable in Western Ukraine, there appears to be more hope in Kiev, the nation’s capital, where the Conservative movement recently established a Sunday school.

Sasha Feldman, 16, who came to the weeklong seminar from a Jewish Sunday school in Khust, a resort town in the Carpathian mountains, said she wants to stay in Ukraine.

“I feel good in Ukraine,” said Feldman, whose family moved to Khust from Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Feldman said that she had wanted to emigrate to Israel, but changed her mind recently because of the tense security situation there. Instead, she said, she has decided to move to Kiev.

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