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Across the Former Soviet Union Applause, Critique Heard As Centers for Jews Open in Ex-communist Lan

September 28, 2005
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The ceremonial openings of two state-of-the-art Jewish community centers in the former Soviet Union have ushered in a new page in the history of two communities in the former Soviet Union. The new facilities in St. Petersburg, Russia and in Kishinev, Moldova, were built by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee with funds raised primarily from North American federations and private donors.

But even as the new centers were feted, their completions also highlighted the tension between some local Jewish leaders and the JDC over how the international organization operates on the ground.

For its part, the JDC says its projects are there to serve the local community and they are conceived and carried out with the participation of local community leaders.

Both centers were dedicated — in St. Petersburg on Sept. 9 and in Kishinev on Sept. 13 — in the presence of sizeable Jewish delegations from North America, JDC leaders and local community members.

Although the centers are not yet operating, staff members hope they will be ready to open their doors by the end of the year.

The centers are the newest additions to the family of JDC-run community centers already in operation in several other cities in the region. They mark another effort by the group to put a greater emphasis on investing in the future of the former Soviet Union communities.

Just a few years ago, JDC was primarily involved in charity programs dealing with the humanitarian needs of the elderly Jews in the region.

In St. Petersburg, the modern stone-and-glass center is called YESOD, which means foundation in Hebrew and is the Russian acronym for the Jewish St. Petersburg Community House.

It will serve as the new home for many Jewish organizations in Russia’s second largest community that have rented office space in various parts of the city until now.

Nonna Levina, the director of the center, envisions the center as a hub for Jewish life in St. Petersburg.

“We expect to have Jewish concerts, art exhibitions, lectures, performances and discotheques,” she said. Because the center will house organizations that touch upon a wide spectrum of Jewish life, the JDC and founding organizations hope that YESOD will appeal to all members of the Jewish community.

The building was designed with the “specific needs of the St. Petersburg community in mind,” said the JDC’s executive vice president, Steven Schwager. “The idea is to have it alive from morning to night.”

World ORT, the Adain Lo educational and family service network and the Institute of Communal and Welfare Workers will be housed there to educate and train members of the Jewish community. In addition, there will be a library maintained by the St. Petersburg Institute of Jewish Studies.

YESOD also has a large auditorium that will be used for conferences and cultural performances.

Said Ellen Heller, the president of the JDC, who attended the opening: “Hillel will be there for the youth and Hesed Avraham for the elderly.”

As with similar centers in the West, YESOD also includes a gym and a café serving kosher food. It will also be wheelchair accessible.

Amid the chorus of voices welcoming the new projects, there is a note of discontent coming from some of the leaders in these communities who say that the JDC was mostly interested in impressing the overseas donors instead of serving — and listening — to the real needs of the communities on the ground.

While some observers argue that there may be some organizational jealousy involved in this type of concerns, similar criticisms accompanied the opening of the second new center in Kishinev.

The name of the center in the Moldovan capital is also a play on words. KEDEM is the Hebrew word for “progress,” and also the Russian acronym for the “Kishinev United House of Jews in Moldova.”

But despite what its Russian name suggests, the center — which is similar in many ways to the one in St. Petersburg — has yet to unite the Moldovan Jewish community, which is estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 people.

On the day of the center’s opening, the leaders of Moldova’s two main indigenous Jewish community organizations used a conference held in Kishinev to criticize the JDC for what these leaders described as “disregard” of the needs of Jews in Moldova and “disrespect” toward local community organizations.

“We are grateful to JDC and those donors who helped to make this building,” said Yakov Tichman, a local entrepreneur and chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Moldova, the main community.

“But when we see a plaque on the center saying it was built by JDC, we cannot help a strange feeling,” Tichman told an international gathering of Jews attending a session of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress in Kishinev on Sept. 13.

Tichman was referring to the fact that the building that became the core of KEDEM was originally a property of the local community that was returned to local Jews a few years ago. The building in downtown Kishinev, the former Lemnaria or “Woodcutters” Synagogue, was originally built in 1835 and confiscated by the Communists after Moldova became part of the Soviet Union in 1940. The building, which was rundown when it was returned to the community, later housed a variety of facilities, including a warehouse and a garage.

Only one wall of the original shul facade survived; it is now incorporated into the modern building of KEDEM.

Another local Jewish leader, the president of the Jewish Congress of Moldova, Alexander Pinchevsky, said local JDC officials were interested in cooperating with the local community until they talked the community leaders into transferring the property rights for the old shul to the JDC.

But after that transfer occurred, he said, JDC no longer consulted with local leaders on key issues, including the appointment of its director.

Pinchevsky even threatened possible legal action against JDC to get the property again returned to community ownership.

JDC officials declined to respond to specific questions on the matter, but JDC’s Schwager wrote in a statement to JTA: “JDC’s community-building endeavors in the former Soviet Union are done with the community and for the community.”

“The two new JCCs in St. Petersburg and Kishinev were planned and developed with local community guidance, advice and direction,” he wrote.

“We will continue to listen to all voices of the community; however, when we carry out large-scale initiatives in communities of significant Jewish population, it is inevitable that a small number of Jews may be dissatisfied with the decisions.”

During the opening of the Kishinev center, no local Jewish leaders were among a long list of speakers. Only JDC officials and North American donors were invited to speak.

But some local activists said that despite the existing tensions, the new center is a huge step forward for the community.

“This is a big investment into our future,” said Roman Komaritsky, the director of the Kishinev Hillel. “I believe we should not be talking about organizations here. There is a home for Jews and it should be filled with different programs. Sooner or later the dust will settle and the house will stay serving the community.”

The major supporters of YESOD in St. Petersburg include the Claims Conference, the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

The major donors of KEDEM in Kishinev were the Claims Conference, Joan and Irvin Jacobs of San Diego and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

JTA correspondent Yasha Levine in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.

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