June 6, 1997

Putting Down Roots

KHARKOV, Ukraine

In the Ukrainian city of Kharkov, an Orthodox yeshiva is trying to restore Jewish traditions wiped out by decades of Communist oppression.

The stale air of Communism has not quite left the dreary, gray Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Buses and streetcars that look like they date back to Stalin's day still roam the potholed streets alongside boxy old Ladas. Statues of Lenin still stand on street corners, and the hammer and sickle have not been taken down from some of the city's most prominent structures. Even Coca-Cola, the ubiquitous sign of Westernization, only made its appearance recently.

There is, though, one significant new element in Kharkov: Jewish life.

Prior to the Communist revolution, the city was a thriving Jewish center, home to a Hebrew secondary school, popular Jewish university and major teachers' seminary. About half of the city's 150,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust, and in 1949 the Soviets closed down its one remaining synagogue. Throughout the next three decades, attempts to hold religious services resulted in beatings and arrests by the police and KGB.

Today, however, this city of two million with just 50,000 Jews boasts an Orthodox day school, a thriving Jewish youth center and a noticeable Israeli presence. For the first time in decades, kippa-clad Ukrainian Jews are visible in the city, in the bustling markets, the crowded subways and the busy streets.

At the heart of Kharkov's Jewish reawakening is the Jewish center and the yeshiva high school established jointly by Israel's Yeshivat Sha'alvim and the US's Orthodox Union (OU), the major umbrella organization of American Orthodox Jewry. Two-and-a-half years since the founding of the school - called simply "Lycee" (French for "high school") by those who work and study there - the student body has grown to 120, and many of its graduates have emigrated to Israel. The struggles and achievements of the Lycee illustrate both the problems and potential of replanting Jewish tradition in a place where decades of Soviet oppression have torn up its roots.

In the school, which has grades seven through 11 (there is no 12th grade in Ukraine), most of the students are from Kharkov, but many come from places hundreds of kilometers away, including neighboring Russia. About a quarter of the students live in dormitories in the city center. According to director Rabbi Menahem Lepkivker, most know virtually nothing about being Jewish, and some come from homes where the father is not Jewish (children with Gentile mothers are not accepted). One student says he did not even know he was Jewish until he was ridiculed at his old school for having Jewish roots. After some investigating, he found out that his grandmother on his mother's side was Jewish.

Leah Rosenstein, a native of Kharkov, has been studying at the Lycee since its inception. Before that, she says, "I knew I was a Jew. I knew nothing else." She first heard of the school through a friend of her father. Then she spent a summer at the Sha'alvim-OU summer camp, which operates with the help of counselors from Israel and North America.

"I liked the camp atmosphere," says Leah shyly. "I liked being with the Israelis, who have a different mentality than people in Ukraine. They're more open."

Lepkivker explains what life was like for Jewish students in Ukrainian schools. "It used to be shameful to be a Jew here. Kids would get beaten up and teased in schools. But now they get excited about their Judaism. We show them what a wonderful heritage they have."

He acknowledges that there is another side to their enthusiasm. "People in Ukraine today are looking for Jewish roots because it is a way to get out. If you're Jewish, you can emigrate to Israel or Germany."

This year, on Israel's Independence Day, the school took all the children to a public park where they danced carrying the Israeli flag.

"We give them," boasts Lepkivker, "Jewish pride." Yeshivat Sha'alvim and the OU first established a presence in Kharkov in the early 1990s, after the Ukrainian government returned an old synagogue to the local Jewish community, the beginning of a repatriation process that has progressed little since then.

The first Israelis who came were two hesder students (those who do compulsory army service together with yeshiva study) from Sha'alvim. In 1991 they started informal classes in Judaism in a rented apartment in the city center. In 1992, Sha'alvim asked a young Israeli rabbi to help in their efforts. Rabbi Shlomo Assraf, the son of Moroccan-born parents, had previously worked in Moscow for the Liaison Office, the Israeli government's one-time secret conduit to Soviet Jewry.

Assraf was so impressed by the achievements of the young Israelis that he accepted the job.

He bought an apartment in downtown Kharkov, which became a focal point for Jewish activity. Within months it became too small for the growing number of Jewish youth coming to study. With the help of Sha'alvim and the OU, Assraf purchased space in a nearby building for a Jewish youth center.

Heartened by the success of the center, which had a synagogue, a kitchen and recreation rooms, Assraf agreed in 1994 to stay on for another year on condition that he receive a green light to open a Jewish school.

"I had no experience in running a school," he confesses, "but when they gave me the go-ahead, I called a Ukrainian lawyer and began making arrangements."

Getting permission to establish a private Jewish school was no easy task, and there were only three weeks left before the start of the school year when Assraf finally found a building to rent. It belonged to the former mayor of Kharkov, who had also been the head of the Communist Party in the city before the revolution of 1989. After Sha'alvim and the OU put down a deposit, the ex-mayor unexpectedly demanded that Assraf buy the building.

When Assraf, still unfamiliar with the Ukrainian way of doing business, pointed out that this new demand was a breach of contract, the owner's contemptuous response was, "What are you going to do? I am the state."

Even Assraf's lawyer told him, "If you want to fight this guy, find yourself another lawyer." The rabbi considered going to the police until he was informed that the chief of police was himself an appointee of the ex- mayor. Even appeals from influential people, including US senators, could not budge the owner. Eventually, Assraf was instructed to abandon this effort.

But he still had to convince the municipality to rent him a building, and because of his experience with the ex- mayor, he was told repeatedly nothing was available. Ultimately, Assraf was able to "persuade" the authorities to rent him a building. The first one they sent him to look at, however, was occupied.

"I thought I would be looking at an empty building, but the mansion had a local nursery school and kindergarten in it with a couple hundred children," he recalls. To accommodate him, the city simply ordered its former occupants out.

The first group of Ukrainian students who enrolled had heard of the school at the Jewish center. Then Sha'alvim and the OU initiated an aggressive marketing campaign to inform Jews all over Ukraine about the new school. They used subway and television advertisements, as well as a very persuasive non-Jewish public relations consultant who combed the country to find Jews and persuade them to send their children to Kharkov. They also promoted the school at a Jewish summer camp just outside of Kharkov they have run since the early 1990s.

The school opened in January 1995 with 28 students, almost all from Kharkov. The Jewish-studies teaching staff consisted of several young Israeli couples, two or three hesder yeshiva students, and a couple of army-age women fulfilling their national service obligations.

"These students come with nothing," Lepkivker says. "We start by teaching them Hebrew, because we want them to have a direct connection with their Israeli teachers as soon as possible, rather than through a translator."

The Jewish-studies teachers communicate in Hebrew and broken Russian, which they pick up relatively quickly for lack of any common language. The Jewish curriculum, which takes up the whole morning, includes morning prayers, which are recited out loud, Hebrew, Bible, Mishna and Jewish law. There is also a healthy dose of Israeli culture; the walls are covered with posters from Israel and the students frequently listen to Israeli and Jewish music.

The unconventional teaching methods receive an enthusiastic response from most of the students, whose proficiency in Hebrew and Jewish studies are astounding for youngsters who have only recently become familiar with their heritage.

Lepkivker introduces one youth who, he says, did not know a word of Hebrew a year ago. The child extends his hand and greets Lepkivker warmly in Hebrew; next year he will be studying in Machon Lev, a combined yeshiva- technical college in Jerusalem.

All this, however, did not sit well with the school's non-Jewish vice principal, one of the local administrators required by Ukrainian law.

"A few months after I came, our vice principal quit, complaining that we had turned Lycee into 'a Jewish school,' " recalls Lepkivker, laughing. "That was when I finally said to myself: 'Thank God.' " In their effort to give their students a strong Jewish identity, the Israeli teachers also inevitably transmit elements of Israeli identity. Some of the students even look like Israeli Orthodox Jews, with their long, flowing skirts and knit kippot. Others, however, wear tight and short shirts, sleeveless blouses, or ripped jeans. For an Orthodox institution, Lycee's teachers are surprisingly tolerant. They do not try to force their students into observing Judaism, understanding that the children return to homes in which it is impossible to keep Shabbat or kashrut. They are well aware that some of the students remove their kippot at the end of the school day.

Rome wasn't built in a day, remarks Rabbi Eli Lewis, a 28-year-old teacher from the settlement of Beit El. Perhaps as a result of the lack of religious pressure, the students seem to respond positively to their teachers' efforts.

When asked if there is an element of religious coercion at the Lycee, Stanislav Sidash, 15, one of the only English-speaking students in the school, shakes his head. "They listen to us and want to know our points," he says of his Israeli teachers, "but they are wiser and teach us and try to convince us. When they do this, though, it seems like they're not trying to convince us; they do it very slightly. They don't make you think about things you don't want to. In general we do what we want. After 70 years of living without Judaism, it's strange and it's weird for the first time, so they make us understand."

Lepkivker says the school's success is based on the connection between teacher and student. Partly because the teachers are so young - the national service girls are under 20 - the students have role models that are close to their hearts, he explains. "Here the students feel like their teachers are their friends. They would never get warmth like this in public school, and some do not even get this kind of warmth at home," he says.

Many of the students at Lycee echo Lepkivker's sentiments. "Here we feel the teachers really care," says Leah Rosenstein, 16. "I had good teachers in my old school too, but there I felt they were not very concerned with us."

A few months ago, one parent who wished to express her gratitude to her daughter's Israeli teacher tried to give her some extra money. The teacher was horrified. According to Assraf, this type of patronage is common in Ukraine, where corruption has permeated even the educational system; many teachers in Ukrainian schools and universities play favorites with students who slip them extra money. This, he says, is why some local university degrees are not accepted by educational institutions in other countries.

Aside from the integrity of its teachers, Lycee has several other advantages over its Ukrainian counterparts, administrators say. It has built up a base of qualified general studies teachers atypical of Ukrainian schools. The school also has a computer room and science lab, luxuries few schools in Kharkov can afford. The high academic level is reflected in the students' scores on the state-wide matriculation exams, which are far above average.

Tuition, as well as room and board in the dormitories, are free. Every day, all the students are served a free hot lunch from the school cafeteria's kosher kitchen. Free school lunches are unheard of in a country where a huge proportion of the populace can't afford three meals a day.

Lycee also covers the travel costs of out-of-town students and supplies all students with a variety of appropriate attire: skirts for the girls, kippot and ritual fringes for the boys. It offers a new pair of teffilin to each boy who agrees to undergo ritual circumcision.

According to Assraf, parents are eager to send their children to a school where they will get a superior education, where all their needs are cared for, and where they will have the opportunity to make "international connections" with Israelis and the occasional American emissary, which is the first step out of Ukraine. Students become fluent in Hebrew very quickly, and the school helps them prepare for aliya.

Last year, seven out of nine graduates emigrated to Israel; several others left for Israel mid-year.

"We started out the year with 60 kids and almost 40 left for Israel. This year we were able to get 100 new students," Lepkivker says.

Still, he says, "our job is not to stimulate aliya. We don't tell the parents, 'Go and make aliya.' Through their education, the children understand that as Jews they cannot live here."

One of the dangers of Lycee's success in encouraging aliya is the risk of the school being closed down by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry.

"When they see that almost all our graduates leave Ukraine, they cannot be happy," Lepkivker says. "We told the Kharkov authorities, 'If you want national unity, you need to let us give these children a Jewish education, because if they cannot get it here they will go elsewhere.' This is the official line."

On the other hand, the authorities are not blind; they see the Jewish families are leaving in droves. "They know exactly what we're doing, but we play the game," Lepkivker says. "We do not cross the red line. We give respect to Ukraine. We give humanitarian help to non-Jews in the city by sending extra food to orphanages and retirement homes on the condition that they send us a thank-you letter with our name on it {as proof of their philanthropy}." At the school, the Israeli flag hangs alongside the Ukrainian flag.

According to Lepkivker, if the school finds itself under too close scrutiny, the administrators realize it is because of the Interior Ministry, which has emerged as a successor to the KGB.

"They send people to check the health of the students, the esthetic quality of the school - whatever. They are always looking for excuses to close us down," he explains, pointing out that just as the municipality evicted the previous occupants, Lycee can be ordered out at any moment.

"They know everything," Assraf says of Ukrainian internal security agents. The agent in charge of the Jews of Kharkov even speaks fluent Hebrew. "The only reason we are still operating is because we make sure it is to their benefit that we stay open," he explains. The Jewish Center and Lycee budgets allow for more than a few bottles of vodka to be dispensed to local executives, though usually it takes more than just a few drinks to persuade Ukrainians to act favorably toward Jewish activity in Kharkov. "Everything is a battle," says Lepkivker, and it is US dollars that will win the war. The school, of course, is not without its internal problems as well. Visitors to Lycee are advised not to leave their belongings lying around for fear of theft, and not all the children take their Jewish studies seriously.

But Lycee is spared some of the problems that plague other Ukrainian schools. The students maintain that there is no drug use, and, as one 11th grader says, "there is only a little drinking at holidays."

Lepkivker says the school accepts underachieving students, but it is uninterested in dealing with those who may pose severe disciplinary problems. Assraf describes the case of one 14-year-old student who lived in the dormitory. "We barely saw her in classes, and in the city she was always hanging around with an older fellow." It turns out she was dating a student at a Kharkov university 10 years her senior. "I called her into my office one day and she leveled with me. We sent her home pretty quickly."

But there are plenty of other students who, in the words of one of the Israeli emissaries, "burn with a passion for Torah."

Eitan Abramovich, 17, lives directly across the road from the Jewish center on Sumskaya Street, but he prefers to live in the dormitory because he cannot keep kosher at home. With the kippa on his head slightly off-center and his ritual fringes sticking out of his white shirt, Abramovich looks just like an Orthodox Israeli teenager. Described by his teachers as one of the more remarkable students, Eitan is eager to leave his home in Kharkov and make aliya with his family at the end of next month. Next year he will be studying in a hesder yeshiva in Kiryat Arba, and he implores all who have been to Kiryat Arba to tell him what it is like. He shrugs off the suggestion that it will be difficult for him to leave Kharkov, the city in which he has spent all his young life. Asked if he will miss it at all, he replies in Hebrew, "I've had it with this place." For the students at Lycee who are not interested in becoming Orthodox, the Israeli culture they pick up in Kharkov is invaluable in giving them a Jewish identity, says Rabbi David Cohen, one of the teachers and Israeli emissaries from Beit El.

Yehuda Dyemchenko, 15, came to Lycee from a town 500 kilometers away, and has just completed his first year. He confesses that he does not feel the same kind of connection to Judaism that some of his peers do. "I came to Lycee because I wanted to learn about Jewish history, to learn Hebrew so I can make aliya, and because I know that here I will get an education on a high level."

Stanislav Sidash is one of the only students in the school who has visited Israel. "I saw Machon Lev, but I want something more serious. I am interested in Jewish culture but I'll study at the university in Israel," he says. Stanislav says his non-Jewish father "doesn't mind the Jewish education I'm getting {at Lycee}. He wants me to be able to go to Israel because it gives me a future."

Even though he does not want to become a fully observant Jew, Stanislav says he enjoys the environment at the school and at the Jewish center. He showed up at the center on a recent Friday night for prayer services and the traditional Shabbat meal wearing dark jeans and a red T- shirt. At the same service, one girl wore tight blue jeans and another came dressed in a size-too-small shirt which didn't quite reach the top of her skirt.

They were treated just like their peers who were dressed in traditional Shabbat attire. Such a reception would be rare in most Orthodox synagogues, but is the norm in Kharkov.

"They don't know to dress any differently," says Noa Lewis, an energetic young mother of three from Beit El, who teaches at the school. "We have to be tolerant. The first step is for them to come at all."