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Jews in Ukraine - Modern Era (1990-2003)

By the end of the nineteenth century some three million Jews lived in Ukraine, the highest concentration of Jews in the world. At the turn of the century, Kyiv was the third largest Jewish city in the world. Sholem Aleichem's Tevye stories, on which Fiddler on the Roof is based, were written in Kyiv, and his fictitious village of Anatevka is Ukrainian. From the 16th century until 1939, the largest and most important Jewish community in the world was located in Eastern Europe in the region that was first under the control of the Polish- Lithuanian Kingdom, much of which later became part of the Russian Empire. Approximately half of this historic region is now part of the new modern nation of Ukraine. The Holocaust and World War II nearly annihilated the Jewish community, which still numbered three million on the eve of the war. In western Ukraine, only 2 percent of the Jews survived.

In 1991, Ukraine again became an independent nation. The first president after independence, Leonid Kravchuk, though a former Communist, was democratically elected and reportedly received the support of the majority of the Jewish population. The collapse of Communism and the re-creation of an independent Ukraine have set the stage for the revitalization of Jewish life. The new Ukrainian government has evidenced some sensitivity to the needs of Ukrainian Jewry.

According to the most recent government census data from 2001, there were an estimated 103,600 Jews; however, some local Jewish leaders estimated the number of persons of Jewish heritage to be as high as 370,000. Accepting the lower number would place Ukraine's Jewish population as the tenth largest in the world, while the larger number would rank the Jews of Ukraine as constituting the third largest Jewish community in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. Jews are mainly concentrated in Kyiv (110,000), Dnipropetrovsk (60,000), Kharkiv (45,000) and Odesa (45,000). Jews also live in many of the smaller towns. Western Ukraine, however, has only a small remnant of its former population, with Lviv and Chernivtsi each having only about 6,000 Jews. The majority of Jews in present-day Ukraine are native Russian-Ukrainian speakers, and only some of the elderly speak Yiddish as their first language. By contrast, in 1926, 76.1% claimed Yiddish as their mother tongue. The average age is close to 45.

Since 1991, the idea of a distinct Ukrainian Jewry has been revived. In former times, Jews living in various parts of the territory of present-day Ukraine had identified themselves as Russian, Polish, Galician, Romanian, Bessarabian, Hungarian, or even Austrian Jews and, more recently, as Soviet Jews.

Still, the precarious economic situation has been a decisive factor in the continued emigration of Ukrainian Jews. Throughout much of the 1990s, as many as 50,000 Jews a year left. This emigration has had dire effects upon the state of Jewish communal properties. Large-scale emigration from smaller communities has left many sites entirely untended, or insufficiently maintained - this just at a time when new laws provided the basis for Jewish communities to take charge of many aspects of their historic and religious heritage. For example, the Jewish population in the once-important community of Berdychiv has dropped from an estimated 14,000 at the time of independence to a less than 800 today - leaving the Jewish community in the town with much less means and political influence to protect its enormous cemetery.

Emigration has taken a toll in another way, too. Many of the country's Jews best able to assist in the recovery, restoration, and maintenance of Jewish sites throughout the country have left the country. The reality is that the more steeped in Jewish culture a young and energetic Ukrainian Jew is, the greater the likelihood he or she will emigrate. Thus, the foremost researcher of Ukrainian synagogues moved to Israel in the mid-1990s, and almost all researchers engaged by the Jewish Preservation Committee of Ukraine to work on this survey between 1995 and 1999 have also emigrated.

Despite this outflow of talented people, the Jewish community, which has been guaranteed equal rights in the country, has been trying to reorganize itself for participation in a democratic society. Among its primary tasks are the re-establishment of communal organizations and activities and the restitution of communal property seized by the Communists.

The dedication of a memorial for the victims of Nazi brutality at Babyn Yar, the site of the mass murder of the Jews of Kyiv in 1941, marked the beginning of a new era in Ukrainian Jewry. Its trend continues - new Jewish schools have opened throughout the country, giving hope for a Jewish future, and more and more memorials have been erected, recognizing obligations to remember the past. The two sides of this equation are easily visible in the central Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr, where the local rabbi, relocated from Israel, has reinvigorated the Jewish community and established a very active school, as well as other education and social programs. Beginning in May 2000, town officials joined with the Jewish community to erect and dedicate, several new Holocaust memorials on the sites of brutal massacres and mass burials of Jews on the edge of town.

The Jewish community in Ukraine is made up of many different religious and cultural groups. The leading organizations for Jewish culture are the Associations of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine and the Jewish Council of Ukraine. Together with Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine and the Kyiv Municipal Jewish Community these four organizations founded, in 1998, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, to be an umbrella organization for promoting of all aspects of Jewish life in Ukraine. Nevertheless, there are splits and disagreements within the Ukrainian Jewish community involving personality, financial and power conflicts. But the community as a whole continues to grow in all areas - religious life, social programming, and cultural affairs. Leading international Jewish organizations have also established branches in Ukraine.

According to the World Jewish Congress (2004), there are 75 Jewish schools in the country in some 45 cities, among them 10 day schools and 65 Sunday schools (other sources may give different numbers, but mostly in the same general range). The International Solomon University, founded in 1993 offers Judaic studies at its branches in Kyiv and Kharkiv, enrolling about 150 students. Courses in Hebrew are also offered in many other places, and there are many outlets for those who wish to express their artistic creativity. Much of the Israel-oriented activity is directed by the Jewish Agency for Immigration. Several Jewish newspapers and journals are published, including the Kyiv-based Hadashot, there is also a weekly TV program called "Yahad" on state television.

Several laws and decrees have affected the fate of Jewish communal properties. Among these, the most important are: a 1991 law concerning the return of communal property; a 1994 agreement with the United States on the protection and preservation of certain cultural properties; a 1998 decree concerning the inviolability of places of burial of human remains, preventing privatization and development of cemetery sites; and a 2003 law on burial places.

While most foreigners do not encounter problems with violent crime in Ukraine, there is significant concern with racially-motivated attacks carried out by individuals associated with neo-Nazi groups and extreme nationalist groups. Over the past few years, hate crimes directed against non-Slavic and religious minorities, particularly members of the Orthodox Jewish community, have increased. Victims have reported verbal harassment and discrimination as well as physical assaults resulting in serious injuries and sometimes death. Many reported attacks have occurred in well-known areas in downtown Kyiv commonly frequented by tourists.




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