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Changing Lifestyles : Some Jews Forgo Israel's Promise and Elect to Stay in Ukraine : They have spurned emigration and hope to lead a rebirth of Jewish culture in a land where there once were pogroms. A regional democratic independence movement has provided part of the catalyst.

March 05, 1991|CHRISTINE DEMKOWYCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KIEV, Soviet Union — Vadim Feldman, 58, is a Jew from Kiev who is not joining the majority of his friends leaving the Soviet Union for the promise of a better life in Israel.

Further west in Lvov, Alexander Lizen, editor and publisher of the Jewish newspaper Shofar has chosen to stay behind so that he can lead the rebirth of Jewish culture, now experiencing a revival in the Ukraine for the first time in decades.

Likewise, Boris Dobrivker, a young Jew from Odessa, is hoping that his plans to remain will galvanize the Jewish community to renew the traditions that thrived in the city before the Communist Revolution, when there were 52 synagogues, as opposed to the lone active synagogue that exists today.

These men, and others like them, are choosing to remain in the Ukraine due at least in part to the efforts of the Ukrainian democratic independence movement known as Rukh, an umbrella group for a host of distinct political, human rights and environmental associations.

Since Rukh's inception two years ago, the organization has spearheaded a drive to establish a foundation of trust and support for the Jewish community and other minority ethnic groups in the republic.

"To leave now would be to miss a golden opportunity to help Rukh achieve the national reawakening, not just for Jews, but for Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, and everyone with a national consciousness," said Lizen. With a nod toward the continuing exodus of Jews from the Ukraine, he adds: "If I don't take action now, who will be left to do it?"

According to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, 58,528 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel last year--a record. The 1989 official Soviet census listed a total of 486,326 Jews in the Ukraine--a drop of 23.3% compared with the 1979 census.

Given the history of anti-Semitism in the Ukraine, Rukh faces a formidable task. Hundreds of thousands of Jews perished in World War II concentration camps in various cities in the Ukraine, which was also the site of the czarist ghettos and the pogrom of 1905, among other atrocities.

At its founding congress, Rukh issued a resolution that beckons "all politically conscious citizens of Ukraine . . . to speak out against all forms of national disunity and anti-Semitism. We must stand up for our integrity and the honor of the Jewish nation, its culture, education, religion."

The organization has also taken pains to disassociate itself from Pamyat, a Russian extremist nationalist organization whose philosophy clashes with Rukh's proclaimed principles of democracy and "multi-culturalism." Pamyat was banned from the Ukraine when leaders of the organization tried last year to establish headquarters in some of the larger cities of the republic.

According to David Roskies, a literature teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, evidence of Rukh's disdain for Pamyat was seen in Moscow one year ago when he and other delegates to the first All Russian Conference of Jewish Organizations emerged from their meeting only to see that a group of Ukrainian men, donning armbands made of the distinctive yellow and blue Ukrainian national colors, were there to shield them from the anti-Semitic provocations of the Pamyat movement. The men had traveled all the way from Lvov to demonstrate group solidarity, Roskies reported.

With its denouncing of anti-Semitism, Rukh has gradually been winning Jewish support; some Jewish organizations in the Ukraine have even urged Jews to join Rukh.

"The only way Jews and other minority groups in the Ukraine will be guaranteed safety is if Rukh achieves its goal of independence," said Jewish activist Alexander Burakovsky, co-chairman of the Kiev Shalom Aleichem Cultural and Education Society and chairman of Rukh's council of nationalities.

"The Ukraine is currently the one republic where Jews can live in peace," Burakovsky added. "This is not to say that anti-Semitism doesn't exist here, or that some people don't advocate Pamyat's slogans."

Rukh's support has helped a revival of Jewish culture in the Ukraine seen in a burst of new organizations and the reopening of centers that had been closed down under former Soviet leaders Josef Stalin and Leonid I. Brezhnev. Within the last three years, Kiev has become home to two Jewish newspapers, a Jewish library, a Jewish theater, a Jewish dance troupe, a Jewish choir, an Israeli video library, and a school that offers instruction in Hebrew. Plans are under way to open a department of Hebrew Culture at the Academy of Sciences in Kiev and a Jewish elementary school in the fall of 1991.

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