By Melissa Radler
As a child growing up in Ukraine, Yulik Shenfeld never told his friends he was Jewish.
The fear of anti-Semitism wasn't what kept Shenfeld silent, however; it was the decades of Communism that had left his family ill-equipped to educate him about his religion. Shenfeld, in other words, had nothing to say.
"All I knew was that when it was a Jewish holiday, my father drank 50 grams of vodka," he said.
Now 19 years old and a sophomore at International Solomon University in Kiev, Shenfeld is active in the Jewish student group Hillel.
The Kiev Hillel, established in 1997, has grown from a one-room meeting spot that functioned as a virtual support group for Jewish students seeking knowledge of their heritage to a thriving Jewish center.
Today, around 200 students regularly attend Hillel's Shabbat dinners, volunteer opportunities, and social events, and larger events like Rosh Hashana celebrations attract up to 600 people. Hillel has expanded so much since its founding that director Osik Akselrud recently opened a new, 180 square meter center in the heart of downtown.
"Now, among all my friends in the university, I can freely say I'm a Jew," said Shenfeld.
Hillel's success on campus is just one of many signs of a successful Jewish renaissance in Ukraine. Across the country, synagogues established by the Chabad and Progressive movements bringing people back to religion, day schools, and Jewish after-school programs are educating children, and community centers have sprung up to cater to the country's 400,000 Jews.
At the Sunflower JCC in Kiev, programs, which are all free of charge, include Hebrew, English, and Yiddish classes, computer courses, and a Jewish theater group. An exhibit featuring models of Jews from Arab lands was recently crafted by members of the community.
The chief rabbi of Ukraine, Ya'acov Dov Bleich, noted that Ukrainian Jews, many of whom embraced their cultural heritage ahead of their religious traditions, are starting to attend synagogue and observe kashrut in greater numbers. Some 350-400 people participated in Rosh Hashana services this year at his Podol Synagogue in Kiev, he said. "We never had so many people participating in the prayer services," said Bleich.
Jewish communities abroad provide significant funding for this Jewish renewal – at Hesed Dorot, a Joint Distribution Committee-run welfare center in Cherkassy, Jewish activities including Jewish Sunday school and library are funded by Project Kesher and World ORT. A Torah scroll used for services and the arc housing it were donated by the Metrowest federation in New Jersey, which has developed a closer relationship with Cherkassy through annual missions, e-mail exchanges, and ongoing donations.
"The community has responded extraordinarily well to the concept that there's a global Jewish peoplehood," said David Mallach, the assistant executive vice president of the Metrowest federation.
In Kiev, programs have also been established to help out Jews in need. While the JDC's Hesed centers provide welfare services, Bleich noticed several years ago that orphaned and abandoned Jewish children were often left with no safety net other than Ukraine's state-run orphanages.
In 2000, Bleich founded the Orach Chaim Children's Homes, which provides boarding for about 75 boys and girls in separate facilities and schooling for 400 needy children. Funding is provided by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the JDC, and the Reichman Foundation. On October 1, the Fellowship announced a $3 million donation to help needy Jewish children throughout the former Soviet Union.
"Our aim is to save these kids, to make them productive human beings and to make them proud Jews," said Bleich.
Now in its fourth year of operations, Orach Chaim, which receives state funding, includes Hebrew and English classes and Jewish studies in its curriculum. The boarding school serves only kosher food, and Jewish holidays are observed, said the school's director, Khariton Gilgur.
Most graduates move to Israel, said Bleich, and out of four teenage students interviewed recently, two said they plan to move to Israel when they graduate.
Among those with families in Ukraine, however, more and more young Jews are opting to stay put, said Akselrud, the Hillel director.
Alla Faydivishenko, a 19-year-old marketing student at International Solomon University, said she plans to stay in Ukraine even though all her Jewish friends from high school have emigrated to Israel or the US.
Both Shenfeld and Faydivishenko said that they are trying to teach their parents about Judaism to help bridge the generation gap between parents raised under Communism and children raised in a country that has been tolerant of its Jewish minority.
Hillel hosts parents at weekend conventions outside the city during which students demonstrate Jewish rituals for the family, but both teenagers said they think Ukraine's Jewish renaissance is likely to see its true potential in future generations.
"I'm trying to tell [my parents] something about Jewish history and Jewish life, but they are 40 and 50 years old," said Shenfeld. "It's very hard to change their lives."