Ukrainian dream realised in presence of WJR backers

World Jewish Relief chairman Nigel Layton addresses the crowd at the opening of the Wohl Centre

World Jewish Relief chairman Nigel Layton addresses the crowd at the opening of the Wohl Centre

Sixty World Jewish Relief supporters joined the opening celebrations of a Ukrainian community centre which will transform provision for the 40,000-plus Jews in Kharkov, many living in heart-rending poverty.

British donors contributed $3 million towards the $5.3 million (£3.3 million) Wohl Centre, launched with great fanfare and excitement with speeches from civic and Jewish dignitaries.

Six years in the making, the imposing three-floor 3,700 square metre edifice would be the envy of any UK community. It has been designed with the intention of bringing together a disparate community, whose younger generation is spearheading a gradual renaissance in Jewish life and culture.

Elderly users will undergo health checks and enjoy social activities at a spacious purpose-built venue far removed from their cramped and often desperate living conditions. On launch day, for example, a belated Purim spiel played to an enthusiastic audience of senior citizens, who joined in a rousing rendition of Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.

Oksana Galkevich from the JDC

Oksana Galkevich from the JDC

At the other end of the age scale, a fee-paying nursery will be educating youngsters including the grandchildren of the Kharkov mayor.

Elsewhere, the Britons watched teenagers dancing in a profusion of styles under the watchful eye of Sasha Sekirin, a graduate of the Metsuda leadership training programme and an example of how young Jews are rediscovering their roots. He was only told by his parents that he was Jewish before taking part in a youth Shabbaton that was a selection session for Metsuda. "I felt happiness not only because I was allowed to participate in the Shabbaton and other Jewish events but also to be part of the Jewish world I newly entered."

In another room, other young leaders were good humouredly guiding groups of diffident Brits through a team bonding exercise which literally required learning the ropes as they ineptly tried to guide a stick through a "snail" maze.

The passion and talent of the community was also evidenced in the post-opening variety show, notably an expert illustration of sand animation, another activity provided at the centre. The show was staged in the centre's theatre, which will be rented out for other events to help with the revenue stream. Further income is anticipated from the rental of an area designated for commercial use.

Although charities on the ground bemoan the lack of "a culture of giving" among the wealthier Kharkov set, WJR vice-chairman Nigel Ross - a major benefactor to the project along with the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Foundation - believes the centre will be a persuasive incentive. He views its establishment as concrete evidence of "reversing what the Nazis did to our communities in Eastern Europe". The site purchase was funded by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and German consul-general Claus Zillikens told the 300 people at the opening that he was proud to see a German flag displayed at the ceremony.

In stark contrast to the opulent new centre, small group visits were arranged to the homes of a few of the 9,500 elderly Jews assisted in the city by the Hesed welfare organisation. Participants returned with stories of almost unimaginable hardship. Asked what her dream would be, one woman replied simply: "A toilet."

Oksana Galkevich, director of the north Ukrainian office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee - WJR's partner organisation - explained that the monthly state pension of $100 (£62) did not go far, particularly given the high inflation which had seen the prices of staples such as bread and eggs more than double in 18 months.

"I wouldn't say it has brought new people into poverty but the situation of others is deteriorating," she said. "All our clients are on the poverty line." In total, 11,000 people were being given welfare assistance, with home care a major financial and logistical burden in a sprawling metropolis littered with decaying properties and drab apartment blocks. Such was the level of demand that "we are not actively seeking" further cases of children at risk.

"We are providing medicines and medical consultations but we do not have enough funds to pay for operations," Ms Galkevich added. "Here officially or unofficially you pay for surgery. There are some hospitals which accept payments officially. There are many more which do not accept payments officially but you put money in an envelope and give it to a doctor. Without this you are risking your life." But if the needs of the community were enormous, so too was the potential.

"The community usually celebrates Purim at the city circus, booking one performance. This year we could only get 9am on a Sunday and I thought nobody would come. But it was a full house with more than 2,000 people."

The challenge was keeping them involved through educational and cultural programming from the Jewish Community Centre, which, like Hesed, will have its base in the Wohl building.

"If you are bringing your kids to a kindergarten, you want it to be the best, so you want the best teachers and the best furniture," she reasoned. "But at the same time the teachers need to be Jewish and the curriculum needs to include not only English and logics but some Hebrew and Shabbat prayers. Then you bring in parents with the children. That's how communities develop."

For WJR chairman Nigel Layton, who is standing down in September, the opening was "one of the most satisfying days imaginable - and for me the pinnacle. It gives me immense pride that through money raised in the UK we've changed the lives of a community of 40-50,000 Jews. It's by far the biggest centre we've ever built.

"Having seen the dreadful conditions in which some of them live, it is great for them to have a brand new centre where they can come and be warm and fed during the day and do activities which cement Jewish life.

"We've lost a generation of leaders but the youngsters are vibrant and want to learn - they are intellectual people. In three or four years' time they will become leaders. They are already going to see other Jewish communities in Ukraine so they are really learning."

On the final morning, the WJR party was taken to the Lyceum Shaalavim Jewish School, educating 100-plus youngsters up to the age of 16, where the spirit of staff and pupils compensates for a dilapidated building and a constant financial struggle. Indeed, one of the youngest boys delighted the visitors by breaking into an impromptu Cossack dance during an Ivrit lesson.

WJR has been supporting the school's special needs programme, including one-to-one tuition for the most serious cases. But when the loss of the school's main funder threatened its future, WJR extended its backing, now meeting two-thirds of a reduced $150,000 budget.

As with other institutions, it has to cope with rocketing rent, food and transport costs and an appeal was made to identify potential donors.

Reflecting on the visit, WJR chief executive Paul Anticoni saw the Wohl building as "a significant step forward, but it's a very long road. Sustainability of Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union is not just about finances - it's also about communal governance and responsibility. There isn't a culture domestically of rich looking after poor, strong looking after weak, those with access to resources providing access for those who do not. This is a society that expected the state to look after everyone."

The community centre afforded "an incentive to take responsibility, a pride in bricks and mortar. It would be a crying shame not to expect a far greater utilisation of this building than we have seen at the past two buildings."

In financial terms, the bulk of WJR's work is in the former Soviet Union and the major part of that is in Ukraine, "which is inextricably linked to the fact that it has the largest concentration of vulnerable Jews.

"The scale of poverty is absolutely daunting. We hear about antisemitism and the threats to the diaspora in many parts of the world. There is no doubt that in the former Soviet Union, among the largest concentration of Jews outside Israel and the States, poverty is
still the greatest threat to Jewish communities.

Trying to get that across is almost impossible unless you spend an hour holding the hand of an elderly lady who looks very similar to your own grandmother and understanding her story."

Praising the commitment of WJR donors, he pointed out: "We don't have an old age home in Temple Fortune. The people we help are 3,500 miles further east in a grey, dreary unattractive part of the world which is nigh on impossible to get to on your own. Conveying the message of vulnerability and complexity is so hard. If we can encourage people to come out here and to empathise with our extended family, boy does it engage them."

    Last updated: 1:58pm, April 7 2011