COMMUNITY - ONE FAMILY
How is it built in Ukraine?
Charity, the Torah and Talmud laid the foundations of, has always been peculiar of Jews. Once you are rich, well-to-do - do not evoke divine anger, help the poor and unfortunate. Tzedaka's noble principles have again come into use in the Jewish life of Ukraine after the community started getting to its feet. The Jewish fund of Ukraine, which renders assistance to many in need - from war veterans to students and scholars, has recently marked its fifth anniversary. The fund constantly helps the development of Jewish culture. Only during the past year the fund raised over 820,5 thousand hryvnas. Though, it is enough with figures. I would least want our talk with the JFU general director Arkady Monastyrsky remind a ceremonial report. A humble fund's jubilee appeared rather a ground for discussing problems of charity in Ukraine's Jewish community, and not only them...
- Arkady, of late some Jewish organizations speak much about intensifying their work. How much, in your opinion, does this correspond do the reality?
- We are today on the threshold of the second decade of Jewish renaissance in Ukraine. There is, of course, much to boast of, but the problems are also numerous.
To my mind, the first decade was the time of reviving Jewish community life. We, luckily, succeeded in putting this to life within several years. We have schools, kindergartens, hold hupas, circumcisions, bar-mitzvahs, kheseds and community centers are functioning, there are khevra-kadishs, in a word, we have an entire complex of attributes and institutions necessary for a Jew to live in a contemporary community. Foreign sponsors - American, Israeli, European ones - have rendered us an indeed huge help over this decade. Ukraine's Jewish community was gradually taking for granted the fact there are rich "misters" and "ladies" much fond of the Jewish life's revival, of our having the young, adults and old to be helped. But, as you know, a human being, sooner or later, gets bored with all this. When kind "misters" see the child has grown up but holds on to his father's or mother's hand and makes no independent steps, they start losing their temper.
We feel foreign help is subsiding, donations decrease and we often hear a question, "Why don't you yourself look for funds to sustain your community?"
- But why, indeed? I address you as one of those people known to be able to find money for community needs.
- There are several problems here. The first is imperfectiveness of Ukraine's present legislation. We still have no laws to encourage charitable activities. There is, true, the law on charitable funds but it has many weak points and is in no way related to the laws on profit of enterprises and on entrepreneurship in general. This is a paradox but memorial funds cannot, practically, exist in Ukraine. For instance, an elderly respectable Jew with some wealth, but without children and grandchildren to leave his legacy to cannot legate his property or set up a fund of his own. The matter is that each year this fund will "slim" by 30%. According to the law on the profit of enterprise, this is exactly the amount that will be taken by the government as a "profit tax" of this fund whatever the interest rate may be. This is a terrible law, but it does exist in Ukraine. This is a reason why people in Ukraine make charity contributions unwillingly. There is no comparison between Ukrainian legislation on charity funds and those of America or Europe where a huge fund-raising industry has been created.
- Once, I had a talk with a top Ukrainian official on this problem. He said that the government doesn't trust businessmen. The government has a fear that big money will be laundered under the guise of charity funds. The scheme is very simple. Someone pretends to contribute a considerable amount to a charity organization. In fact, he contributes only 1/5 or 1/10 of this amount, the rest returns to him as a "backwash". In your opinion, how true are these fears?
- No one can deny that such transfers are possible. But there are different funds, and there are different people. Even in America. There the charity laws are almost perfect. Still there are funds, which are based either on family business or money laundering. However, they are not many, and they are under control of the law. If we want to go in for charity, we have to trust people more, to believe that they have clean hands and their intentions are fair. If the Ukrainian government trusted their businessmen more, it wouldn't have so many problems in all areas. I am also rather surprised to hear that employees in charity funds should work on a voluntary basis. It may hold good if it is a small fund with no employees but the director or president himself. However, it does not hold good for the All-Ukrainian organizations and funds. Nowadays, professionals go to work in Jewish communities: there exists a developed system of kheseds, there are community centers, which are managed by people who should be adequately paid for their work. The government, no doubt, has the right to ask how the charity money is spent. This is what it is for. Honest people, however, should not be afraid of such a control. By the way, the Cabinet of Ministers has developed a rather intelligible reporting document. It helps to check the activities of any fund, its transparency and all other things. There are also tax inspections responsible for controlling the activities of charity funds. Let them work.
- So, the words of the aforementioned official are simply an excuse, aren't they?
- I think, they are. They do not want to solve the problem but wave it away.
Now, here comes our second problem. I mean the lack of formal Jewish education in people who have come into business nowadays.
- What do you mean by "education"?
- All this is linked together: formal education and Jewish soul.
All these businessmen were brought up in the times when many of our people tried to change their Jewish nationality in the passports for any other. What does 'a idishe neshume' mean to such people? Moreover, some businessmen tend to join the Jewish community when their business is bad. They don't rush there when their business is good. This is also a problem. When we speak with you about Jew- politicians, businessmen, creative and educational workers, we have no right to conceal the fact that they sometimes also have their claims to the community.
Sometimes it might happen because at the dawn of the community development its leaders couldn't understand and recognize a creative and thoughtful person who came to them with a brilliant idea. He was not listened to, he was not assisted, and he went away from Jews. There were cases when such people went into Christianity. The reason may be our mentality and character we have developed over many years - each goes on one's own, or, as we say, our chief is the wisest one, etc. May we missed anything?! For example, a new organization is being set up. It is called "Magen Avot" and is to oppose missionaries. Should we look inside the problem? Why do Jews prefer to go to "soul-catchers" but not to the Jewish community?
- No hysteria is needed in resolving this problem?
- As well as in resolving many other problems. For example, why is there no concordance in the "Jewish Street" in Ukraine? At present, we have Orthodox, Conservative and Progressive kinds of Judaism in Ukraine. Their leaders can't find common language.
- Or, they don't want to find it?
- May be, they don't. Who knows? The middle generation is in no hurry to join the community. But, they are the people who can give money for a specific project. It is very doubtful to take Hrv 5-10 from pensioners. This won't help. The community needs those who are able for tzedaka and who want it to be realized.
- Do they want it sincerely? Once, our public leaders decided that strong businessmen should head the communities. The decision seemed to be all right. But did it work as it was expected?
- I think it didn't. Organization that was set up for a particular person seems to be a real charity fund, the leader of which does not take money from one person to give it to another, but helps those in need. This is not bad at all. Thanks to people who spend a share of their profit for charity instead of wasting money on trifles or on something important for them personally. This rule holds good if it is a fund.
However, it does not work if it is a large-scale organization, which does not need a leader or ruler but a team of like-minded people. Nevertheless, all existing congresses and confederations have been set up for particular leaders. They used to give a sacramental promise to help the Jewish community and represent its interests abroad. By the way, the presence of several organizations and several leaders representing the Jewish community creates some problems for our friends abroad. They do not know whom to deal with in a specific case. This means, "something is wrong in our kingdom".
- Especially, if we take into consideration that many promises are not kept.
- Right you are. We expected from leaders-businessmen to be consistent, as Marxists used to say. I mean they should not link their contributions only with certain holidays but shall finance permanent projects. By doing this they would have earned the respect of the chief sponsors of the Jewish community in Ukraine, I mean, "Claims Conference" and "Joint". For example, there are some programs in kheseds to help diabetics. Nobody helps or manages these programs. Nobody helps 40-50-year-old invalids who do not meet the khesed requirements. These are the people whom our businessmen could help. It would be desirable and fair if a particular businessman participated and contributed to these khesed programs. In fact, this does not take place and any interest to such leaders vanishes.
- The respect for such leaders diminishes even more.
- Exactly. However, our businessmen are eager to sponsor newspapers and TV programs. In former times, we, social workers, frankly speaking, underestimated the capacity of mass media. Sometimes, it also tells the truth. But, if the man is told everyday through TV or newspapers that the snow is black, he'll soon believe this lie.
- And our businessmen understood it well.
- Yes, they do understand that money invested in mass media gives profit. With the help of mass media they are much spoken about, people know them. Though, on the other hand, they try to avoid much publicity in non-Jewish mass media. With the help of mass media the community knows who its leaders are. Besides, Jewish "local" leaders, if invited and paid for the trip, will willingly come to the capital to participate in a meeting or a congress. On the one hand, it is good to get together and to communicate with one another, to feel members of one family. They discuss their own problems and visit the offices of all big Jewish organizations. But that is all. They return home and encounter the same problems, which continue to exist and are not being solved. There is one serious problem more. Unfortunately, many organizations and communities do not offer any worthy projects for realization. As a rule, their work is bound only to organizing the celebration of Jewish holidays: Hanukah, Pesakh, Purim and Rosh a-Shana. This is all they wish to cooperate in with All-Ukrainian Jewish organizations. They seldom propose a good idea to support. Moreover, many Jewish local leaders occupy the positions of either directors of kheseds or schools, or chairmen of religious communities. They have their own sufficient funds and not all of them, strange as it may sound, are interested in additional finances. They are self-sufficient in their region or city and are seldom interested in All-Ukrainian programs. Here I mean the leaders, not the organizations themselves - the latter are eager to cooperate with us.
So, new ideas are needed. We, in our turn, each year try to collect information from regions. Unfortunately, not all respond. Nevertheless, each year we receive 5 or 6 new proposals. After receiving them we start making up the budget to support these new ideas. When doing this, we rely on businessmen of the "second wave". Unfortunately, we can't get money from very rich people. They are rather busy; they have their own parties, football clubs, banks, etc. On the contrary, the businessmen of "the second wave" are eager to help us in charity. They are not in big politics yet; therefore, they try to find a respectable position in the community.
- Do you mean that these people give money more willingly though it is not big? But if these people are many and you work persistently you can get the money you need.
- Yes, sometimes we do. However, to my mind, we made a mistake in the past. We didn't work enough with Kiev businessmen. We worked more with young businessmen in Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Nikolayev and Zaporozhje. We did our best to support young people from regions, from periphery. Nowadays, there are some groups of businessmen in Kiev, which support particular organizations. It is very difficult to convince them to help our fund. Nevertheless, we have initiated some good undertakings. Let us take, for example, the international theatrical festival "Wandering Stars", which in few last years became an interesting event in the life of Ukraine. Jewish leaders as well as common Jewish businessmen who could spend their money on something else sponsor it. I can name President of AVEK concern and of Jewish Fund of Ukraine Alexander Feldman, Privatbank and football club "Dynamo-Kiev" headed by President Igor Surkis. As you see, they are different people but they were united by the idea of organizing this theatrical festival. Unfortunately, the leaders of two our big organizations, that is the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress and Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, do not understand this. They think that whatever the Jewish Fund of Ukraine does is its private business. This is not so because the festival is an All-Ukrainian event, not only a Jewish one. Our banks, concerns and companies do contribute to different Ukrainian festivals and contests. Why not to advertise the life and activity of Sholom - Aleikhem, whose characters speak Ukrainian, Russian and other languages on the stage and have become the assets of the whole humanity.
- Once I had a conversation with a leader of one big Jewish organization. This is what he said: " Why should I help them? They said they had set up a fund. Let them work on their own. If I start helping them, what their work would be?" It was said, by the way, about your festivals.
- Our fund is an All-Ukrainian organization. It is not an association or congress in which there is a certain number of rich people who are members of the Board of Trustees. Our fund has been designed to collect money from everybody eager to participate in implementing a certain project. We do work, we do collect money, but, as a rule, it is always not enough. Not a single fund in Ukraine can boast that it is self-sustained.
We are not engaged in selling estates or cars. We exist on voluntary contributions within the legal framework of Ukraine. However, some rich Jewish people prefer shooting serials about " a bourgeois" more than contributing to the festivals of folk art.
-You have touched on an interesting topic. It concerns not only the Jews. Not long ago it was announced in Kiev that one of the basketball European matches would be free for public. The coaches were complaining about the poor attendance. At that match the gym was full. People do like sport, they only lack money. Unfortunately, this is the situation all over Ukraine.
As to the Jews, people say: "They are given privileges". We do know that it is not so.
Jewish organizations and our old people in kheseds, we always emphasize this, do not receive a single penny from the Ukrainian budget. Against this accusation we have strong arguments to shut mouths of all anti-Semites and other dregs. But, here comes a question: "Don't we create the atmosphere of some dependence by relying on the help from outside?"
- Well, it is worth speaking about. Last year our community "Kinor" center was funded by 62% by "Joint". This year we have already lost 20% of expected charity. So, we began collecting contributions from our members. I can't say that all our members, they are about 1200 families, pay but most of them do. 7 hryvnas per year is not a big amount. Even our usual khesed customers pay contributions. The matter is that many of our customers used to receive services free of charge. We think that if they like to come to the center, they have to participate in the work of the center. I think that all other funds and organizations, which do real, not paper, work and whose members like to come and participate in their activities should pay something for a good newspaper, Jewish music, video-cassette, a play or a concert, even if the price is as small as 1-2 hryvnas.
We are not misers or hell-raisers. All this money will go into business and people will see how their money works.
- As we are speaking about very important problems, we should not miss the problem of mutual relations between our big organizations, more precisely, between their leaders. It seems to me that their quarrels give chance to the authorities, if it is needed, to "bring them apart" as it was done in Russia.
- Much depends on how wise the authorities are. They should maintain different mosaics in the country. Many institutions in Ukraine do manage this. Let us take, for example, our newly formed Committee for nationalities and migration. Several All-Ukrainian Jewish organizations are represented there, and this balance is maintained. On the other hand, it is not the best way to attract public attention, though in the West they often ask us: "Who of you is recognized by the government? Whom does the government work with? Whom does the President see?" This is our painful problem. I think we have to set up a Coordination Committee with all leaders of all first-echelon All-Ukrainian Jewish organizations and make it work.
I have to say some unpleasant words to certain Jewish leaders. There are some organizations that are managed by the same people for 10-15 years. Not because they are irreplaceable, but because it is some kind of routine with a strong element of non-democracy. Rotation is needed, as it is done in all international Jewish organizations. Some leaders resign, others come. I see no tragedy when a person, after having occupied a certain position for some time, retires or takes another position. This means that the organization is democratic.
- This rule sounds even better for the community.
- Yes, you are right. Today, those, who claim that Jewish community in Ukraine has not yet been set up, are right and wrong at the same time. The community does exist. However, it is not self-sustained yet. I think we have come to what we began our interview with. After a ten-year period of revival, the community now must think how to become self-sustained. This depends on how Ukraine is going to develop. This is a well-known fact that a well-to-do community can't be created in a not-well-to-do country. We depend on many factors. However, our task is not to give in but do all we can and make the life of our Jewish community decent to evoke not envy but respect.
Interviewed by Mikhail Frenkel