Ukranian revival

“After the war, I grew up in what was then called the Soviet Union,” Katz explained. “In our home, we had a bit of Judaism because my mother came from an Orthodox background.”

GILA KATZ displays the certificate marking 25 years since she established Camp Ramah Yachad in Ukraine.  (photo credit: SCHECHTER INSTITUTES)
GILA KATZ displays the certificate marking 25 years since she established Camp Ramah Yachad in Ukraine.
Gila Katz never imagined that in her lifetime it could be possible to open Jewish day schools and summer camps in Ukraine – let alone that she herself would play a role in pioneering them.
Katz has been living in Jerusalem almost 25 years, since she made aliyah from Chernovitz, Ukraine in 1995. She has been going back and forth to the Ukraine, leaving her mark as an outstanding Jewish educator in the country where she was born and raised.
 And now, upon her retirement at the age of 77, she looks back almost in astonishment at the revival of Jewish life in the Ukraine.
“On the one hand I’m very proud, especially since I never thought Ukraine would have a Jewish president [comedian Volodymyr Zelensky],” Katz said, “but on the other hand, I’m a bit worried because if the president doesn’t succeed, the blame will be on the entire Jewish people. So I hope he succeeds both for Ukraine and the Jewish people.”
Katz recalls how she learned the Hebrew language during the early 1980s, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. She had been traveling by train to Moscow for a doctor’s appointment when a young girl in her compartment sized her up and whispered: “Are you Jewish?”
Katz nodded. The girl gave her a street address. She went, and to her amazement, the room was full of Jews who were gathering together to learn Hebrew, with one of the members standing guard outside the building and on the lookout for police. In the early 1980s, Jewish gatherings or studying Hebrew, although not officially illegal, was used as a pretext to persecute Jews and were still a crime.
“You could be put in jail for doing this. That’s what happened to all the Jewish activists before Glasnost,” said Katz, referring to the historic period of “openness and transparency” instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.
Katz was raised in Chernowitz, a thriving cultural center before World War II, dubbed the “Little Vienna of Western Ukraine.” Before the war, Chernowitz had 200,000 Jews and 70 synagogues, some dating back as far as the 15th century.
“After the war, I grew up in what was then called the Soviet Union,” Katz explained. “In our home, we had a bit of Judaism because my mother came from an Orthodox background.”
All of her family were killed in the Transnistria extermination camp, where they perished due to hard labor and starvation. After the war, in 1948, Stalin began his reign of terror. Stalin was antisemitic, like Hitler, and it was no longer safe to be Jewish. Most of Chernovitz’s 70 synagogues were destroyed or converted for other purposes, like warehouses. By the end of World War II, there were only two synagogues left. The Jewish theatre group disbanded. The Jewish newspaper closed down. Jews lived in fear of being found out.
Although Katz’s Hebrew lessons in Moscow lasted only two weeks, during a period she was visiting for medical appointments, the secret gathering of Jews from elite and cultured backgrounds left an indelible impression. Back in Chernovitz, she continued to teach herself Hebrew on her own and soon, other Jews came to her for lessons, too.
“Before Glasnost, everything was forbidden, even though the awakening of Jewish consciousness could be pinpointed to Golda Meir’s visit to a Moscow synagogue in 1968, when Meir was the Israeli foreign minister” Katz recalled. “It was dangerous because the KGB were watching. The KGB were so sure that nobody would come that they didn’t close off the synagogues. They were surprised when thousands came. This meeting inspired the fight for the right to emigrate to Israel.”
Meanwhile, in the US, Yosef Zissels, who founded the Jewish Ukrainian Committee, understood the importance of Jewish education. He began sending many Hebrew teachers from Israel to visit Ukraine in the late 1980s. He established the first Ulpan and hired Katz as the director.
After a few months of this Jewish ulpan, Katz suggested to Zissels a Jewish day school.
“It wasn’t so simple, opening a Jewish day school, because you had to get permission from the government for a school, and then persuade parents to send their children,” Katz said. “He wasn’t for it until he found an organization who would support it.”
It was the Schechter Institute’s Midreshet Yerushalayim, already active teaching Russians who made aliyah, who took the opportunity to expand into Ukraine. In 1991, they opened the first Jewish day school in Chernovitz and a day school in Moscow.
“That’s when the gates were fully opened. Before then, you couldn’t make aliyah to Israel,” Katz explained, noting that she made aliyah soon after. “If you applied to migrate, you lost your job, had no way to make a living, and could be put in prison for being a ‘state parasite.’ If a family requested to leave with a child, teachers would humiliate the child – saying that child was a traitor.
Upon leaving, they had to pay a hefty education tax. You were only allowed to take $90, and this amount covered just the airfare, so we all came here penniless, surviving for the first months on the sal klita, the absorption stipend, provided by the Aliyah Ministry.”
Katz, like most olim, was fully prepared to leave her former life behind. But almost as soon as she arrived in Israel, she was called back to Ukraine to continue developing a nationwide network of Jewish schools. To this day, she has been going back and forth.
“I didn’t dream of that,” she laughed. From 1990-1995, she was the representative of the Midreshet’s project in the Ukraine, organizing Jewish day schools in Chernovitz, Odessa, Lvov, and Sunday schools in Berdichev, Kiev and other places.
Of all her projects, the summer camp Ramah Yachad occupies a special place in her heart. Over more than 27 years, since she started the camp, at least 1,200 campers have become citizens of Israel.
Ninety percent of counselors have made aliyah, some coming as high school students under the Na’ale Program, attending Goldstein Youth Village in Hadera, where the teaching is done in Russian and Hebrew. Those who come at the age of 19 come through Masa Israel Journey, offering internships, study abroad and volunteer opportunities.
Following in the footsteps of their camp director, they go back and forth.
“They return to Camp Ramah Yachad to volunteer as counselors after they finish their army service,” Katz said. “I don’t personally tell campers or counselors to make aliyah. But being in a Jewish camp with a Zionist atmosphere influences them.
“The children receive the feeling they’re part of the Jewish people, which they didn’t realize beforehand. They discover that Israel is important not only for Jews in Israel, but for Jews all over the world.”
From September 2020, Gila Katz will serve as a consultant, and Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, graduate of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, will serve as its new director. This is Katz’s last year as the director of Camp Ramah Yachad.