Betsy Gidwitx Reports
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Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999
(continued)


The Israeli education system, it has been noted, does not generate strengthened Jewish identity. It does little to close the gap between children of newcomers and children of veteran Israelis. Most of the latter, although not observant in a traditional sense, have absorbed a popular Judaism and a sense of Zionism simply by osmosis. The system of immigrant absorption (klitah) in Israel does not embrace Judaism as a religion or even as a cultural expression. However, because the Israeli government manages most absorption programs, some fear that religious tensions inherent in Israeli government coalitions would permeate and contaminate Judaically-enhanced absorption efforts.

34. Responding to the above situation and without direction from its lay governance, the Jewish Agency began to incorporate Jewish identity-building measures into its Hebrew-language ulpans in Russia. According to JAFI staff in Russia, these measures include six to eight presentations in Russian on the Jewish calendar, Jewish life cycle, Jewish values and philosophy, and respect for Jewish tradition. Jewish and Israeli holidays are commemorated in classrooms and participants are invited to broader community observances. Aliyah-bound families are invited to weekend seminars in which psychologists help families learn about Judaism and Zionism in family units. Preparation for Bar and Bat Mitzvah is done within family programs, rather than within youth programs, so that entire families may benefit from the educational experience. Non-Jewish members of nuclear families are included in all such efforts so that they are encouraged to consider Judaism and Zionism as integral to a new lifestyle.

It has been posited that the Jewish Agency should become more active in absorption efforts in Israel because it is JAFI, with its substantial Diaspora leadership, that will encourage a Jewish identification that is tolerant and compatible with the advanced secular education of most post-Soviet Jews. However, a lack of financial support for JAFI absorption endeavors is a critical barrier to implementation of such programs.

35. Indigenous Jewish leadership in Russia remains unequal to the tasks thrust upon it. A positive management style, planning and fundraising skills, financial management capacity, and other essential elements of leadership remain elusive among many individuals who matured during the Soviet or early post-Soviet period. The dearth of responsible indigenous lay and professional Jewish leadership has severe implications for the timely development of local Jewish institutions.

36. The Russian Jewish Congress (REK) represents a bold attempt to develop local leadership and local instrumentalities to address local Jewish needs. Appropriate credit should be accorded Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt for nurturing this organization. REK has proved responsive in several areas, such as providing immediate security assistance to Jewish schools and other institutions after several antisemitic incidents in mid-1999 suggested the vulnerability of such installations. However, its allocations seem strangely one-sided, with more than half of its distribution directed toward maintenance of a memorial and Jewish heritage museum and adjacent synagogue. Relatively small amounts are apportioned to such critical areas as welfare services and Jewish education. Its key leadership, both lay and professional, often seems aloof from the Jewish population it claims to serve.

36. The Russian Jewish Congress (REK) represents a bold attempt to develop local leadership and local instrumentalities to address local Jewish needs. Appropriate credit should be accorded Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt for nurturing this organization. REK has proved responsive in several areas, such as providing immediate security assistance to Jewish schools and other institutions after several antisemitic incidents in mid-1999 suggested the vulnerability of such installations. However, its allocations seem strangely one-sided, with more than half of its distribution directed toward maintenance of a memorial and Jewish heritage museum and adjacent synagogue. Relatively small amounts are apportioned to such critical areas as welfare services and Jewish education. Its key leadership, both lay and professional, often seems aloof from the Jewish population it claims to serve.

Whether these shortcomings are merely growing pains in the young life of a new institution remains to be seen. It is to be hoped that REK matures quickly because it and its synagogue-related sister association KEROOR are the only national indigenous Jewish organizations in Russia that are inclusive, tolerant, functional, and self-supporting.

37. Whereas REK shows promise as a community-wide voice of Russian Jewry, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the C.I.S., which assumed a legal character in Russia in late 1999, seems divisive and decidedly parochial in its approach to Jewish communal concerns. Declining to permit its affiliated rabbis and synagogues to participate in KEROOR, apparently because KEROOR includes Reform congregations, and generally rejecting collaborative efforts with either the Chief Rabbi of Russia or the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, FJC has established itself as a competitor to REK while continuing to accept subsidies for various FJC operations from REK. Its public declarations, such as its Mission Statement, are deceptive and misleading, avoiding mention of its Chabad attachment89 and imputing to FJC a unifying character, which it does not possess.90

38. The impending departure from Moscow of Alla Levy, Head of the JAFI Delegation in Moscow and Russia, after a tour of two and one-half years underscores the need for agency representatives in the successor states who are well-educated, articulate in the Russian language, sophisticated in their understanding of Russian and post-Soviet culture, self-confident, creative, resourceful, able to deal with politically complex issues, and open to collaborative relationships with other organizations. Too few such envoys are available, a reality that is painfully clear as active Jewish life in contemporary Russia enters its second decade.

 

 

Betsy Gidwitz
December 30, 1999

 



89.  See pp. 43-44
90.  FJC has initiated several actions that appear to have generated a major schism in the organized Russian Jewish community. Whether by design or by naïveté, FJC permitted itself just prior to the December 1999 Duma elections to be drawn into Russian partisan politics, seeming to align itself with the election interests of the Unity Party of Vladimir Putin, current Prime Minister and leading candidate in the June 2000 Russian Presidential elections. Shortly before the Duma elections, Mikhail Gluz, the secular lay leader of FJC, appeared on an ORT television channel program in which REK was accused of being a “fifth column of the West.” ORT, which was fiercely partisan throughout the election campaign on behalf of the Unity Party, is among the media outlets controlled by Boris Berezovsky, a high-profile oligarch of both Jewish origin and dubious character. Vladimir Gusinsky, the President of REK, controls a smaller and less partisan media domain, and was allied with one of several political parties opposing Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin also addressed the FJC annual meeting shortly before the Duma elections, an action that exposed FJC to charges that it favored a particular political faction and is hostile to REK and to Mr. Gusinsky. FJC made no effort to provide a forum to other political figures.

Further, FJC attempted, with considerable success, to sabotage an arrangement between KEROOR and the Russian government that was to have effected the return of 61 Soviet-confiscated Torah scrolls to the Jewish community through KEROOR in December 1999. A one-sentence letter to the Russian government from Rabbi Berel Lazar claimed that FJC represented the Jews of Russia and requested that the Torahs be returned to it. As a result, only ten Torah scrolls were transferred to KEROOR for distribution to synagogues around the country.

 
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