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Visit to Jewish Institutions in Moscow

November 24 to December 4, 1997


The following is an account of a visit to Moscow in late November and early December of 1997. Particular attention during this visit was directed to Jewish educational and communal institutions in Moscow and to Jewish emigration trends in Moscow and European Russia.

Visitors to Moscow have long commented on the enduring drabness of the Russian capital, a pervasive somber ambience that often appears replicated in the faces of countless inhabitants of this sprawling urban area. The impression of grayness is especially strong in winter as the leaden skies of the season seem to hang heavily over the city. Occasional bursts of color, in the cupolas of St. Basil's Cathedral or in garish billboards, only emphasize the overall dourness and gloom associated with Moscow. 1

In early winter of 1997, this conventional vision of plodding Moscow seems sorely outdated. Traffic chokes the streets as numerous new vehicles, many of foreign manufacture, overwhelm an existing road system never intended to accommodate large numbers of private vehicles. Construction cranes dot the sky and modern buildings rise in great number. The ponderous structures of the Soviet era remain, but much of pre-Revolutionary Moscow is being restored; graceful buildings long stained by decades of urban grime are regaining their radiance and charm.

Elegant new shops, including branch stores of prominent Western designers, line Moscow thoroughfares. Several high-standard hotels have opened, serving international businessmen in search of new commercial opportunities. New office buildings with Western amenities are visible as are numerous computer and office equipment stores, automobile showrooms, McDonald's and Pizza Hut outlets, supermarkets, and other evidence of the seeming transformation of the Russian capital.

In excursions by car and on foot and in discussions with various Muscovites and with foreigners in the growing international community, the experienced visitor readily perceives a new dynamism and vitality in Russia's largest city, at least among the middle and upper classes and the intelligentsia. Many of its citizens are optimistic about the future, convinced that Moscow offers numerous opportunities to those willing to work hard.

Yet reminders of the long Soviet period are everywhere apparent. Some of the new construction is characterized more by mass than by refinement, more by politicization than by merit or need.2 Many officials in various institutions and organizations, including those serving the Jewish population, remain strongly bureaucratic in the Soviet tradition. Economic upheaval has generated extra-ordinary wealth for some, including a disproportionately large number of Jews; many of the new rich, frequently referred to as New Russians, appear heir to the power and privilege of the old Party elite.

The new rich are accompanied by a large increase in the number of im-poverished individuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Most widely recognized in this category are elderly people whose pensions have not been adjusted to reflect the extreme inflation that has seized Russia (and other transition states) since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Less well publicized is the substantial growth in the number of children living in distressed conditions in Moscow and throughout the post-Soviet states.

The glitter and visible dynamism of Moscow often seems but a façade for a shrinking Russian industrial base, diminished investment and innovation, increasing dependence on imports, a flight of highly trained individuals from science and technology to commercial pursuits, declining standards of living for much of the population, agricultural stagnation, widespread use of barter in place of money, a collapse of public finances, and widespread crime and corruption. The political environment is unstable, nationalism is increasing in several ethnic groups, and the nascent legal system is floundering. 3

Jewish Population of Moscow

1. Any review of Jewish life in Moscow must necessarily consider the number of Jews residing in the Russian capital. However, this statistic remains elusive and even controversial. Difficulties stem not only from defining Jewish identity,4 but also from questions of status peculiar to Soviet and post-Soviet conditions.

Jewish heritage was recorded as Jewish nationality in Soviet internal passports. Yet many halakhic Jews attempted to evade designation as Jews by obtaining a false passport nationality (usually as Russians). Still others have converted to Christianity, but insist that they remain Jews, citing the Soviet designation of Jewish heritage as a nationality -- and contending that Jewish nationality is compatible with Christian religious identification.

The accuracy of Soviet census data regarding the Soviet Jewish population has long been suspect because Soviet census recorders generally did not require proof of claimed nationality. As no advantage was gained by asserting Jewish identification, it has been assumed that at least some Jews declared another ethnicity. It is likely that similar misstatements will be made in census surveys in the post-Soviet successor states, some of which are planning census studies in 1999 or 2000.

2. The Jewish Agency for Israel, the Lishkat Hakesher, and several respected academic demographers place the Jewish population of Moscow in the range of 175,000 to 200,000 individuals. In speaking with both local and foreign Jews holding responsible positions in Moscow Jewish communal institutions and in academic Judaic studies, the writer heard estimates of the Moscow Jewish population as high as 500,000 and 800,000. As is common throughout the post-Soviet transition states, the average age of Jews in Moscow is believed to be in the mid-fifties.

3. Whatever its total Jewish population, Moscow is unique in the successor states in that its Jewish population has increased in recent years. Between 30,000 and 50,000 Sephardic Jews from Georgia (Gruzia), the Caucasus Mountain region, and the Central Asia area have migrated to the Russian capital since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A large number of heads of households are traders in the various markets or bazaars in Moscow and its immediate surroundings. Many Mountain Jews have settled in the area near the Izmailovo market in the eastern part of the capital city.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, has assisted the different Sephardic groups in organizing their own communal structures and in engaging rabbis indigenous to specific Sephardic cultures. Rabbi Goldschmidt intends to develop a Jewish day school in the Izmailovo area that addresses the needs of Mountain Jewish children. Many youngsters from this community speak only halting Russian, have various social problems, and drop out of school at an early age. He anticipates an initial enrollment of 150 to 200 youngsters in 1998.

4. Other than a few areas populated by recent Sephardic Jewish migrants, Moscow Jews are not concentrated in particular neighborhoods. Their dispersal throughout a sprawling city of 12 million residents generates severe service delivery difficulties for Jewish organizations attempting to sponsor various communal programs.

5. In addition to indigenous and post-Soviet migrant Jews, an increasing number of expatriate Jews is residing in Moscow as diplomats, aid workers, lawyers, business people, and journalists. Several hundred have participated in Jewish holiday celebrations, such as sedarim and Chanukah parties, developed for the foreign Jewish population. Among the leaders in organizing such events are: Dr. Eugene Weiner, Director of Special Projects for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Moscow; Anita Weiner, also employed by JDC; and Faye Siegel, originally from Atlanta. These efforts have been supported by the Embassy of the United States, which has provided space for various functions, and by Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt.

Jewish Day Schools

The writer visited six of the seven Jewish day schools in Moscow, noting several differences between them and Jewish day schools in Ukraine: (1) Moscow lacks the large day schools that are well established in Ukraine, such as those in Dnipropetrovsk [700+ pupils] and Kyiv [550+]; (2) day schools in Ukraine operate fleets of buses to transport pupils between home and school, whereas most day schools in Moscow rely on the extensive Moscow Metro system for pupil transport; (3) computer equipment is more extensive and up-to-date in most Moscow schools, an outgrowth of the Russian Jewish Congress policy to provide day schools with such technology; (4) reflecting more precarious economic conditions in Ukraine, a primary attraction of day schools there is the provision by schools of two or three meals daily to all pupils, whereas pupil safety seems to be a more compelling appeal in crime-ridden Moscow; and (5) reflecting much higher Jewish emigration in Ukraine, Zionism appears more influential in several schools there and enrollment is less stable as families depart for Israel and other countries.

6. Achey Tmimim and Beit Rivka are the boys' and girls' schools respectively of the Chabad movement in Moscow. The two schools operate separate classes in the same building, enrolling 250 youngsters in grades one through eleven and 30 in a kindergarten program. Achey Tmimim and Beit Rivka are often referred to collectively by the name of the boys' school or as "the Kuravsky school," the latter in reference to its principal Zev Kuravsky.



1. Garish commercial advertisements are, perhaps, a different political form of the garish state propaganda so prevalent during the Soviet period.
2. Among the most commonly cited examples are reconstruction of the enormous Christ the Savior Cathedral (at a cost of $300 million) and erection of a supremely ugly 150' tall bronze statue of the Peter the Great. (The latter is intended to legitimize the notion of Moscow as the tra-ditional center of Russia and diminish the historic role of St. Petersburg, the city founded in 1703 by Peter the Great as a "window on Europe" and designated capital of Russia by Peter in 1713.
3See The Washington Post, December 25, 1997.
4. According to halakha (Orthodox Jewish law), a Jew is a person whose mother is Jewish. The Reform (Progressive) movement accepts patrilineal descent as well. The Law of Return of the State of Israel confers automatic citizenship on an individual (a) with at least one Jewish grandparent or (b) married to a Jew. Many Orthodox rabbis in the post-Soviet successor states accept only halakhically Jewish children in programs under their supervision, thus excluding potential immigrants from various Jewish educational opportunities.

 
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