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Visit to Jewish Institutions in Moscow

November 24 to December 4, 1997
(continued)


Discussing Moscow Jewish demography, Mr. Sheizaf said that between 1.0 and 1.8 million Jews live in Russia and that between 170,000 and 200,000 of that number live in Moscow. Of those who reside in Moscow, 30,000 to 50,000 have some association with a Jewish organization, although that relationship may be passive. Many of the rest are "hiding" or simply do not know that opportunities for exist for Jewish experiences and affiliations.

Regarding potential for aliyah from Moscow, Mr. Sheizaf said that aliyah from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kyiv is relatively low because many Jews in those cities perceive bright economic futures for themselves in these large population centers. Jewish life has never been important to them in the past and they have no interest in it now. Every Jew "has a corner in his heart for Israel," said Mr. Sheizaf, but Israel can wait. Everyone seems to have a problem deterring aliyah; for some, it is a non-Jewish spouse. For others, elderly parents require care and/or local business opportunities show great promise. Mr. Sheizaf observed that the reluctance to emigrate was also evident in the fact that American and German immigration quotas for Jews from the successor states were also unfilled.

Mr. Sheizaf said that the Israeli Cultural Center operates a Sunday school enrolling 86 youngsters between the ages of seven and 17. Approximately 45 of these pupils actually appear on any Sunday. The Center also offers Hebrew classes, lectures, a Russian-language library on various Jewish and Israeli topics, holiday celebrations, a student club (for young people between the ages of 17 and 26), a children's club (mainly art classes),29 and, through the Maccabee sports organization, activities in basketball, soccer, judo, and chess. The Center library is equipped with 12 computers programmed with information about Israel so that potential immigrants can find answers to any questions that they might have. Mr. Sheizaf said that a few non-Jews come to the Center, mainly for youth activities or holiday celebrations; perhaps no more than one or two percent of participants in Moscow are non-Jews, but the proportion may be higher in smaller cities because there is nothing else to do in some of these places.

31. Paul J. Martin is a Second Secretary at the Embassy of the United States in Moscow. He apologized for his lack of detailed information on some subjects, explaining that he had been in his position only two months.

In response to a question about the September 26 signing of a bill by President Boris Yeltsin that effectively restricts religious freedom,30 Mr. Martin said that enactment of the bill had received strong support from populist forces in the Duma and from the official Russian Orthodox church. The latter fears competition from other Christian denominations.

In addition to the restrictive nature of the new law, the U.S. Embassy considers it very poorly written. It is self-contradictory in several areas. A mitigating factor is that the legislation contains no implementing regulations, so enforcement of it may be liberal.

Responding to another question, Mr. Martin said that a middle class is "rising" in Russia, but it is "developing very slowly". The current year (1997) is the first in which there has been economic growth in Russia, although this growth has occurred only in major cities.

Antisemitism still exists, but it is not tolerated officially. Right-wing groups, such as the group associated with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are increasingly on the fringe of society.

Observations

32. In no other post-Soviet Jewish population center that this writer has visited does such a large segment of the indigenous Jewish population appear so alienated from Israel and Zionism as in Moscow. Israel often seems to be the unspeakable word. It represents a twofold threat. On one level, the notion of tiny, often vulnerable, levantine Israel as a homeland preferable to that of a [greatly diminished] superpower is demeaning and insulting, even laughable, to the large proportion of Moscow Jewry who identify with the Russian intelligentsia and/or the new business elite. On a second level, the attraction of Israel to several segments of Russian Jewry, however limited, is perceived as ominous. If any educated post-Soviet Jews choose to live in Israel, the self-confidence of other Jews in the security of Russia (Moscow) as homeland may be misplaced; if Jewish young people depart for Israel, the future of the nascent local Jewish community is less certain. Israeli recruitment of academically able Jewish youth for such programs as Naaleh and Sela is viewed by some as a hostile act.

Moscow Jewry (or a significant segment thereof) certainly is not the only population cohort to express unbridled hope in a future that others perceive as less promising. But perhaps all is not as it may appear. Among the very wealthy supporters of the Russian Jewish Congress are those who maintain foreign bank accounts, foreign residences, and, in some cases, foreign citizenship, thus suggesting that their expressed optimism is less than immutable. That some hold these forms of insurance in Israel suggests that alienation is less absolute than is apparent.

That different Jews in Moscow hold different sentiments about Israel is hardly startling. Diversity of attachment is also common in other diaspora lands with far less traumatic histories. Those Jews who elect to remain in Moscow or else-where in post-Soviet Russia must develop their own relationships with Zion. What is troubling about the current situation is less the fact that many local Jews exhibit disdain for Israel than the reality that some Israelis working in Moscow under Jewish auspices seem to encourage that disdain by nurturing extravagant visions of "a brilliant Russian Jewish culture". Demographic characteristics alone -- very low birth rate, high average age and high death rate, massive intermarriage -- suggest that exuberant proclamations about a brilliant Russian Jewish culture are careless at best.

33. A related issue is the enormous importance attached by Jewish Muscovites to local control over local Jewish communal institutions. The Russian Jewish Congress is an outgrowth of just such sentiment. Notwithstanding the compelling logic of such a view, the heritage of seven decades of Soviet rule ill prepares indigenous Jews to operate their own institutions. They lack skills in priority-setting and planning. Civil debate, tolerance, and accountability are not characteristic of deliberations conducted under the Soviet regime. Narrow horizons do not generate vision. Neither the Soviet economic system nor post-Soviet financial chaos produces financial management skills.

Not only do those indigenous Jews now assuming roles as lay leaders lack qualifications to represent Moscow Jewry. Those becoming Jewish communal service professionals are even less able. The JDC Institute for Communal and Social Service Workers in St. Petersburg (including its branches in other cities) has accomplished much in addressing short-term needs, but true professionalism will emerge only after more systematic training and more extensive experience.

34. The potential appeal to Jews in Moscow of those forms of Judaism identified in the United States with the Reform and Conservative movements is substantial. The failure of these movements to support rabbis in the Russian capital is extraordinary and inexplicable; skilled leaders with good Russian-language skills will attract their own financial support after an initial period of subsidy.

 

 

Betsy Gidwitz
January 5, 1998



29. Eight children were present at an art class during the visit of the writer to the Israeli Cultural Center. The library was more extensive than libraries that the writer has seen in other Israel Cultural Centers. Only two of the computers were up-to-date Pentium models; however, Mr. Sheizaf said that the 10 old 286s probably would be replaced soon.
30.  As noted earlier, the Jewish population of St. Petersburg is probably about 90,000. A large proportion of St. Petersburg Jewry is descended from Jews who migrated to Leningrad from Belarus shtetls in the pre-war period or immediately after the war as refugees; their Jewish identity is stronger than that of many Moscow Jews. Additionally, the St. Petersburg economy is much weaker than that of Moscow.

 
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