Betsy Gidwitx Reports
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A Survey of Jewish Life in Moscow
October 20-29, 1998
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16. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, a native of Switzerland, is Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Originally funded by Aguda, he is now identified with a broader, more accommodating philosophy. Rabbi Goldschmidt has offices in the large and recently restored Moscow Choral Synagogue on Spasoglinichevsky Lane (Archipov Street).

In speaking of the Jewish population in Moscow, Rabbi Goldschmidt said he believes that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews reside in the Russian capital. If one is considering those who are Jews according to the Israeli Law of Return, i.e., those who have one Jewish grandparent, perhaps as many as one million Jews reside in Moscow. Rabbi Goldschmidt believes that about 40,000 Sephardi Jews from the Caucasus Mountain area and Central Asia have moved to Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of them are in the capital illegally, without residence permits. They are traditional in Jewish practice and well-organized in patriarchal networks that, in many ways, replace the state. Unlike some other observers in Moscow, he thinks that few Jews from smaller cities in Russia, Belarus, or Ukraine have relocated to Moscow in recent years. The high cost of living in Moscow is a deterrent to such moves, he says, and no social service agencies exist in Moscow that would assist people in finding employment, housing, and other necessities.

During an interview in late 1997, Rabbi Goldschmidt had spoken of starting a Jewish day school in the Izmailovo area, near the market in which many Mountain Jews work, 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 had anticipated an initial enrollment of 150 to 200 youngsters during the 1998-1999 school year. However, the cost of initiating such a school has proved prohibitive. He and staff of the Etz Chaim day school, which he sponsors, are working hard to integrate Mountain Jewish youngsters into Etz Chaim. He believes that their integration into Etz Chaim will help them and their families integrate into Moscow, and that their stronger sense of Jewish tradition and Jewish family life will help Ashkenazi children and families at Etz Chaim become more Jewish and develop healthier Jewish families. The Mountain Jews, said Rabbi Goldschmidt, are very proud Jews.

Rabbi Goldschmidt plans to organize a home for disadvantaged Jewish children in early 1999, as soon as he can find suitable premises. Initially, he had hoped to look for housing in the early fall, but the devaluation of the Russian ruble and accompanying drop in real estate prices convinced him to wait until after the first of the year when additional property at reduced cost should be available. He hopes to find premises accommodating about 25 youngsters, both boys and girls. He has engaged a Georgian Jewish couple as houseparents.

Regarding the impact of the economic crisis on the Jewish community, Rabbi Goldschmidt said that the poor will become poorer and the rich will become richer. The rich will do well, he said, because they are able to buy property at distressed prices now and they will sell it later when prices rise. The middle class, continued Rabbu Goldschmidt, "took a big hit". It is likely that many of them will make aliyah. Rabbi Goldschmidt noted that the Russian ruble had been overvalued and that local producers could not compete with imported goods. Now, local producers will do better, and importers will do less well. He believes that Boris Yeltsin will be unable to hold on to power. Gennady Zhuganov, head of the Communist party, has moved the CP somewhat closer to center, and Yuri Luzhkov, Mayor of Moscow, has moved to the left. Rabbi Goldschmidt thinks that very wealthy Jews, who were united in support of Boris Yeltsin and bankrolled his 1996 Presidential campaign, will split their financial support and votes in future elections.


The economic crisis will have some impact on REK, the Russian Jewish Congress. Moscow operations are unlikely to change very much, but some outlying regions will encounter major problems because, in most cases, only a very small number of individuals contributed large amounts to REK. If the primary giver suffered reverses in the economic crisis -- and some have done so -- the financial resources of the local REK office will be greatly diminished. It is likely that the political influence of once-wealthy Jews also will suffer. The ranks of REK leadership, he said, will change. There will be fewer bankers and importers and more manufacturers. REK allocations may be reduced somewhat, but Rabbi Goldschmidt believes that massive reductions are more fear than reality. Vladimir Gousinsky will retain power, said Rabbi Goldschmidt, because his major business activity is in media; banking now is a relatively small portion of his portfolio.

Construction of the planned Jewish Community Center (on property across the street from the Choral Synagogue) will proceed as planned. The first step is acquiring title to the land from the city. The JCC will be a joint project of REK and the Joint Distribution Committee, with JDC providing $5 million of the projected $13 to $14 million cost. Rabbi Goldschmidt cautioned that development of the Center is likely to be exceedingly complex because of the need to involve REK leadership in extensive committee work. He hopes that JDC does not become impatient with all of the necessary process. He observed that JDC has declined a financial commitment to the large JCC currently under construction by Chabad adjacent to the Marina Roscha synagogue. Rabbi Berl Lazar will insist on controlling that facility, whereas JDC prefers community-wide involvement with a community board of directors.

Rabbi Goldschmidt said that the museums in the synagogue at Poklonnaya gora will be developed further. He stated that the cost of the project to date is close to the $8+ million noted in the REK Annual Report, not $10 to $17 million as some claim.

An increase in antisemitism is likely as people suffer from hunger and look for scapegoats, said Rabbi Goldschmidt. Grassroots antisemitism is growing. However, no discernible increase in anti-Jewish bigotry has occurred as a result of the appointment of Yevgeny Primakov as Prime Minister, even through both his mother and father were Jews. General Albert Makashov, the Communist party member and Duma representative, is a problem. His antisemitic statements cannot be ignored.

17. The writer met with Rabbi Berl Lazar, the chief representative of Chabad Lubavitch in Moscow, at the Marina Roscha synagogue. The facility had been firebombed earlier in the year, but the damage had been repaired. No one has been arrested for the crime, and few observers believe that the case ever will be solved. Chabad operates twp additional synagogues in Moscow, a kindergarten, the Achey Tmimim/Beit Rivka day school, a heder, yeshiva, technical college for young men, women's college, youth clubs, welfare service, and other activities. It recently bought its own camp, which has heated buildings for year-round use, near Moscow.

Rabbi Lazar said that he is optimistic about the future of the Moscow Jewish community in the long term. In his view, the world press is much too pessimistic. The economic crisis is causing real difficulties for the elderly, the loss of foreign investment and foreign trust are serious problems, and general recovery will require at least two to three years. However, Russians are accustomed to hardship and will persevere. In what sounded like a political endorsement, Rabbi Lazar said that Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is believed to be considering national leadership, would "make order in this country".

Antisemitism has increased somewhat, but less than might be expected, considering the large number of Jewish bankers and Jews in high government positions. Rabbi Lazar believes that aliyah may increase somewhat due to the economic situation, but that "not many" will leave Moscow.

The Chabad Jewish Community Center is adjacent to the synagogue. With seven floors, it is a hulking building, yet unfinished. However, with the assistance of local Jews who brought in temporary carpets, chairs, lighting, and heaters, Chabad was able to hold Rosh Hashanah services inside the structure. According to police estimates, 5,000 people were in attendance.

Participation was high on Yom Kippur and Simchat Torah as well. Jews want to come to synagogue on these occasions, said Rabbi Lazar, because they want to be with other Jews and to pray. They are looking for identification with their heritage, for security, and for comfort. Many local Jews are eagerly awaiting completion of the JCC. Even people of modest means have made contributions toward its construction, donating ten rubles or whatever they can afford. He believes that uncertainty engendered by the economic crisis is spurring Jews to want to be with other Jews in a Jewish environment.

According to Rabbi Lazar, Moscow Chabad has spent $2.3 to $2.4 million on the JCC to date. Completion of the structure, not including furnishings, will cost another $4.25 million. Prior to the collapse of the Russian ruble, they expected to raise most of this money locally. They have many commitments of $500 to $10,000 per month. However, payment of these pledges has slowed down considerably since the crisis began in August. Rabbi Lazar now doubts that they will be able to complete the fundraising campaign without significant international assistance.

Rabbi Lazar expressed strong disappointment with the failure of the Joint Distribution Committee to provide financial support to the Chabad JCC. JDC has provided encouragement and advice, but no funds. He expects some JDC opposition to Chabad fundraising efforts in the U.S. on behalf of its Marina Roscha JCC because people will confuse it with JDC's own JCC fundraising campaign. However, he believes that JDC has been fair and generous in its support of Chabad welfare programs.

Moscow Chabad has a computerized mailing list of some 15,000 Moscow Jews. Each entry includes information about an individual's age, family status, and other data. Chabad sent attractive illustrated calendars to most of the mailing list at Rosh Hashanah; about 1,000 people responded by sending donations to the Chabad bank account.[38]  Many others sent thank-you notes.

18. Rabbi Dovid Mondshine is Director of Or Avner, an independent fund that supports most Chabad Lubavitch operations in the post-Soviet successor states. It was established in 1993 by Levi Levayev, a Tashkent-born Israeli businessman, in memory of his father, Avner Levayev.

Or Avner supports rabbis in 25 cities in the post-Soviet states. Among the cities in which it has made new rabbinic placements are: Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, and Saratov along the Volga River; Orenburg and Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains area; Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East; and Kremenchug in Ukraine. In its new program of placing rabbinic students or para-rabbis in small Jewish population centers, it recently has placed students in two central Russian cities, Briansk and Smolensk. Each rabbi is responsible not only for the city in which he resides, but also for eight to ten smaller Jewish population concentrations (many with 1,000 or fewer Jews) in the same region.



38.The number of the bank account is printed in the calendar.

 
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