Betsy Gidwitx Reports










Betsy Gidwitz had planned to be in Moscow for two days. However, transportation problems delayed arrival from Dnepropetrovsk, requiring cancellation of several appointments, none of which could be rescheduled. Dr. Gidwitz was able to meet only with officials of the Jewish Agency for Israel (on October 13).

36. Haim Chesler, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel delegation in the “Commonwealth of Independent States”, spoke first about the recent attempted coup in Moscow. He reported that the crisis seemed to have had no dramatic impact on the Jewish population. He did not expect any significant increase in emigration as a result of the unrest. The Jewish population was waiting to see what would happen next. The conservatives who were so vocal in their anti-Yeltsin rhetoric detested other minority groups, such as Chechens and Azeris, more than they hated Jews. The Jewish population would not emigrate because of anti-Semitism alone; they were accustomed to it and managed to live with it.

Mr. Chester and his colleagues had attended Simchat Torah observations at the
Moscow choral synagogue on October 7, but the synagogue was almost empty except for a small number of elderly men. The customary celebrations would have been inappropriate because hat day had been declared a Day of Mourning in memory to those who had died in the attempted coup. The curfew declared in the aftermath of the coup (11:00PM to 5:00 AM) would have impeded any holiday celebration that might have been held.

As he had noted during our previous meeting in May, Mr. Chesler observed again that the cost of living had escalated sharply and was continuing to rise. He is concerned about potential conflict between the minority of citizens who have become very wealthy and the majority whose living standards have declined. Now that his opponents had been jailed, Mr. Yeltsin had no one to blame for the weaknesses of the Soviet economy.

JAFI operational costs had also risen dramatically. It is difficult for the Agency to find qualified emissaries because salaries do not reflect the increased cost of living.

Mr. Chesler believes that JAFI relations with the Lishkat heKesher have improved in recent months. Specific responsibilities have been assigned to each organization; the only remaining problem is that both are organizing Hebrew language courses in the Soviet successor states – but post Soviet Jews may actually benefit from the increased availability of such classes.

Turning to different regions of the former Soviet Union, Mr. Chesler noted that unrest in Central Asia and the Caucasus had generated significant increases in aliyah from those regions. Only about 18,000 Jews remain in Georgia, many of these individuals are highly qualified professionals whose presence is greatly valued by Georgian president Eduard Shevardhadze. He has declared that he does not want them to leave. Perhaps fifty to sixty Jews are still in Sukhumi.

Mr. Chesler said that JAFI would intensify its activities in Ukraine because conditions have created greater potential (than in Russia) for aliyah. The Ukrainian economy is weaker than that of Russia; the Ukrainian political system is much less stable (though its weakness is expressed less dramatically) and Ukrainian Jews are much less attached to Ukrainian culture than Russian Jews are to Russian culture.

About 800 Jewish high school students from the former USSR are now enrolled in Aliyah haNbar institutions in Israel. It is hope that many will remain in Israel as new immigrants. Approximately 3,000 additional youngsters applied to placement in this program, but many could not meet the requirements, most commonly, their problems centered on academic deficiencies, but some applicants were emotionally unstable. (Note: The Jewish Agency Aliyah haNbar program is very similar to and competitive with the Na’aleh program of the Lishkat haKesher. BG)

37. Moshe Peled, Director of Aliyah Operations, spoke about the Utaratzta or Aliyah 2000 program. This effort is is directed towards establishing functional images between prospective olim and actual jobs in Israel. Representatives from Israel entities seeking employees (such as nurses, mechanics, road builders and construction workers) recruit appropriate candidates while the latter are still in the former USSR and arranging housing and necessary retaining courses in Israel for them. Thus, they are assured of employment and residences before they emigrate; hesitation about aliyah is alleviated and once they arrive in Israel, they are able to concentrate on Hebrew language sources and vocational preparation without worrying about jobs or apartments. This program has proved successful to date and is being expanded in selected areas of the Soviet Union.

Amos Lahat directs Moscow operations for the Jewish Agency. Mr. Lahat parents were among the Jewish colonizers of Birobidzhan, moving there from Paris in 1932. After some years, Mr. Lahat’s father, who had been an auto worker in France, was recruited to work in the automobile industry in Nizhny Novgorod (then called Gorky). Mr. Lahat himself was born in Gorky and emigrated with his parents to Poland in 1958. From Poland, the family went to Israel in 1960. After a career in Israeli army intelligence, Mr. Lahat has agreed to work for JAFI in Moscow for one year; he finds life very difficult in the Russian capital and does not wish to extend his contract. Because of living conditions in Moscow, his wife and four children remain in Israel. He speaks with them once weekly by telephone and returns to Israel every three months for visits.

Mr. Lahat’s territory extends far beyond Moscow to cover twenty cities in Russia, including several located along the Volga and Don rivers. Among those cities for which he is responsible for the implementation of JAFI policy are the following – along with his estimates of local Jewish population.39 Moscow, 200,000-250,000,; Smolensk, 5,000; Bryansk, 10,000 (4,000); Nizhni Novgrod, 12,000; Kazan, 8,000 (5,000); Samara (Kuibyshev), 14,000 (12,000) and Rostov-on-Don, 12,000 (10,000). Mr. Lahat acknowledged differences of opinion about the number of Jews in Russia. He observed, “The more Jews go to Israel, the more appear in Russia.” As old fears begin to fade away and friends and relatives leave for Israel, many Jews who had managed to be designated as Russians on their passports are starting to identify as Jews.

Mr. Lahat finds his work in Moscow to be very challenging. It is difficult to find aliyah candidates because it is difficult to find Jews in general. Jews live in every area of the capital and no comprehensive telephone book exists. JAFI is engaged in a marketing and promotion campaign, advertising I three Moscow newspapers believed to be read by Jews. (One of the papers is a Jewish newspaper and the other two are general newspapers.) The advertisements are in form of questionnaires, asking readers to return the forms to JAFI by mail if they are interested in receiving specific types of information about Israel, e.g., opportunities for employment in certain professions. This advertising campaign has yielded a list of 50,000 to 60,000 individuals, all of whom are entered in computerized files. Thus, JAFI can develop a roster of adolescents interested in high school-in-Israel programs or young adults who might make aliyah if they can be assured of employment in specific fields.

His office operates two ulpans in Moscow, one in the JAFI building and the other in a different area of the city. About 1,200 students are enrolled in the two programs; most are young adults.

Approximately 1,000 people from Moscow emigrate to Israel every month.

The Jewish Agency sponsors four three week Hebrew language seminars in Moscow every year, each drawing sixty Hebrew teachers from the entire region. The seminars also include information about Jewish holidays and general Jewish tradition. JAFI also supplies teaching materials to Hebrew teachers throughout the area.

JAFI operates a number of summer camps, reaching about 2,500 young people between the ages of fourteen and twenty in the region each year. Most camps operate four two week sessions. They could attract 5,000 more youngsters to such camps, if funds were available. The cost to JAFI is $12.00 for each camper per day, increased from $6.00 the previous year. (The cost increase stems from initiation and the introduction of kashrut in all facilities.) The Agency also operates winter camps during school vacations for 250 young people; they would like to recruit 600 for winter camps, but lack the financial resources for such expansion. Counselors from Israel work in all camps.

In Moscow, JAFI sponsors youth clubs that attract as many as 1,000 young people to monthly concerts featuring local and Israeli musicians. The clubs also offer information about Israel and holiday observations.

Mr. Lahat believes the most important JAFI project is the Aliya haNbar program which will enroll 1,000 youngsters from throughout the former Soviet Union in Youth Aliyah schools by the end of the year. (Mr. Lahat himself spent six years in a Youth Aliyah program.) He has arranged orientation meetings for parents of these youngsters and has already seen some aliyah of parents after their children have been in the program for one or two years.

Mr. Lahat wold like to start a JAFI kindergarten in Moscow because a good Israeli-oriented kindergarten would attract young families who would be appropriate candidates for aliyah.

JAFI works very productively with JDC and local Jews to create and implement programs of common interest. JDC has provided audio-visual equipment and Russian-language Judaic libraries for various jewish Agency programs and has given a T-shirt to each youngster attending a JAFI camp. Mr. Lahat noted that JAFI and JDC are jointly sponsoring the appointment of modern Orthodox Zionist rabbis from Israel to positions in four cities that currently lack Jewish leadership. Samara and Saratov within the territory covered by Mr. Lahat, Perm in the Ural Mountains and Donetsk in Ukraine. Jews in every locality are aware of feuding between different outside agencies such as JAFI and the Lishka.

About 120 indigenous Jewish organizations, most with a handful of members, exist in Moscow. The majority are very week. There is no umbrella agency.

38. In parentheses are different population figures provided by the Jewish Agency in a 1993 situation paper.


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