Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999


19. The writer met with Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, twice. On the first occasion, she was a member of the joint National Conference on Soviet Jewry/American Jewish Committee delegation. In reviewing significant events of the current year for the delegation, Rabbi Goldschmidt singled out the establishment of the Moscow Jewish Community (MERO), noting that it brings together observant and secular Jews. Of the nine vice presidents, he said, four are Sephardi individuals from the Caucasus Mountain area, reflecting the influx of Jews from this region into Moscow. Two other significant developments in 1999, continued Rabbi Goldschmidt, are the opening of a Sephardi synagogue in the Arkhipova street complex (which also hosts the Moscow Choral Synagogue) and the opening of a new Jewish cemetery.

Responding to a question about the development of Jewish identity in contemporary Russia, Rabbi Goldschmidt reminded the group that the only Jewish identity that the Soviet Union had permitted was a cultural identity that was expressed through the Yiddish language. As the Soviet Union collapsed, it was only natural that a new post-Soviet Jewish identity also would be cultural in character.62 However, eleven years later [after the emergence of glasnost], Jewish identity is expanding into Jewish religious identity, he said. Rabbi Goldschmidt compared the situation in Jewish life to that in Russian Orthodox Christianity; Russian Orthodox spirituality now is filling a vacuum created by the demise of Communist ideology as a motivating force. Post-Soviet Jews, said Rabbi Goldschmidt, now understand that their Jewish identity requires some connection with Jewish history, such as old Jewish buildings; therefore, he continued, Jewish life is being rebuilt in old synagogues.

The incidence of intermarriage has been very high, he continued. In fact, only about 30 percent of all olim (immigrants in Israel) from Moscow are halachically Jewish. Intermarriage is the result of many factors, said Rabbi Goldschmidt. First, few places exist in which Jews are able to meet other Jews. He hopes that the establishment of seven Jewish day schools in Moscow and a number of Jewish summer camps will help to mitigate this factor. Second, anti-Jewish bigotry was such that many Jews felt compelled to conceal their Jewish identity. Third, most Jews are ignorant of their own tradition and history; they do not understand that Judaism is worth preserving. Only Jewish education can change this situation. Fourth, through the mid-1990s, many Jews in the “elite” sectors of Soviet and post-Soviet society converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity in order to fit in with non-Jewish peers. Rabbi Goldschmidt believes that the involvement of high-profile Jews in the Russian Jewish Congress has shown Jews that they can retain status while still identifying as Jews in a public manner. These problems are severe. However, he thinks that within five years the Jewish community of Moscow will be a real community and will be dealing with the “regular” problems faced by most Jewish communities. It is the responsibility of REK and MERO, he said, to strengthen all Jewish organizations so that these issues can be addressed.

An earlier consensus posited that all Jews should go to Israel, continued Rabbi Goldschmidt. The new consensus (among many Israeli officials as well as Russian Jews) is that many Jews will remain in Russia; therefore, Jews in Russia should develop the necessary organizations to serve their community. The development of Jewish identity will encourage aliyah. Aliyah, said Rabbi Goldschmidt, is not detrimental to Jewish life in Russia. The Jewish Agency for Israel [which promotes aliyah] has helped to establish a Jewish education framework in the post-Soviet states. A Jewish renaissance is occurring in Moscow. Local Jews will decide where they want to live, he observed; his own role and the role of others in leadership positions is to support them in their choice.

Many Jews, he said, have reasons to remain in Moscow. Many intellectuals need the Russian language to continue their work. Some individuals are enjoying greater economic success in Moscow than they could hope to achieve in another country. Many have elderly parents in Moscow who are too fragile to move to a different culture. The high level of intermarriage also means that many Jews have strong family ties to non-Jews who do not wish to leave Russia.

Shifting to relations within the Jewish population, Rabbi Goldschmidt said that relations between “modern” (Reform) Jews and “traditional” (Orthodox) Jews in Moscow are generally good. It is counterproductive, continued Rabbi Goldschmidt, for traditional Jews to fight modern Jews. They are all starting in the same place. All Jews have lost all Jewish memory after more than 70 years of communism; 90 percent of all Jews in Russia would fail to recognize Kol Nidrei.63

Responding to a question about antisemitism, Rabbi Goldschmidt said that two of the four announced candidates for the office of President of Russia are Jews. The high public profiles of these individuals, Yevgeny Primakov and Grigory Yavlinsky, creates a problem. Because of prejudice against them, Jews (and also Armenians) are more energetic than many Russians, said Rabbi Goldschmidt. Therefore, they are high achievers and disproportionately represented among the elites. Many Russians resent the prominence of Jews. Many ambitious Jews converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity in the past; however, fewer conversions have occurred since 1993 or 1994. Rabbi Goldschmidt again credited the participation of high profile Jews in the Russian Jewish Congress as encouraging other Jews to accept communal responsibility.

In a separate individual discussion one week after the meeting with the mixed National Conference on Soviet Jewry and American Jewish Committee delegation, Rabbi Goldschmidt expanded on some of his previous statements. As an example of the growth in Jewish religious identity, he said that many Jews now are aware of the Jewish calendar. Between 4,000 and 5,000 Jews in Moscow attended Rosh Hashana services in 1999, and other Jews observed Rosh Hashana informally in home celebrations. Although few observe Yom Kippur in the traditional manner, many Moscow Jews now avoid socializing at that time. Many Jews light menorahs, which are distributed by several different organizations, at Chanukah, said Rabbi Goldschmidt. About 25 public seders were held in Moscow last Pesach, each attended by approximately 100 people. Additionally, he continued, it is likely that between 5,000 and 7,000 Moscow Jews participated in home seders, many of them organized by the 2,000 youngsters in Moscow Jewish day schools.

Rabbi Goldschmidt said that 15 synagogues exist in Moscow, five of them officially registered as such and three of them functioning as components of yeshivot. The others are neighborhood shteibels or gatherings at various Jewish institutions, such as the regular minyans at several Jewish day schools.64 He thinks that Moscow can support about 60 synagogues or “points of prayer.” Rabbi Goldschmidt noted that synagogues create jobs in the Jewish community and may lead to the establishment of onsite welfare establishments (such as soup kitchens), various educational and cultural programs, or other community ventures.

Participation in Jewish worship is encouraged by the 1999 publication and widespread distribution of a siddur (prayer book) in Russian and Hebrew, including Hebrew transliterated into Russian. Called Shma Israel, the siddur was developed by the Shamir outreach organization in Israel and sponsored by the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Societies in Russia (Конгресса Еврейских Религиозных Общин и Организаций России, often referred to by its Russian initials, KEROOR).65

Rabbi Goldschmidt escorted the writer on a visit to the new Sephardi synagogue built on the grounds of the Moscow Choral Synagogue. A small structure, the ground floor includes a synagogue area with wooden pews made in Belarus. A storage compartment with lock and key is located on the back of each seat for the siddur and other belongings of people in the next row. In response to the writer’s observation that the synagogue did not include a women’s balcony, Rabbi Goldschmidt pointed out that some space existed in the back of the sanctuary for additional chairs; however, few women from Caucasus Mountain communities attend synagogue. The second floor includes a kitchen and several small meeting rooms, including a youth activity room.

Rabbi Goldschmidt uses the terms “Sephardi” and “Caucasus” interchangeably to refer to Jews from the Caucasus Mountain area. Most Moscow Jews from this region associated with Rabbi Goldschmidt and the new synagogue are Tat or Mountain Jews and are from Daghestan or Azerbaidjan. Rabbi Goldschmidt said that many migrated to Moscow during the glasnost period or after the collapse of the Soviet Union and became importers of various goods. However, the banking crisis of August 1998 and subsequent economic difficulties have sharply restricted the market for imports. Unable to earn a satisfactory income under such circumstances, many Caucasus Mountain Jews have left for Israel during the past year. Those who remain are subject to police checks and other forms of harassment because of their physical resemblance to Chechens.66 Jewish families from the Caucasus Mountain area are more traditional, less subject to intermarriage, and more likely to be intact than are Ashkenazi families, said Rabbi Goldschmidt.

Rabbi Goldschmidt repeated that only about 30 percent of all olim (immigrants in Israel) from Moscow are halakhically Jewish. This large influx of non-Jews is creating a major problem in Israel. Earlier olim from the Soviet Union and its successor states, many of whom made aliyah for Zionist reasons, are among those who are most concerned.

Rabbi Goldschmidt confirmed that synagogues and other organizations associated with Chabad have not joined the Russian Jewish Congress. (However, Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief representative of Chabad in Russia, is a member of the REK Presidium and sits on several REK committees, and various Chabad organizations accept REK subsidies.) Chabad is the dominant Jewish religious force in Ukraine, said Rabbi Goldschmidt, but it does not control Russia. Independent non-Chabad rabbis serve in 11 different Russian cities, including Moscow. In some of these cities, they “compete” with Chabad, but Rabbi Goldschmidt views such competition as “benevolent.” He noted that Chabad has agreed to cease trying to delegitimize non-Chabad rabbis, a major positive development. However, battles may ensue over the recovery of former synagogues. Rabbi Goldschmidt agrees with the Chabad premise that Chabad has the right to reclaim former Chabad synagogues, but some others may challenge Chabad over repossession of such property.

Referring to the Russian Jewish Congress (REK) and to the Moscow Jewish Community (MERO), Rabbi Goldschmidt said that the latter is the grandchild of the former. (He did not mention the intermediate generation, the Moscow Jewish Congress, which was dissolved when its president was arrested and sentenced to prison for financial malfeasance.) Although the economic crisis has had an impact on contributions to these organizations, the severity of the impact is less than had been feared. Banks and import businesses have lost money, but export businesses have prospered now that the ruble has lost much of its previously inflated value. The number of major donors has increased, said Rabbi Goldschmidt, and MERO is attracting both major and mid-level gifts. However, the lack of a strong middle class is a deterrent to mid-level giving. Contributions to MERO of more than $100,000 usually are designated for special purposes, rather than for general support.

62.  It is likely that Rabbi Goldschmidt was referring to the Jewish history clubs, musical groups, newspapers, and similar institutions that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
63. Rabbi Goldschmidt was referring to the well-known Ashkenazi musical rendition of Kol Nidrei (All Vows), a ritual declaration on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in which worshippers annul all vows that were made unwittingly or rashly during the year.
64. Rabbi Goldschmidt explicitly included two Progressive (Modern) synagogues in his calculations, the official center for modern Judaism in Russia (see below) and the weekly Progressive Shabbat service held at the Memorial Synagogue at Poklonnaya Gora.
65. KEROOR is closely associated with Rabbi Goldschmidt and with the Russian Jewish Congress. It includes religious groups of all Jewish streams.
66. See p. 10 for reference to the declining enrollment of youngsters from the Caucasus Mountain area at the Etz Chaim day school, a school associated with Rabbi Goldschmidt.

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