Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

It is likely that REK and MERO will break ground in September 2000 for the planned Jewish community center across the street from the Choral Synagogue. Groundbreaking was delayed until September in the hope that the new President of Russia, who will be elected in June 2000, will participate in the ceremonies.

Rabbi Goldschmidt believes that the future of European Jewry lies in the large cities. It is likely, he said, that viable Jewish communities will remain only in Paris, Antwerp, Berlin, Geneva, London, Moscow, and, possibly, Kyiv. European Jews will be considered in relation to the cities in which they live, rather than in terms of the countries in which they live. He is newly optimistic about the ability of Reform Judaism to endure; now, he observed, the Reform movement cares about Jewish survival, whereas their previous priority seemed to focus on combating antisemitism.

20. Rabbi Berel Lazar is the chief representative of Chabad in Russia. The writer met with him at the Marina Roscha synagogue, a structure that sustained serious damage in a bomb blast in 1998. The synagogue was repaired shortly after the attack, but the perpetrators have not been found. Few believe that the case ever will be solved.

Rabbi Lazar began the meeting by taking the writer to task for alleged distortion of facts in a report about her 1998 visit to Moscow. He disagreed with the writer’s contention that he, rather than Rabbi Goldschmidt, had been the major source of tension between Chabad and activities and groups associated with Rabbi Goldschmidt. He reiterated his opposition to participating in organizations [such as KEROOR] or projects in which the Reform movement also participated. Everyone has the right to hold his own views, he said. In his opinion, “It is ruining the Jewish community to bring in Reform here [in Russia].” Reform Judaism, he said, is “watered-down Judaism.”67

Rabbi Lazar estimates the Jewish population of Moscow at 500,000 individuals or 130,000 Jewish families. So far, Moscow Chabad lists 21,000 families on its Moscow Jewish data base. Chabad sends news about Jewish holidays, full-color Jewish calendars, menorahs, birthday cards, and yahrzeit messages to these families. Local Jews realize that Chabad cares about them, said Rabbi Lazar, and many call Chabad when they need material or spiritual assistance. Chabad representatives soon will begin a program of visiting each of the 21,000 families in their own apartments in an effort to assess individual and community needs. Three hundred young adults are being trained to conduct these interviews. They will bring presents to each family.

Twenty-five hundred people attended Rosh Hashana services in the semi-finished seven-story Chabad Jewish community center adjacent to the synagogue.68 It is likely that construction of this center, which has been delayed due to fundraising problems following the 1998 collapse of the Russian ruble, will be completed in the spring of 2000.

In addition to the Marina Roscha synagogue and community center, Chabad operates a number of other institutions in Moscow. These include: two additional synagogues, two preschools, a day school, a heder, a yeshiva, a women’s college, a technical college for young men, and a camp with heated buildings that can be used throughout the year. Rabbi Lazar said that 750 youngsters, most of whom are enrolled in no other Jewish programs, attended one of the summer camp sessions. Chabad hopes to start a weekly program for these children during the school year. The summer camp also operated a special 10-day session for youngsters from Moscow school #1311, also known as the Lipman Jewish day school.69 The camp is used during the school year for shabbatonim, most of which are designated for specific groups, such as adolescents, families, or elderly people.

Moscow Chabad also sponsors a student club, a young adult educational center (offering classes in several subjects, including English and computer technology), an amateur theater group, a family club, and activities for single adults. Anti-missionary work will be intensified soon with the addition to the Chabad staff of a specialist in this area.

Rabbi Lazar said that Moscow Chabad would like to purchase a well-equipped three-building sanitarium located near their camp. It would convert the complex into an assisted living and nursing care center for Jewish elderly. Ideally, he continued, children and young people at the camp would interact with older Jews at the center.

Many more Moscow Jews are seeking welfare assistance (from Chabad and other organizations) now than previously, declared Rabbi Lazar. Inflation is causing major difficulties. People cannot afford to buy meat or fruit. They are unable to replace clothing that is old or that their children have outgrown. Medicine and hospital care are beyond the means of many individuals and families.

Rabbi Lazar believes that antisemitism is not a serious problem in Russia. Some extremists create specific difficulties, but their overall impact is limited. The appeal of extremist organizations to adolescents reflects the need of adolescents to belong to something, to feel part of a larger group. Most adolescents leave extremist organizations as they mature, said Rabbi Lazar. Notwithstanding the limited influence of extremist organizations, he would like the Russian government to “crack down” on their activities. It is not a question of suppressing freedom, he said, because such freedom exercised by extremists is “freedom of the jungle,” i.e., inappropriate for modern society.

Although problems related to the economy are “acute,” Rabbi Lazar believes that Jewish life in Russia has a “big future.” There is much potential for Jewish community development in Russia, he said.

21. The Federation of Jewish Communities of the C.I.S. (Федерация еврейсих общин СНГ), founded as a 501(c)(3) organization in New York in 1997, is a U.S.-based support organization for post-Soviet Jewish communities. Technically, it is independent of specific denominational affiliations; in reality, it is strongly associated with the Chabad movement and it supports various programs and projects operating under Chabad auspices. Its Executive Director is Mendel Goldshmid, who is based in New York. The writer met with Mr. Goldshmid when he was in Moscow and subsequently spoke with him by telephone in the United States. Also attending the Moscow meeting was Rabbi Dovid Mondshine, Director of Ohr Avner (see below). Rabbi Mondshine appears to be a de facto executive of FJC as well.

The mission statement of the FJC is as follows:

The Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS is the central organization of the Jewish communities of the Former Soviet Union. Our mandate is to restore Jewish life, culture, and religion in the Former Soviet Union. The FJC provides programming and funding to member Jewish umbrella organizations in these fifteen countries throughout the Former Soviet Union. These 15 organizations encompass 300 Jewish communities, all of whom are helped by the FJC.
The FJC assists the member organizations in rebuilding Jewish infrastructures, institutions and programs in their catchment areas. The FJC provides humanitarian assistance to these organizations for distribution to their communities.
The following is a list of established Funds run by the FJC on behalf of their member Jewish umbrella organizations: Camp, Education, Children, Chanukah, Passover Matzah, Humanitarian Aid, Synagogue and Community Security, Medical Aid, Emergency Food Relief, Welfare, Religious, Culture, Synagogue Restoration, JCC Building, Publishing, Holiday, Community Development.
The FJC partners with other international organizations to maximize programming. The FJC also works with local governments to restore to the Jewish Communities, Jewish properties confiscated by the Communists and Nazis.70

The FJC annual budget for all of the post-Soviet states is $20 million. Levi Levayev continues to be its most generous donor, contributing more than $6 million to FJC through his Ohr Avner foundation (see below), which focuses on Jewish education. Several other families and organizations contribute an aggregate of about $8 million annually, most for designated projects, such as summer camps, humanitarian aid programs, or specific training seminars. Chabad rabbis themselves raise about $6 million, some of it locally and some from foreign donors.

In smaller Jewish population centers, the immediate tasks of the local FJC representation are: to establish a Jewish address for the community and equip a community office with telephone lines and a computer; to designate a community leader and appoint a local community board; to create a community data base; and to develop a Sunday school and organize holiday seminars, the latter often in partnership with JDC. Welfare operations, day schools, and other services follow as infrastructure development permits. National or regional offices of FJC extend legal assistance in registering the representation with appropriate authorities and in opening bank accounts. Rabbi Mondshine said that, in general, younger people are more likely to step forward for lay leadership positions now than several years previously. It is easier to work with younger leaders because they are less likely to be “Soviet” in their approach to governance issues.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which is directed by Rabbi Berel Lazar, has seven regional offices: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Volgograd, Far East (Vladivostok), Siberia (Krasnoyarsk), Urals (Yekaterinburg), and Volga River (Samara). FJC in Russia has made four new rabbinic placements during the past year: Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Ufa, and Novosibirsk. Noting the small Jewish population in some of these cities, Rabbi Mondshine said that an earlier policy of assigning rabbis only to those cities with a Jewish population of 5,000 or more has been superceded by guidelines that encourage rabbinic placements in smaller Jewish population centers if local support for a rabbi is forthcoming. In Krasnoyarsk, Rabbi Mondshine noted, a local non-Jew contributes funds to all religious groups in the city, including Jews.

67.  Wishing to avoid a confrontation, the writer did not challenge Rabbi Lazar’s comments.
68.  In an interview in October 1998, Rabbi Lazar said that 5,000 people had attended Rosh Hashana services that year. Some reduction in attendance from 1998 to 1999 would have been expected because the 1999 holiday occurred immediately after one of the apartment house bombings in Moscow and several weeks after a Jewish activist was stabbed in the Moscow Choral Synagogue
69.  Grigory Lipman, principal of school #1311, described its religious orientation to the writer in a 1998 interview as modern Orthodox or “stronger Conservative.”
70.  Reprinted as is, from FJC News, Chanukah 1999, p. 8. The reader will note that the mission statement makes no specific reference to Chabad or to Ohr Avner.

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