Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

Ohr Avner is a Moscow-based foundation established in 1993 by Levi Levayev, a Tashkent-born Israeli businessman, in memory of his father, Avner Levayev. Its director is Rabbi Dovid Mondshine. Ohr Avner currently sponsors 28 Jewish day schools, which enroll a total of 5,000 pupils, throughout the post-Soviet states. Nine new Chabad day schools were opened in the fall of 1999: Nizhny Novgorod, Saratov, Yekaterinburg, and Derbent in Russia; Kremenchug, Lugansk, and Odessa in Ukraine; Bobruisk in Belarus; and Almaty in Kazakhstan. The Derbent school in Daghestan may be problematic because the Jewish population there is emigrating due to local political instability, said Rabbi Mondshine. Kidnapping is a danger for many who remain in the region. Rabbi Mondshine observed that the school in Almaty was developed after Levi Levayev invested in Kazakhstan businesses and established good relations with President Nur-sultan Nazarbayev. In fact, President Nazarbayev expressed interest in sending his granddaughter to the school. Chabad leadership suggested to the Kazakh leader that a Muslim child might be more comfortable in another educational setting and the girl enrolled elsewhere.


Levi Levayev speaks at the December 1999 conference of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the C.I.S.
(Photo: Federation of Jewish Communities)


FJC operated 30 summer camp sessions in 1999, each enrolling 50 to 250 youngsters for a three- or four-week period. Over 5,000 youngsters participated in such camps, many recruited because they have no other Jewish experiences in their lives. In many of the larger Jewish population centers, Chabad operates separate sessions for girls and for boys.

In response to a question, Rabbi Mondshine said that collaborative ventures with other Jewish organizations are the responsibility of individual rabbis in their own regions. Many have established good working relations with JDC, e.g., operating soup kitchens that receive JDC subsidies. The Russian Jewish Congress, he said, has been slow to assist some Chabad activities, but helps with Sunday school programs and with security at Chabad premises in Russia.

A new Chabad venture cited by both Rabbi Mondshine and Rabbi Berel Lazar is a website <>. It is intended that this site, still under development, will be fully interactive and serve an educational function for Jews throughout Russia.

In December, FJC in Russia held a conference in Moscow, attracting 200 lay and rabbinic delegates from throughout the country. Prime Minister (and Presidential candidate) Vladimir Putin addressed the group, promising assistance in combating antisemitism, developing schools, and reclaiming former synagogue buildings for use by contemporary Jewish communities.

22. Rabbi Haim Ben-Yaakov, a native of Moscow who had emigrated to Israel as a child with his parents, was ordained as Progressive (Reform) rabbi in Israel. He returned to Moscow in 1997 as the first rabbi of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Russia.71 He is rabbi of the Hineni congregation in Moscow as well as rabbi of the Union of Religious Organizations of Modern Judaism in Russia (Объединение Религиозных Организаций Современного Иудаизма в России – ОРОСИР). The organization main-tains a Center for Modern Judaism (Центр Современного Иудаизма) in central Moscow near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; facilities include a room that serves as a synagogue (comfortably seating 60 to 70 individuals), a multi-purpose room that is used as a classroom and social hall, and three offices.

The WUPJ has 72 congregational groups in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, and Georgia. Twenty-two of these are in Russia itself. Representatives from WUPJ groups in Russia and several other post-Soviet states come to Moscow four times each year to study forthcoming holidays, learn how to lead services, and acquire other skills useful in leading local Jewish groups.

WUPJ publishes a variety of Russian-language materials, including a quarterly journal Родник (Rodnik or Spring, as in wellspring). Under WUPJ auspices, Rabbi Ben-Yaakov recently wrote a guidebook entitled Иудаизм – первые шаги (Judaism – First Steps) and subtitled (in English translation) A Brief Exposition on the Most Important Understandings of Jewish Tradition from the Point of View of Progressive Judaism. The book covers holidays, the Jewish life cycle, Jewish history, and basic prayers in Russian, Hebrew, and transliterated Hebrew.

The WUPJ also operates two summer camps in the successor states. A camp near Moscow enrolled 150 adolescents for ten days in 1999. Located near Kyiv, another WUPJ camp attracted 180 college and university students for a 12-day session. If funding is available, WUPJ hopes to offer a winter camp for students.

The premises of the Moscow Center for Modern Judaism host the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies, a two-year program for training paraprofessional Jewish communal workers for WUPJ programs throughout the successor states.72 The program currently enrolls 23 first-year students (selected from 200 applicants), both men and women, most of whom are from Russia; however, small numbers are enrolled from Belarus and Ukraine. Faculty members from the Jewish University of Moscow teach courses in Jewish philosophy, history, and sociology; faculty from Maimonides Academy teach Hebrew; and Rabbi Ben-Yaakov teaches classes in Jewish tradition, holidays, and prayer. A major problem in many of these classes, said Rabbi Ben-Yaakov, is the absence of appropriate Russian-language text material. In some instances, such material simply does not exist; in other instances, available material is not covered by the Institute budget. Participants also are enrolled in classes offered by satellite from the Open University of Israel and are expected to use local libraries for research assignments. In addition to traditional class and research work, students also are assigned fieldwork in various Jewish institutions, such as Sunday schools and programs for Jewish elderly.

Rabbi Haim Ben-Yaakov teaches a class at the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies in Moscow.
(Photo: the author)

Local programs include Shabbat services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, holiday celebrations, a Sunday school enrolling 18 children and youth, weekly lectures, two Hebrew ulpan classes in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel, a musical ensemble, and monthly musical concerts. A Friday evening service attended by the writer attracted 40 to 50 participants, the majority of whom were young adults. Students from the Institute formed the core group and were familiar with most of the prayers and songs. The service included substantial singing, accompanied by two guitarists. Perhaps ten to twelve individuals were middle-aged or elderly. An Oneg Shabbat followed the service. Weekly lectures, said Rabbi Ben-Yaakov, often feature Israeli scholars from Hebrew University who teach in the joint venture with Moscow State University.73 The ulpans, which enroll 50 adults, meet four times each week and include lectures by Rabbi Ben-Yaakov on Jewish tradition.

Relations between the Center for Modern Judaism and most other Jewish leaders and institutions in Moscow are good, said Rabbi Ben-Yaakov. Rabbi Adolph Shayevich, Chief Rabbi of Russia, and Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, actually helped both the Center and the broader Union of Religious Organizations of Modern Judaism in Russia register with appropriate government authorities. KEROOR, the umbrella organization of Jewish religious organizations, also has been helpful. Relations with the Jewish Agency for Israel are excellent, as is evident from the ulpans that operate within the Center. Rabbi Ben-Yaakov also lectures on Jewish tradition in other JAFI ulpans and in various seminars that JAFI sponsors. In a similar manner, he works with the Joint Distribution Committee in their Jewish community activities, such as holiday celebrations and seminars. WUPJ in Moscow also enjoys good relations with the Israel Cultural Center (operated by Nativ, previously known as Lishkat Hakesher), which has provided various materials about Israel to WUPJ.74 The only Jewish organization with which relations are poor, said Rabbi Ben-Yaakov, is Chabad, which has deprecated Progressive Judaism in its publications.

In response to a question about the greatest needs of WUPJ in Moscow and in Russia, Rabbi Ben-Yaakov listed the following (not necessarily in order of importance): larger premises; a television set with a large monitor and a video-cassette player/recorder; another sefer Torah; more Russian-language Jewish literature; increased funding for the Родник (Rodnik) periodical; guaranteed adequate funding for salaries and expenses of second-year Institute students in their field placements next year; funding for more frequent seminars in outlying areas; and more tfillin. Rabbi Ben-Yaakov also would like to start a preschool and build it into a day school. He noted that all existing Moscow Jewish preschools are Orthodox. However, premises at the Center lack the necessary space for a preschool.

Students in a class at the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies in Moscow.
(Photo: the author)

International Organizations

23. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as JDC and Joint) provides support to Moscow Jews through various social services, cultural and religious activities, and educational programs. The author met with Joel Golovensky, the director of JDC in Moscow. An American-born Israeli attorney, Mr. Golovensky had begun his work in Moscow only six weeks prior to the interview. He does not speak Russian.

71.  Reform or Progressive Judaism in the post-Soviet states often is referred to as Modern (Современный) Judaism. Additional ordained WUPJ rabbis, also natives of the former Soviet states, serve in Kyiv and in Minsk.
72.  The Institute was established in Moscow in 1993 and continued in the Russian capital until 1995, when it was closed temporarily. It was based in Kyiv between 1997 and 1999, and re-opened in Moscow in September 1999.
73.  See pp.18-19.
74.  See pp. 55-56 for information about the Israel Cultural Center.

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