Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

Unlike the situation in other large post-Soviet Jewish population centers, JDC does not operate a hesed (welfare center) or other public facility in Moscow. It conducts its welfare work through 22 local Jewish welfare organizations, four of which deliver 70 percent of all JDC services to Jewish elderly and handicapped individuals. In response to a question, Mr. Golovensky and an assistant enumerated basic welfare programs offered by JDC through local organizations: 753 individuals eat hot meals in one of eight soup kitchens five to seven days each week; an average of 12 elderly Jews participate in each of nine “warm homes;”75 more than 1,100 homebound individuals receive hot meals in their apartments; and 1,340 people receive “patronage” services, e.g., housecleaning, cooking, etc. A total of 17,500 individuals receive some type of JDC service, including occasional food parcels.

Mr. Golovensky acknowledged that, although the Moscow Jewish population is more than twice the size of the St. Petersburg Jewish population, JDC reaches more people in St. Petersburg than in Moscow. Studies are underway in JDC to assess the Moscow situation and to improve its service level.

JDC intends to work with REK and MERO in developing and operating the Jewish community center to be built across the street from the Moscow Choral Synagogue. Until that building is completed, probably in 2002 at the earliest, no Jewish community-owned facility is available to the Moscow Jewish population for general large-scale programming, such as youth and young adult activities, that might reach several hundred individuals.76

24. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI or Sochnut) operates a variety of programs designed to encourage and facilitate emigration of Russian Jews to Israel. The writer conferred with Alla Levy, Director General of the JAFI Former Soviet Union Department and, since mid-1997, Head of the JAFI Delegation in Moscow and Russia as well, on several occasions during her visit to the Russian capital. She also met with Nurit Malakhi, Director of JAFI Ulpanim and Education (including teacher training) in Moscow and Russia.

Ms. Levy said that JAFI was expecting as many as 32,000 olim (immigrants to Israel) from Russia in 1999, the largest number since 1991, a year of very large-scale aliyah. Perhaps 2,500 olim would come from Moscow, i.e., one percent of the entire Moscow Jewish population, and 2,200 would come from St. Petersburg, i.e., two percent of the St. Petersburg Jewish population. Relative to basic demographic factors, the St. Petersburg proportion was even larger because the Jewish population in that city is significantly older than that of Moscow. Between five and ten percent of the Russian Jewish population is leaving Russia each year, said Ms. Levy.

The chief factor generating aliyah is the ongoing economic crisis in the successor states. Periodic JAFI surveys of individuals departing for Israel show that perceived economic opportunities, opportunities for one’s children, and family reunification in Israel, as well as increased antisemitism in Russia, are additional reasons motivating post-Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel.

Ms. Levy believes that aliyah has not yet peaked. Enrollment in ulpans is higher this year than it was last year at this time, a fact suggesting that aliyah will continue to increase for at least six months (from September 1999), i.e., the duration of most ulpan classes.77 The results of forthcoming Russian elections (for the Duma in Decmber 1999 and for the Presidency in June 2000) also will influence aliyah. Ms. Levy thinks that antisemitism has declined somewhat during the last several months, but believes that the Jewish community has not yet “recovered” from the upsurge in anti-Jewish bigotry that continued for some months after the ruble devaluation in August 1998. Fewer Jews are conspicuously active as Jews, observed Ms. Levy; perhaps they are frightened and have assumed a lower profile, she reflected. Many Jews seem to have less inner strength and, as a result, less energy is being directed toward building a Jewish future in Russia, she said.

The Jewish Agency in Moscow offers a number of clubs and classes for children and adolescents, including Bar and Bat Mitzvah preparation, Shabbat activities, instruction in Hebrew, Israeli dance, computer classes, self-defense, drama groups, summer camps, and preparation for Na’aleh, a popular high school in Israel program. Programs for adults include classes in Hebrew (ulpans), information about various approaches to aliyah,78 and clubs for women, families, parents whose children already are in Israel, and parents whose children serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Under the leadership of noted author Feliks Dekter, JAFI extends special outreach efforts to Moscow Jewish intellectuals.79 JAFI also sponsors commemorations and/or celebrations of major Israeli and Jewish holidays.

Although Hebrew-language classes (ulpans) are taught in various locations in Moscow and special facilities are leased for major events, ongoing JAFI activities are concentrated in the JAFI building itself and in a municipal cultural center in which JAFI rents space. The latter is open from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Sundays and includes adult ulpans, classes for children (in Hebrew, English, arts and crafts, drama, singing, dance, etc.), and classes for adolescents (in Hebrew, Jewish tradition, English, computer skills, dance and aerobics, drama, and preparation for Na’aleh exams). A light lunch is provided free of charge. The ORT school in Moscow is used on Sundays for computer classes.

Children learn Hebrew on Sundays while their parents also study Hebrew in an adult ulpan in another JAFI classroom.
(Photo: the author)

According to Ms. Malakhi, JAFI currently operates more than 30 ulpan classes in Moscow, which collectively enroll about 1,200 adults. Some future emigrants enroll in professional ulpans, programs that are geared to individuals in specific professional fields. Participants in professional ulpans meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays to study Hebrew and Jewish tradition and on Sundays to learn computer skills appropriate to careers in medicine, bookkeeping/accounting, or humanities. (Although not operating at the time of the writer’s visit to Moscow, computer classes for engineers and other specialists also are offered.)

Increasing concern about the tenuous Jewish identity of some olim has led JAFI to include elements of Jewish tradition in ulpan study. Rabbi Haim Ben-Yaakov currently lectures on Jewish tradition at the Sunday ulpans and in the two ulpans that operate at the Center for Modern Jewish Studies.80 Individuals associated with Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt provide context in Jewish tradition for various Jewish holiday celebrations and for life-cycle events.

Ms. Malakhi said that most Hebrew teachers in the JAFI ulpan system acquire their Hebrew language skills at Maimonides Academy or other Moscow-based programs.81 These individuals are proficient in the Hebrew language, she said, but most require instruction in teaching methodology. JAFI offers appropriate methodology courses for ulpan and other teachers of Hebrew, including those who teach in day and Sunday schools.

Working collaboratively with the Russian Ministry of Education to improve the quality of Hebrew language instruction, JAFI now sponsors a Certificate of Hebrew Studies program, a part-time two-year graduate level course. Classes meet in the evenings during the school year and intensively in daytime during vacation periods. The curriculum includes Hebrew, Jewish tradition, teaching methodology, and psychology. Ms. Malakhi noted that admission to the course is competitive. The program currently enrolls three classes of 15 individuals.

Feliks Dekter, a respected Russian-language writer who emigrated to Israel some years previously, is JAFI Emissary for Cultural Relations and Communications in Russia. In reality, said Ms. Levy, he works mainly with Jewish members of the intelligentsia in Moscow. JAFI recognizes that, unlike Mr. Dekter, few such individuals actually will emigrate to Israel; they are too comfortable in their current positions and too dependent on the Russian milieu to consider starting over in a different culture. However, Ms. Levy and Mr. Dekter believe it is important to bring Jewish members of the intelligentsia closer to their Jewish roots and to encourage within them warm and supportive feelings toward Israel. Together with Moscow nuclear physicist Yaakov Soifer, Mr. Dekter has established a group called Ковчег (Kovcheg or Ark), which includes approximately 300 Moscow Jewish intellectuals. About 60 Kovcheg members meet regularly for lectures by visiting Israelis, discussions about new books or current events, and comparable activities. Ms. Levy stressed that Kovcheg is intentionally elitist, designed to appeal to the residual “snobbism” imbued in the educated classes during the Soviet period. Kovcheg is intended for those who create culture, not those who consume culture, she emphasized. Some Kovcheg members are active in JAFI in a practical sense; for example, Professor Soifer is one of four individuals on the editorial board of Вестник (Vestnik or Herald), a monthly publication of JAFI in Russia that has a relatively high intellectual content for an agency monthly newspaper.

The writer attended a round table discussion in which 12 members of the Kovcheg core group had been invited to participate. The 12 individuals included six from academic Judaica, five of whom had been interviewed by this writer; four individuals from scientific and cultural fields; and two of the more intellectually inclined professionals in Jewish communal service.82 Also present were Ms. Levy and Mr. Dekter. The discussion began at 3:30 p.m. and continued until almost 8:00 p.m. in a small dining room of a private club. In the Russian style, it included plentiful закуски (zakusky or appetizers) and a full meal. Discussion covered several topics, beginning with Russian Jewish demography. Those present believe that the rate of Jewish assimilation in Russia has slowed due to the decline of state-sponsored antisemitism, the perception of Israel by the Russian government and much of the Russian population as a normal state (rather than the pariah state of the late Soviet period), and the public profile of various Russian Jewish organizations. Many Jews believe that it is no longer necessary to try to conceal one’s Jewish identity.

75.  A “warm home” is a private apartment in which neighborhood seniors gather one or more times each week for a hot meal, socializing, and occasional health and holiday programs.
76.  The somewhat grandly named MEOD (Moscow Jewish Community Home or Московский Еврейский Общиный Дом) is a district community facility supported by REK and JDC. It sponsors a children's choir, a children's art club, an ulpan, Shabbat evenings for families, a women's club, activties for senior adults, lectures, a Jewish library, a monthly newspaper, and other programs. The facility is unable to accommodate large groups.
77.  Approximately 90 percent of individuals enrolled in ulpans in Russia emigrate to Israel shortly after completing the ulpan course.
78.  As noted, Na’aleh is a high school in Israel program. Selah is a year-long program in Israel that prepares recent high school graduates for entry into Israeli universities. Chalom combines a five-month ulpan course with a 12-month training course in a specific employment skill. Yachad attracts young adults who form groups while still in the post-Soviet states; they move to Israel together, attend ulpan together, and are mutually supportive as they move through progressive stages of aliyah together. Aliyah 2000 recruits individuals for specific employment positions and assists them in finding appropriate housing in Israel. First Home in the Homeland enrolls younger families for kibbutz ulpan and employment.
79.  See pp. 52-54 about the Ковчег (Kovcheg or Ark) group.
80.  See pp. 47-48. Ms. Malakhi said that the Center for Modern Jewish Studies soon will host a third ulpan.
81.  See p. 22.
82.  Those in academic Judaic studies are: Mikhail Chlenov of Maimonides Academy; Mark Kupovetsky of Project Judaica; Alexander Militarev and Arkady Kovelman from the Jewish University of Moscow; Viktoria Molchanova of Sefer; and Vladimir Shapiro of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Those from science and culture are: Alexander Gelman, a playwright; Alexander Mordukhovich, a businessman and producer; Yaakov Soifer, a nuclear physicist; and an unidentified woman, also a playwright. The two Jewish community professionals are Irina Scherban, Director of the Moscow Jewish Community Home (MEOD, a small Jewish community center), and Tancred Golenpolsky, Editor of International Jewish Gazette.

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