Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

Participants were pleased to see the emergence of an indigenous Jewish communal infrastructure in Russia. They believe that Jewish education and identity-building measures are necessary to sustain and enhance this infrastructure in the future. A Russian Jewish дух (dukh; spirit, moral condition) must be cultivated. With the future in mind, several suggested that younger Jewish intellectuals be invited to join Kovcheg and that a variety of Jewish programs be created for Russian Jewish young adults.

Alexander Mordukhovich, Yaakov Soifer, and Alexander Gelman listen at the Kovcheg roundtable meeting. (Photo: the author)

Ties between Jewish intellectuals in Russia and the State of Israel are strong and will remain strong because of the large Jewish population of Russian origin in Israel, they concluded. The Russian-language culture that has developed in Israel will continue to absorb various facets of Russian culture, including contemporary Russian writing and other forms of Russian creativity.

Mikhail Chlenov, Mark Kupovetsky, Vladimir Shapiro, and Alexander Militarev (left to right) are Kovcheg activists from the field of academic Jewish studies.
(Photo: the author)


Vladimir Shapiro presented the results of a 1997-1998 study entitled Количественные результаты исследования 1997-1998 годов (Quantitative Results of Research in 1997-1998) that deals with the perceptions held by Jews in Russia and Ukraine of various Jewish organizations active in those two countries.83 In general, JAFI appeared in the most favorable light, enjoying the greatest name recognition and the greatest respect. Chabad also was familiar to respondents, but enjoyed less respect. The Hillel student organization and the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Societies in Russia (KEROOR) were least well known to respondents, perhaps reflecting their niche constituencies.84 The survey showed that word-of-mouth, rather than personal contact or formal publications, is the most frequent source of information about such organizations.

The writer also attended the Ежегодной Общий Собрание Еврейского Агенства в России (Annual General Meeting of the Jewish Agency in Russia - JAIR), a day-long event required by law in Russia since JAFI established itself as a domestic organization in Russia in 1996.85 Rabbi Adolph Shayevich, Chief Rabbi of Russia and a Russian citizen, is Chairman of the Board of the Jewish Agency in Russia and was the formal chairman of the meeting. In attendance at a Moscow hotel were 35 Russian Jews, representatives of the Jewish Agency across Russia. Their major JAIR role was as local aliyah coordinators in Moscow and six cities in the Moscow region, St. Petersburg and one city in its region, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Khabarovsk, Samara, Penza, Rostov on Don, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Cheboksary, Makachkala, Pyatigorsk, and Kislovodsk.

The meeting began with various procedural measures required under Russian law. Rabbi Shayevich presented a review of the year 5759 (1998-1999). Among the facts that he cited are the following: 34,000 individuals across Russia participated in JAIR-sponsored commemorations of Jewish and Israeli holidays, such as Purim, Pesach, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Israel Independence Day; 8,257 individuals studied Hebrew in 120 JAFI ulpans across Russia; and 6,500 youth attended Jewish Agency summer camps organized in or near 15 different Russian cities. Over 1,000 youth between the ages of 15 and 20 studied in Israeli high school and other academic programs. Representatives of numerous Israeli cities and industrial enterprises visited various Russian cities to recruit potential olim for specific aliyah programs. JAIR conducted 29 seminars for the training of Hebrew language and Jewish tradition instructors.

A number of aliyah coordinators responded to Rabbi Shayevich’s report. They commented on relations between JAIR and other Jewish organizations as well as between JAIR and local rabbis. A few complained that JAFI printed materials lacked relevance to needs in their own communities. Several noted that some Israeli madrichim (youth leaders) assigned to their cities or to their summer camps do not speak Russian. One stressed the importance of working with entire families in the framework of youth programs, an approach strongly endorsed by Ms. Levy.

Sessions after lunch focused on new plans for 2000 and beyond. Re-structuring of the Moscow head office also was discussed. Ms. Levy remained in control throughout the day, listening carefully to comments and responding appropriately. She set a tone of seriousness and a sense of direction for the work of the Jewish Agency. She emphasized the importance of conforming to Russian law in all JAIR activities. The conference closed with a festive dinner.

25. Avraham Ganon is Director of the Israeli government-sponsored Israeli Cultural Center and an attache at the Embassy of Israel in Moscow. The writer met twice with Mr. Ganon, once separately and once as a participant with the joint delegation from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the American Jewish Committee. The following report attempts to combine accounts of the individual and group sessions.

The Israeli Cultural Center in Moscow, said Mr. Ganon, is one of eleven such institutions throughout the post-Soviet successor states. The goal of the centers, which are administered by Nativ, is to create an Israeli atmosphere in the post-Soviet states. Sunday is the busiest day of the week at the ICC, but some activity takes place every day except Shabbat. The Moscow ICC has a Russian-language library (focusing on Israel and Jewish topics) and several activity rooms. It offers a variety of classes and clubs, including: a Hebrew ulpan (currently 15 different classes, each meeting twice weekly, in various locations), a combined Hebrew language/giur (conversion) class for non-Jewish spouses of potential olim, a Sunday school for youth, classes in the Open University of Israel, computer classes, mathematics enrichment classes for youth, and clubs for children, adolescents, students, women, and families. Additional special-interest clubs focus on Jewish music, Jewish literature, Israeli vocal music, children’s drama, children’s arts and crafts, chess, sports, Jewish/Israeli video, and Mishna (from a secular viewpoint).

Mr. Ganon said that about 1,000 individuals participate in ICC activities during the week. Between 400 and 500 adolescents attend ICC-sponsored holiday celebrations and 100 are active on a weekly basis. The Sunday school has 120 youngsters between the ages of seven and 16 on its rolls; between 70 and 80 attend each week. About 2,600 people throughout Russia, including 500 in Moscow, are enrolled in one of the Open University of Israel classes.

The ICC distributes a variety of Russian-language printed materials about Israel, including a full-color calendar. The calendar includes information on Jewish holidays, various Israeli universities and other academic institutions, and activities of the ICC.

Mr. Ganon believes that between 150,000 and 200,000 Jews live in Moscow. It is likely, he said, that Moscow Jewish organizations reach only about ten percent of them for any activity at all. ICC relations with the Jewish Agency for Israel, with which the ICC “competes” in certain areas, are good, said Mr. Ganon.

Antisemitism, he said, will always exist in Moscow and Russia. Anti-Jewish bigotry does not affect the number of Jews who come to the ICC or the number who emigrate to Israel. The main reason for aliyah is the dire economic situation in Russia.

26. Moshe Bachar is First Secretary and Consul at the Embassy of Israel in Moscow. Mr. Bachar, whose family came to Israel from Turkey, commented that “Russia is not a country that smiles to foreigners.” He finds the atmosphere very “heavy” in Moscow. The Jewish Agency and Nativ, he said, are accomplishing much, considering “local conditions” in Russia.

In response to a question, Mr. Bachar acknowledged a lack of consensus among local observers regarding the number of Jews living in Russia. He cited a figure of 1.5 million that is current among some Chabad followers. Whatever the real number, he said, additional people are acknowledging their Jewish heritage “all the time.” In fact, many Russians with no Jewish background present false personal documents supposedly affirming a Jewish heritage so that they will qualify for immigration to Israel under the Israeli Law of Return. The immigration of non-Jews to Israel is a “serious problem,” he said. The reality that 20 percent of the Israeli population speaks Russian and that Israel is a short plane ride away from Moscow means that many Russians feel comfortable in Israel. Mr. Bachar believes that significant aliyah to Israel may continue from Russia for five years, depending on the economic situation in Russia.

The level of antisemitism in Russia has increased recently, said Mr. Bachar. The Russian police will control anti-Jewish bigotry to keep it from getting out of hand, he said, but Jewish family names will continue to generate an antisemitic response and some Jews, particularly Boris Berezovsky, maintain too high a profile in a society with a history of anti-Jewish bigotry. Yevgeny Primakov, continued Mr. Bachar, projects an image of the old, i.e., Soviet, generation, but not that of a Jew. He is not an oligarch; therefore, much less antisemitism is directed toward him than toward the Jewish oligarchs. Primakov, asserted Mr. Bachar, is a clever man.

83.  Those responding to a survey in Russia included 600 Jews in Moscow, 500 in St. Petersburg, and 300 in Yekaterinburg. Those Jews questioned in Ukraine included 500 each in Kyiv and Kharkiv, 400 in Odessa, and 300 each in Lviv and Chernovtsy. The surveys were controlled for gender, age, and employment biases. In addition to the organizations noted above, questions were asked about the Joint Distribution Committee, the Russian Jewish Congress (in Russia), and the Va’ads in both Russia and Ukraine.
84.  To no one’s surprise, Ms. Levy and Mr. Dekter were delighted with the results of the study. They had not been aware that such a survey had been conducted.
85.  The Jewish Agency registered as a Russian organization in 1996 after prolonged government harassment of JAFI and threats to suspend its accreditation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed at that time by Yevgeny Primakov, and the FSB (successor to KGB) were thought to have instigated the anti-JAFI action. They were said to be deeply apprehensive about JAFI efforts to encourage Jewish emigration, especially the departure of adolescents in the Na’aleh program. Re-registration as a Russian entity was understood as a move by JAFI to help the Russian government save face after its Soviet-era tactics had failed to intimidate JAFI into suspending its pro-aliyah activities.

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