Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

Acknowledging that the Duma had not censured General Makashov or other antisemites in its ranks, Dr. Chilingarov commented that the singer Iosif Kobzon, a Jew, is the only Duma member to have condemned antisemitic rhetoric in the Duma. Noting that Kobzon himself was of questionable character, Dr. Chilingarov reminded the delegation that the popular singer is unable to obtain a visa for entry into the United States.11

It is “normal” that many deputy ministers in the Ministry of Economics and the Ministry of Finance are Jews, said Dr. Chilingarov. However, the emigration of Jews to Israel has had a major adverse impact on those Jews who remain; they are asked if they consider Russia their motherland, they are suspected of loyalty to Israel.

It also is wrong for Jews to go into Russian politics after they become oligarchs. Dr Chilingarov continued that Russia has a history of pogroms and such antisemitic groups as the Black Hundreds,12 implying that the participation of wealthy Jews in contemporary Russian politics might provoke similar actions. As an Armenian, he continued, he felt very strongly that pogroms and the formation of such groups as the Black Hundreds should never happen again. He added that he knows that former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov is of Jewish background; however, he supports Primakov because the latter is not an oligarch.

Dr. Artur Chilingarov, Hero of the Soviet Union and Deputy Chairman of the Duma, expresses his views.

(Photo: the author)

Concerning other prominent Jews, Dr. Chilingarov said that Vladimir Zhirinovsky is an antisemite and encourages the growth of fascism in Russia. The actions of Boris Berezovsky spawn antisemitism; therefore, he should not go into politics.

Implying that comparable antisemitism also afflicts the United States, Dr. Chilingarov asked if the Ku Klux Klan was still active in the United States. Mark Levin of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry replied affirmatively, but added that no Ku Klux Klan members were members of the United States Congress. Dr. Chilingarov responded that the Duma was not antisemitic; the fact that the son of Alexander Men’ is a member of the Duma shows that antisemitism has not infected the Duma.13

Dr. Chilngarov stated that he considers the various new Moscow Jewish institutions -- such as synagogues, schools, and cultural institutions -- to be positive developments. He does not consider these establishments to be “political” in nature.

Returning to his analysis of the reasons for antisemitism in Russia, he reiterated that many post-Soviet Jews now have dual citizenship in Russia and another country. He acknowledged that many Armenians now live in other countries as well and constitute an “Armenian diaspora”. Russian-born Jews who leave Russia don’t share local economic difficulties; this is offensive, he continued, because we (мы, i.e., ethnic Russians) brought them up and educated them.

He added that he is more concerned about statements that are anti-Caucasian, i.e., directed against people from the Caucasus Mountain areas, than he is about antisemitic statements. He is troubled about Mr. Makashov and Nikolai Kondratenko because they are anti-Armenian as well as antisemitic. Just as he blames Jews themselves for much of Russian antisemitism,14 he continued, he thinks that people from the Caucasus are responsible for generating anti-Caucasus sentiments. After all, migrants from the Caucasus control most of the markets and bazaars in Moscow even though Russians constitute the most numerous nationality group in the Russian capital.

Jews should thank the Russian homeland (родина) for their education and for the opportunities it has provided them, said Dr. Chilingarov. He added that he keeps his hand on “the pulse of Russia” and knows what people think. He says what he thinks, he continued, and he has several Jewish friends, including Vladimir Gusinsky and Alexander Osovtsov, President and Executive Vice President respectively of the Russian Jewish Congress. Dr. Chilingarov said that his family and the Osovtsov family were friendly when he and Mr. Osovtsov were growing up in then-Leningrad.

Jewish Day Schools

The writer visited four of the seven Jewish day schools in Moscow. Interested readers may wish to read accounts of previous visits to these and other Moscow day schools in her 1997 and 1998 trip reports cited earlier.

2. Beit Yehudit (School #1330) was started in 1990 by Rivka Weiss, who sought a Jewish day school education for her own daughter. Mrs. Weiss, who is of Belgian and Israeli background, lives in Moscow with her husband, Rabbi David Weiss, a rabbi employed by the Joint Distribution Committee to serve a number of Jewish communities in the Ural Mountain area.

The school currently enrolls 150 girls (grades 1-11)15  and 10 boys (grades 1-3) in its regular classes, plus six boys and two girls in special education classes. Enrollment has decreased by about nine percent from the previous year, reflecting emigration of a significant number of girls in the lower grades to Israel with their families. However, the number of older girls has increased, including some with severe social problems. Even as it maintains high academic standards in both general and Judaic studies, the school appears to have gained a good reputation for working with troubled youngsters. Mrs. Weiss readily acknowledged that some adolescent girls were so disturbed that she and her staff are unable to work with them. Several girls have been suspended since the beginning of the school year.

In all, the school provides boarding arrangements for 35 girls, including some from as far away as Moldova, Siberia, and Central Asia. Dormitory arrangements are crowded, but clean and pleasant.

The school curriculum includes 15 class hours each week in Judaic studies, five of which are in Hebrew language instruction. Ten are in Chumash, tradition, and Jewish history. Jewish themes also are incorporated into lessons in music, dance, and art. Hebrew is taught by two instructors from Israel, one of whom is compensated by the Nativ/Ministry of Education program. Mrs. Weiss, Rabbi Weiss, and two local individuals teach Judaic studies classes.

Two madrichot (youth leaders) from Israel assist in classes and serve as leaders and role models for pupils. Three additional madrichot, students at Stern College in New York, were expected to join the Israelis within six weeks of the writer’s visit.

The six special education youngsters have a variety of disabilities, including attention deficit disorder and severely impaired vision. The school lacks well qualified staff and appropriate premises to deal with the range of these problems.16

Beit Yehudit currently is renovating a former school building adjacent to its own structure. The new facility will contain a dormitory accommodating 100 to 110 pupils (with two to three girls in each room) as well as a synagogue, library, sports hall, community hall, and a special room in which elderly Jews and non-Jews from the neighborhood can gather for meals and various social and welfare programs. Another feature of the new building will be a dental clinic furnished with equipment donated by a sponsor in Britain. An Israeli dentist of British background has agreed to train Russian Jewish dentists for work in the clinic and for potential immigration to Israel. Mrs. Weiss observed that the building had been in good condition four or five years ago when the city abandoned its use as a school. In the intervening years, scavengers and vandals had stripped the structure of all marketable materials, leaving it in ruins.

Major funding for renovations of the new building and for ongoing activities in Beit Yehudit is provided by sponsors in Switzerland and England. However, Mrs. Weiss intends to extend her fundraising activity to North America and already has received some commitments from individuals in Canada.

More so than many other Jewish schools in the post-Soviet states, Beit Yehudit is the creation of an individual founder, Mrs. Rivka Weiss (left). Describing herself as a “tornado”, Mrs. Weiss exudes energy and warmth. She is both a principal and an active teacher, and she appears to know the name and background of every pupil and every teacher in the school.

(Photo: Beit Yehudit)


A Beit Yehudit pedagogical seminary enrolling graduates of its high school has been moved to Israel, where it operates as part of an existing machon (college or seminary). Twenty-five young women of Russian background, not all of whom are Beit Yehudit graduates, are enrolled in the program, including some who will require conversion to Judaism because they are offspring of mixed marriages in which only the father is Jewish.

11. Mr. Kobzon is on the United States “watch list,” suspected of links to Russian organized crime.
12. The “Black Hundreds” (Черная сотня) was the informal name of local branches of the Union of Russian People (Союз русского народа), a virulently antisemitic group that staged many pogroms in early twentieth century Russia.
13. The reference is to Father Alexander Men’, a Russian Orthodox priest who was murdered at age 55 in 1990, as were two additional priests who attempted to investigate his death. The murder is variously attributed to the KGB and to Pamyat (Memory), an antisemitic nationalist movement active at the time. Soviet authorities had been alarmed by the following Father Men’ had attracted among young people, Russian intellectuals, and dissident priests. The parents of Alexander Men’ were Jews, but his mother converted to Christianity before World War II and raised her son in the Russian Orthodox Christian religion. The son of Alexander Men’ also was raised as a Christian and is not regarded by Jews as a Jew.
14. Nikolai Kondratenko is the governor of Krasnodar krai (a territorial unit) in southern Russia, the area that borders on the Caucasus mountain region. Formerly the First Secretary of the Krasnodar regional Communist Party, he has blamed Jews and Zionists for the demise of the Communist Party, the Chechen-Russia conflict, homosexuality in Russia, and attacks on the Russian Orthodox church. He has claimed that an international Jewish conspiracy rules the world. Kondratenko also maligns Chechens, Meskhetian Turks, and Armenians.
15. The typical Soviet and post-Soviet school curriculum begins first grade at age seven and ends upon completion of the eleventh grade at age 17. Grade 4 is missing from the syllabus. Hence, a nominal eleven-grade school includes only ten grade levels.
16. General public school systems in the post-Soviet states are not obligated to accept such youngsters. Few educational opportunities are available to them.

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