Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999


11. The writer met with Evgenia (Zhenya) Mikhaileva, director of the Moscow Hillel student organization, at the Moscow Hillel center, a crowded apartment, which also serves as the hub for Hillel operations in Central Russia, the Ural Mountains area, Siberia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus Mountain area. Vladimir Paley, Ms. Mikhaileva’s assistant, has actual responsibility for the regions outside Moscow, for computer technology (including the Hillel website), and for special projects in Moscow.

Ms. Mikhaileva said that Hillel operations in the successor states were divided into 12 regions, including Moscow. The two newest Hillel groups are in Krasnoyarsk (central Siberia) and Khabarovsk (the Russian Far East). It is possible that other Hillel centers will be organized, she said, but her preference is to work with existing student groups associated with the Jewish Agency for Israel. Hillel lacks the resources to establish and service Hillel groups throughout the vast territory of the post-Soviet successor states.

Mr. Paley’s current special project is Dor, a program to train Hillel students to be guides to sites of interest in Jewish Russia. The name Dor has a double meaning; in Hebrew, it means generation, an apt name for a group exploring the history of Jews in Russia, and, in Russian, it is an abbreviation of the word for road (дорога), also an apt name for a tour guide group. Similar programs will be developed in Hillels in St. Petersburg; in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, and Lviv in Ukraine; and in Moldova. The Jewish Agency and Hillel will share costs and training for the Moscow group, but JAFI has not yet committed any funds for Dor in other cities.

Ms. Mikhaileva said that the current Hillel mail and telephone list includes some 2,000 names, double the number recorded in 1998. Of the 2,000, between 500 and 700 will come to special events, 100 to 200 will participate in a Hillel activity during any given week, and 30 to 40 are core activists. Among Hillel participants this year are several young religiously observant Jews; they seem to have become observant through programs operated by the Choral Synagogue or Chabad. A few Hillel members who are offspring of mixed marriages have completed the conversion process under Orthodox auspices.

The Hillel Rosh Hashana service at the Radisson Hotel is now in its second year and is much better organized than it was last year, said Ms. Mikhaileva. In addition to young people on the Hillel list, the service was publicized within the student clubs associated with the Jewish Agency and with the Israel Cultural Center. It attracted 1200 participants this year, somewhat fewer than in 1998, doubtless because the 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. Hillel is certain that some potential attendees, fearing violence by antisemitic groups, declined to participate.

The Hillel Rosh Hashana evening is more than a traditional service. Prior to the conventional observance, a display of Hillel activities and activities of other groups was mounted in the foyer. Various student ensembles performed for those in attendance. The service itself featured a 45-minute performance by the new Hillel women’s choir and traditional prayers led by Rabbi Eugene Weiner.42 After the service, apples and honey plus kosher wine and cake were available to all attendees. A Hillel videotape of the evening entitled We Are Not Afraid shows many participants attired in clothing more suitable for a dance than for a religious service. Nonetheless, said Ms. Mikhaileva, most students remained in the hall throughout the service this year, rather than wander about as was the case in 1998.

In a response to a question about other new programs (in addition to Dor and the women’s choir), Ms. Mikhaileva cited an expanded kabbalat shabbat program, classes in Jewish tradition (Beit Midrash), a Yiddish Club attracting 15 to 20 students weekly, an art studio, an aerobics class, and several sports groups.43 People expect more from Hillel, said Ms. Mikhaileva, now that the organization is in its fifth year of operations in Moscow.

Asked about the impact of growing antisemitism, Ms. Mikhaileva said that it is a serious problem. Antisemitism is evident to all, one can feel it. Hillel sometimes receives antisemitic telephone calls. Ms. Mikhaileva, who is a psychologist, said that she tries to help students deal with the anti-Jewish bigotry that they encounter in their daily lives.

Aliyah is increasing among Hillel members, said Ms. Mikhaileva. Among those who left for Israel during recent months were three Hillel leaders, including the editor of the Hillel newspaper. Ms. Mikhaileva believes that aliyah is an appropriate action for many students.

Jewish Communal Organizations

12. The Russian Jewish Congress (Российский Еврейский Конгресс, known as REK) was established in January 1996 as a central organization committed to developing a Russian Jewish community that will operate in an inclusive and efficient manner. Its primary backers have been a group of wealthy Moscow Jewish bankers and other businessmen, led by Most Media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, has played a major role in nurturing the organization, including the training of its leadership. The Joint Distribution Committee has supported REK organizing efforts.

Mr. Gusinsky continues as President of REK. Three individuals, all wealthy businessmen, are vice-presidents: Boris Hait, Mikhail Friedman, and Vitaly Malkin. The Presidium includes the four officers plus 27 other individuals. Most are businessmen, but the Board also includes four rabbis, several people from the academic and cultural arenas, and at least one sometime political figure (Yakov Urinson, former Minister of Finance and current Russian representative to the Group of Eight). Evgeny Satanovsky is Chairman of the Board of Directors, which includes 12 at-large members as well as representatives from 46 REK regional branches. No woman is included in any of these governing structures.

Vladimir Gusinsky, President of the Russian Jewish Congress.
(Photo: Диагноз [Diagnoz] magazine)



REK has five major program committees: primary and secondary Jewish education; higher lay education (academic Judaica); higher religious education (yeshivot and women's seminaries); social welfare; and Jewish culture. It also supports various religious activities and anti-defamation efforts. REK allocations in 1998 totaled $8,746,143, designated as follows:

Religious activities in regions		$	501,243
Social welfare					410,415
Culture						354,030
Primary and secondary education			199,000
Higher secular education				327,200
Higher religious education				 53,500
Memorial Synagogue at Poklonnaya gora                4,829,874 44

Alexander Osovtsov remains the Executive Vice President of REK, joined in recent months by three Executive Directors, each of whom has responsibility for a specific segment of REK activity. The writer spoke with Svetlana Muterperel, the Executive Director for welfare and culture.45

In response to a question about the REK budget and budgeting process, Ms. Muterperel acknowledged that REK revenues for 1998 and probably for 1999 as well would be somewhat lower than in 1997 due to the 1998 ruble devaluation and economic crisis that followed. Organizations requesting REK funding apply for subventions through the relevant program committee, each of which is chaired by a prominent businessman and includes professionals in the appropriate field. For example, the Primary and Secondary Education Committee is chaired by Boris Hait, a REK vice-president; its membership includes two Orthodox rabbis, a representative of the Progressive (Reform) movement, five day school principals, and an academic in the field of education. Each committee is authorized to approve allocations under $20,000. Committees must refer recommended allocations over $20,000 to the Presidium for its endorsement.

All business people on the Presidium are required to make substantial contributions to REK. Some choose to give all or part of their gift in in-kind goods, such as food for welfare programs. Rabbis and individuals from such areas as education are not expected to contribute funds or goods to the organization.

REK has organized branches in 45 different Russian cities and regions, ranging from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Bashkortostan, Kemerovo, and Kostroma. Most of the smaller Jewish population centers are dependent upon the largesse and organizing skills of a very small group of contributors, often only one or two individuals. If these few donors suffer financial reverses, as some did following the collapse of the ruble in 1998, Jewish communal activity in their regions is affected severely. As in the United States, per capita giving differs markedly from city to city; for example, the Jewish population of Kazan (fewer than 10,000 people) raised $391,200 in 1998, compared to $312,300 by the approximately 100,000 Jews of St. Petersburg.

42.  Rabbi Weiner had organized the first such service in 1998 when he was employed by JDC in Moscow. No longer associated with JDC, Rabbi Weiner currently works in New York and returned to Moscow to lead the 1999 Hillel observance.
43. These new activities appear to fulfill the 1998-1999 priorities that Ms. Mikhaileva outlined to the writer in an October 1998 meeting. At that time, Ms. Mikhaileva said she hoped to expand educational and Shabbat programs, increase cooperative efforts with the Jewish Agency, and develop a Hillel women’s choir.
44. All figures are from The Russian Jewish Congress Charity Fund, 1998 Annual Report. Regional branches of REK supplement national REK funding in all categories. Cultural programs include anti-defamation activity; primary and secondary education focuses on assistance to Jewish day schools; higher secular education focuses on assistance to academic Judaica programs; higher religious education covers aid to yeshivas; and the Memorial Synagogue at Poklonnaya Gora is a complex including a synagogue and the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust located at the point where German forces were halted on their approach to Moscow in 1941-42. See the author’s A Survey of Jewish Life in Moscow, October 20-29, 1998, pp. 2-4, for more information on the Poklonnaya gora complex.
45. A meeting with Mr. Osovtsov had been scheduled and was later cancelled when he was called out of town. The writer first met Ms. Muterperel several years previously when she was employed by JDC. Ms. Muterperel and several of her colleagues appear quite young, a situation that has led some individuals associated with other organizations to refer to them derisively as “boys and girls” and to question their authority.

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