Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

In response to a question about antisemitism, a subject within her REK welfare and culture professional portfolio, Ms. Muterperel confirmed that REK has entered into a partnership with the Anti-Defamation League of the United States to combat antisemitism and promote democracy and tolerance in Russia. This effort will be directed by Lev Krichevsky, former correspondent of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in the successor states. The precise nature of the REK anti-defamation undertaking in the successor states is still being defined, said Ms. Muterperel.

Antisemitism in Russia had increased markedly during the last year, Ms. Muterperel noted, attributing its growth to the forthcoming Duma and Presidential elections. In fact, she continued, the current upsurge in anti-Jewish bigotry is “natural” because many Jews are influential in government, provide financial support to various candidates, and try to sway public opinion in favor of specific contenders through the media that they own. She believes that antisemitism will subside after the elections, but that it will not decline to its previous low levels in the early to mid-1990s.

On the Russian Jewish Congress in general, Ms. Muterperel said that it is evolving over time. She perceives its public image as very positive and believes that it is a “prestigious” organization with which to be associated.

13. Mikhail (Micha) Chlenov is the longtime President of the Russian Va’ad, an organization founded in 1989 with the goal of representing all of Soviet Jewry. In an interview at Maimonides Academy, where he is Dean, Dr. Chlenov said that the Va’ad will hold its next Congress in December of this year.46 He hopes that the Congress will elect his successor so that he can become Chairman of the Board, a less time-consuming position.

The Presidium of the Va’ad had met earlier in October, continued Dr. Chlenov, to discuss the “function and niche” of the Va’ad. He perceives its role as a “union of lay and professional activists”47 in Russian Jewish affairs. In contrast, he said, the Russian Jewish Congress is an organization of donors, not activists. However, he remarked, Vladimir Gusinsky and Alexander Osovtsov believe that REK is an “umbrella organization for all other Jewish organizations”. Dr. Chlenov made it clear that he considered such an assessment of the REK role to be unwarranted. The Va’ad, he said, would like to work with REK and with Jewish religious groups.48

In response to a question about financial support for the Va’ad, Dr. Chlenov said rather vaguely that various local individuals and organizations, JDC, and the World Zionist Organization all contributed to the Va’ad budget.

Speaking generally about changes in Moscow between October 1998 and October 1999, Dr. Chlenov said that conditions of daily life had deteriorated since 1998. The continuing “political turmoil”, particularly the disarray caused by the forthcoming elections and the various banking-related scandals, is “nerve-wracking”. No one trusts any one else or any institutions. Prices of many goods have declined, but retired people still cannot survive on their pensions. Oddly, the war in Chechnya has created some unity among Russians as support for government policy in that region is widespread; thus, the Chechnya war has introduced a measure of stability into Russian life. Dr. Chlenov continued that he is concerned about the forthcoming elections to the Duma in December and the Presidency in June. He is not worried that extremists will come to power; however, he fears that extremists will be strengthened by their increased access to the media during this period and by the perceived need of some candidates to reach out to extremists in order to broaden their political bases.

Reflecting on post-Soviet Jewish demography, Dr. Chlenov said that he “respects” the research of Hebrew University scholar Sergio DellaPergola that shows an end-1997 estimate of 325,000 “core” Jews in Russia.49 He thinks that a forthcoming census (in 2000) will confirm these figures. However, he continued, this demographic estimate does not constitute a “programmatic imperative”, alluding to the large number of intermarried families in which a non-Jewish member might be interested in Jewish programs. Dr. Mark Kupovetsky of Project Judaica estimates that 1,200,000 individuals in Russia are eligible for Israeli citizenship under provisions of the Israeli Law of Return, added Dr. Chlenov. In any case, continued Dr. Chlenov,50 the Jewish birthrate is very low, well below the level at which the Jewish population would replace itself. In fact, about 12 Jews die for every Jew who is born in Russia. Assimilation remains a very strong force. Six of the 15 most prominent Jews in Russia are listed as Russians, rather than Jews, in their internal passports, said Dr. Chlenov.51

14. The Jewish Community of Moscow (Еврейская община Москвы; previously called Moscow Jewish Religious Community or Московское еврейское религиозное общество; retains acronym MERO from earlier title) was established in 1999 as a successor organization to the Moscow Jewish Congress. The Moscow Jewish Congress, a branch of REK, was effectively dissolved when its leader was arrested and imprisoned for financial wrongdoing. The writer spoke with Dr. Pavel Feldblum, a young physician who is the Executive Vice President of MERO. Dr. Feldblum is highly regarded among Moscow Jews.

Although MERO offices are located in the Choral Synagogue associated with Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Dr. Feldblum stressed that it is a secular organization with a much broader (шире) agenda than many religious groups. It has nine directorates (управления): mass information (средства массовой информации); religious affairs; Jewish education; Jewish culture; welfare; facilities; elderly housing; Jewish cemetery; and infrastructure development (such as kashrut certification). Now in its first year of operation, MERO is funding seven institutions: three day schools (Etz Chaim, Beit Yehudit, and #1311), a yeshiva, the Passin-Waxman Children’s Center,52 the Chamah soup kitchen, and a Jewish cemetery. It works with REK and with JDC in co-sponsoring some of these endeavors.

Fifty individuals are members of the MERO Board of Directors/Board of Sponsors, each of whom has contributed between $10,000 and $40,000 to MERO. In some cases, Board members represent a specific Jewish organization, which pays the membership fee. Board members may designate their contribution for a specific project.

Observers note that the MERO giving level is lower than that of REK (usual minimum of $50,000), thus providing a comfortable affiliation for many successful Jews who are affluent, but not as wealthy as those associated with REK. However, some MERO Board members contribute to both REK and MERO.

Dr. Feldblum stressed that MERO has no ambition to become an “umbrella” (зонтичний) organization, “controlling” all Jewish life in Moscow. However, several other individuals with whom the writer spoke support the notion of MERO as an umbrella organization, suggesting that a respected broadbased group should develop a computer data base of the 120 Jewish organizations said to exist in the Russian capital. Many of these organizations, it is believed, are little more than family groups with no clear agenda; however, observers lack the means to determine which organizations are important and which are inconsequential.

15. The writer met with Rabbi Berel Lazar, Head Lubavitch Emissary in Moscow and Russia, and also head of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the C.I.S. Because this organization had not assumed a public political character at the time of the writer’s visit, the meeting with Rabbi Lazar is reported in another section of this report.53

16. Chamah is a multi-faceted Jewish organization with programs in religion, education, and welfare. It is associated with the Chabad movement, but operates independently of the Ohr Avner and Federation of Jewish Communities support organizations that fund most other Chabad-related groups in the post-Soviet states. Chamah activity is concentrated in Moscow; a smaller center is located in southern Russia, in the city of Rostov-on-Don.

Chamah was established in the 1950s by followers of Chabad as an underground organization committed to helping Jews in Russia return to their roots. A Moscow native, Rabbi Dovid Karpov was attracted to the organization as a young man in the late 1970s. Now serving as its head rabbi, he met with the writer at the Chamah synagogue, Darkei Shalom (Ways of Peace), located in the Otradnoye district of Moscow.54 Rabbi Karpov estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 Jews live in the area, a figure that may be somewhat high.

Chama operates three major programs in Moscow: the synagogue,55 its Jewish Educational Center for Children,56 and a large soup kitchen. Additionally, Rabbi Karpov pursues several special projects. The largest of these is support (food, medical assistance, psychological consulting, life-cycle event celebrations) to about 20 at-risk low-income Moscow Jewish families. Together, these families have approximately 30 children, some of whom are chronically ill (physically or emotionally). In many cases, parents are incapable of caring for their children or finding appropriate support services for them. Rabbi Karpov would like to develop special housing and programs for these families, but he foresees little likelihood of finding appropriate funding for such a project. Rabbi Karpov also does outreach work among Jews in prisons.

46.  See p. 22 for the section of the interview dealing with Dr. Chlenov’s role in academic Judaica.
47. Dr. Chlenov also is a member of the Presidium of the Russian Jewish Congress.
48. In several previous meetings, Dr. Chlenov had described Russian national Jewish organizational life as managed by a triumvirate of more-or-less equally influential organizations: (1) REK, which is engaged primarily in fundraising; (2) the Va’ad, which is the political center of Russian Jewry; and (3) KEROOR (Конгресса Еврейских Религиозных Общин и Организаций России; Congress
49. See “World Jewish Population, 1997” in American Jewish Year Book, 1999 (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1999), p. 568. “Core” Jews are defined as those “who, when asked, identify themselves as Jews; or, if the respondent is a different person in the same household, are identified by him/her as Jews”. Ibid., p. 545. Professor DellaPergola’s work also concluded that 132,000 core Jews reside in Ukraine, 19,000 in Belarus, 6,500 in Moldova, and 16,700 in the Baltic states. Many Jews inside the successor states believe that these figures, especially those for Ukraine and Moldova, are low.
50. See pp. 20-21.
51. Dr. Chlenov did not identify the 15 “most prominent Jews”.
52. See pp. 33-35.
53. See pp. 43-46.
54. Otradnoye is a recently developed working- and middle-class northern district of the Russian capital. The synagogue is a red brick structure standing in close proximity to two other red brick structures, a Russian Orthodox church and a mosque. All were built in 1996-1997. Both the church and the mosque are substantially larger than the synagogue.
55. Rabbi Karpov said that between 50 and 70 individuals attend Shabbat services at the synagogue on a regular basis. More participate in holiday events.
56. See pp. 11-13.

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