Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

In answer to a question about his priorities, Rabbi Karpov said that his first priority was increased support for existing programs. Second, his dream (мечта)

is to develop new programs for children with problems, such as juvenile delinquency, narcotics addiction, and emotional instability. Many such youngsters are from unstable homes, he noted, including homes of the intelligentsia. Third, he would like to expand a part-time and little publicized Jewish hotline. He believes that it is easier for Jews to speak with other Jews and that many would call in for counseling or an encouraging word. He is confident that he can find experienced people to manage such a service.

Rabbi Karpov expressed some bitterness about the refusal of the Joint Distribution Committee to provide financial support for his proposals concerning assistance to troubled children. However, he did acknowledge significant support from the Russian Jewish Congress for Chamah’s soup kitchen and certain other programs.

Greta Yelinson, the Director of Administration for Chamah, presented additional information about Chamah welfare services. The Chamah soup kitchen, she said, provides a hot meal to 400 elderly Jews six days each week. A meals-on-wheels program delivers another 350 meals to homebound elderly on a daily basis. Chamah extends patronage service (home assistance) to 315 homebound Jews every week; this assistance includes cleaning, shopping, and preparation of meals. A club for pensioners attracts 700 individuals every month. Among its programs are various social activities, discussion groups, sewing clubs, and other special-interest circles. A new welfare center scheduled to open in December will accommodate all of these activities plus elderly day care and repair services for small appliances and other household items. The major sponsors of such programs are JDC and the Russian Jewish Congress.

17. The Passin-Waxman Center and Children’s Home (Пессин Ваксман Центр для детей-сирот) was opened in June 1999 as a home for Jewish children in distress. Organized by Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the center was funded with an initial grant of $250,000 from Anita Waxman, a successful Broadway producer. The home also is supported by United Jewish Israel Appeal of Great Britain, the Russian Jewish Congress, the Jewish Community of Moscow, and several local individual donors.

The home currently accommodates 28 youngsters (14 boys and 14 girls, including two sets of two siblings each) between the ages of two and 14 in two large interconnected duplex apartments in downtown Moscow. A more spacious facility, suitable for 60 youngsters, is currently undergoing extensive renovation and is scheduled for occupancy in 2000. The new quarters will include space designated for infants, thus enabling the home to facilitate adoptions. As Passin-Waxman already has a substantial waiting list, it is anticipated that the new building will be close to capacity when it opens.

Twenty-six of the children currently in residence are from Moscow, one is from St. Petersburg, and one is from Nalchik (Caucasus Mountain area). Twenty-two youngsters have at least one living parent unable to provide adequate care due to chronic mental, social, or other problems.57 Several parents are institutionalized. Some children were living with grandparents or other relatives. Some had been abused, and several had traumatic experiences while living in communal apartments with four or five people sharing a single room. Youngsters are referred to Passin-Waxman by relatives and other concerned adults who learn about the center through advertisements placed in newspapers, in schools, and in other areas where Jews might gather.

Children sleep in cramped quarters, as many as six children in bunk beds in a single small room. However, all rooms are neat, clean, and well-furnished. Each bedroom has age-appropriate books and toys, and each room for older youngsters also has a computer. Boys and girls are accommodated on alternate floors. The center also has a living room, dining facility, and other appro-priate communal space. The children appeared healthy and in good spirits.

Four girls pose in their bedroom at the Passin-Waxman Center in Moscow.
(Photo: the author)

Passin-Waxman is managed by Rafael and Svetlana Ben-Yosef, a couple of Georgian Jewish background, who live in the center and serve as houseparents. The affection of youngsters for the Ben-Yosefs and other staff members is unmistakable.

All children aged three and older attend the Etz Chaim preschool or day school.58 It is anticipated that some youngsters will attend universities or institutes in Moscow and that others will move to Israel upon completion of high school.

Youngsters also are taken to theater, ballet performances, and on various excursions. Contact with parents and other relatives is encouraged, and some family members come to Passin-Waxman for Shabbat dinner.

The Passin-Waxman Center appeared to the writer to be more homelike and more professionally managed than residential programs for Jewish children in Ukraine. Several reasons may be adduced for this conclusion: (a) the presence within Passin-Waxman of a mature couple as live-in house parents, in contrast to younger adults who serve as counselors in several Ukrainian facilities; (b) the smaller population of Passin-Waxman; (c) the presence of both boys and girls in Passin-Waxman, whereas the programs in Ukraine separate boys and girls in different buildings; and (d) the apartment-style design of Passin-Waxman, whereas the Ukrainian facilities are more institutional in approach.

18. Tancred Golenpolsky is chairman of the Editorial Board of United Jewish Publications (probably a deliberately inexact translation by Mr. Golenpolsky of Объединенная редакция МЕГ; МЕГ refers to Международная еврейская газета). United Jewish Publications include: the weekly newspaper Международная еврейская газета (International Jewish Gazette); the monthly journal Русский еврей (Russian Jew, the same title as that of a tsarist-era publication); the quarterly Diagnosis (antifascist review, published in several languages); Jewish Russia Internet page; Jewish Moscow monthly guide; and the quarterly Yiddish journal Di Yiddishe Gas (The Jewish Street). Mr. Golenpolsky is a member of the Presidium of the Russian Jewish Congress, which subsidizes the various United Jewish Publications ventures. He also serves as Acting Director of the Moscow branch of the Russian Jewish Congress, an inactive organization, temporarily replacing the previous director who was arrested and imprisoned for financial wrongdoing.

Mr. Golenpolsky said that antisemitism, although increasing, is not a critical issue for most Moscow Jews; however, it is a problem for Sephardic Jews from the Caucasus [who are very active in Moscow markets and bazaars] because many Jews from this area bear a strong physical resemblance to Chechens. General antisemitism is becoming political in nature, said Mr. Golenpolsky. Its growth and political character reflect the resentment of many Russians toward a disproportionately large number of Jews as government officials, as oligarchs, and as financial backers of various electoral candidates. Jews are perceived as deciding the future of Russia, said Mr. Golenpolsky.

Notwithstanding escalating antisemitism, continued Mr. Golenpolsky, Yevgeny Primakov might win the 2000 election.59 Primakov has the skills to unify the country, said Mr. Golenpolsky. He will be able to balance the demands of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the interests of other groups.

Primakov favors a market economy with state influence in key sectors, maintained Mr. Golenpolsky. The average person in Russia, said Mr. Golenpolsky, is much more concerned about social security and pensions than about the specific character of the economic system. People will be patient regarding economic and political reforms as long as there is no war. The possibility of a war in Moscow is on everyone’s mind since several apartment buildings in the Russian capital had been bombed in recent months. Everyone, said Mr. Golenpolsky, believes that Chechens were responsible for these acts of terror.

When asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Jews in Russia, Mr. Golenpolsky said that he is optimistic that Jews will leave. That is, he said, he is optimistic about the future of Russian Jews only if they leave Russia. He is pessimistic about the future of Jewish life in Russia itself. Expanding on his response, Mr. Golenpolsky declared that trying to rebuild Jewish life in Russia is as futile as trying to plant a tree that has no roots. It is likely that the few expressions of Jewish life and culture that now exist in Russia can be maintained for 50 years at most. Most Jews who remain in Russia will assimilate. Some Jewish programs sponsored by JDC, he said, awaken the “sleepers,” i.e., older Jews who have memories of past Jewish life, but it is unlikely that current shallow Jewish programming will sustain Jewish life in those who have no Jewish past.

Of a Moscow Jewish population of about 150,000 people, continued Mr. Golenpolsky, a core group of between ten and 50 individuals are active in various Jewish endeavors and effectively control Jewish life in the capital. He perceives the Hillel student group only as a social club and believes that activists in Hillel will conclude their Jewish associations when they complete their student lives. Not everyone can be a builder, he said. In fact, he maintained, Jews lack the critical mass to build a community in Russia. The Jewish population includes very few young people, he noted, and the intermarriage rate among them exceeds 70 percent.

Current Jewish leaders in Moscow, said Mr. Golenpolsky, are bureaucratic and are reluctant to share power. However, he believes that Pavel Feldblum, Executive Vice President of MERO,60 might be very effective in the future, and that the World Union for Progressive Judaism could do well in Moscow if it provides adequate financial support for Rabbi Haim Ben-Yaakov.61 Moscow Jewry also needs a gathering place that is essentially secular, separated from religious premises. Such a center could operate various secular Jewish activities for different age groups, he said.

57.  According to press reports, 95 percent of all children in Russian state orphanages have at least one living parent. See Московские новости (Moscow News), October 20, 1999. More than 100,000 such children, often referred to as “social orphans,” have been abandoned in each of the past two years in Russia. See The Christian Science Monitor, November 16, 1999.
58. See pp. 9-11.
59. At the time of the interview with Mr. Golenpolsky, Mr. Primakov was doing very well in pre-election polls.
60. See p. 31.
61. See pp. 46-48.

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