Betsy Gidwitx Reports





Report of a Visit


November 22 to December 2, 2004




This report reviews a visit by the writer to Moscow from November 22 to December 2, 2004.[1] During the first three working days (November 23-25) of this period, the writer was accompanied by Gerda Feuerstein, Director of the Former Soviet Union Division of the Jewish Agency Department of Jewish Zionist Education, and Susan Peled, whose responsibilities in the Jewish Agency Department of Jewish Zionist Education include relations with western diaspora communities.[2] All of the day schools noted below and certain other education-related institutions were visited in the company of these Jewish Agency officials.


Moscow in early winter of 2004 was a city blanketed by snow and unusually cold weather for that time of year, even by local standards. Traveling from place to place within the city by private car strained one's patience and endurance as 21st-century post-communist traffic confronted a street system designed according to 20th-century Soviet canon idealizing public transportation. An accumulation of snow did little to ease movement from one part of the Russian capital to another. A metropolis of some 11 million people, Moscow is the undisputed political, economic, and cultural center of Russia.[3] Notwithstanding routine traffic congestion, the center of the city exudes a raw energy similar to that of other primary cities throughout the world. New construction is ubiquitous, upscale private shops are plentiful, and many Russians are busy studying foreign languages.


In all, the writer conferred with approximately 50 individuals in more than 30 formal and informal meetings. Several, including a total of five diplomatic personnel from the United States and Israeli embassies, requested that their remarks be off the record.

Although most professionals in Jewish education elected to confine their comments to the subject of education, many others did not hesitate to declare their concern about “political regression in Russia. Continuing centralization of Russian media, more limited access to Russian government officials, increasing authoritarianism of President Vladimir Putin, and pervasive corruption were all cited as disturbing factors. The Russian government attack on oil producer Yukos, ostensibly for failure to pay taxes, has frightened potential foreign investors. The general lack of transparency in Russian business transactions is a deterrent to economic growth. Capital flight is increasing, and inflation is growing.


Recalling an earlier era, some local people are hesitant to speak with foreigners. Also evoking previous years, Russian foreign policy is perceived as imperial in character, a recrudescence of both imperial and Soviet strategy toward its closest neighbors (the “near abroad, as many Russians refer to the other former Soviet republics). The Russians have dug a big hole for themselves in Ukraine, said one foreign observer. Georgia and Moldova also were cited as victims of Russian imperialism.[4]


Although state-directed antisemitism has ceased, many individuals with whom the writer spoke have observed an increased level of street antisemitism. Much of such prejudice appears to be a by-product of growing Russian nationalism.[5]


Estimates of the size of the Moscow Jewish population range from 120,000 to 500,000 core Jews, with five of nine Moscow respondents to this question offering answers in the range of 200,000 to 250,000.[6] Several respondents pointedly discounted the figure of 108,000 estimated by noted demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University.[7] The number of core and extended Jews in Russia eligible to immigrate to Israel under provisions of the Israeli Law of Return was estimated at between 400,000 and 3 million, compared to DellaPergola's figure of 252,000.[8]


Whatever the precise number of Jews living in Moscow (and Russia), almost all observers believe that the Jewish population is in catastrophic demographic decline, reflecting an aging Jewish population, high mortality rate, low fertility rate, high assimilation, and massive emigration. A Moscow newspaper declared in 2003 that Moscow Jewry was on the verge of extinction, citing a 10:1 death-to-birth ratio and an average age among Moscow Jews of between 52 and 56. The paper stated that the leading reason for the Jewish population decline was large-scale emigration.[9]


Notwithstanding the reality that the Jewish population of Moscow (and Russia) is diminishing precipitously in numbers, Jews remain prominent in Russian culture, science, mathematics, and academic life. However, such eminence may be coming to an end as remaining younger Jews abandon these fields in favor of careers in business and, to some extent, law. Opportunities for greater remuneration seem to be the major factor motivating career choices for Jews and non-Jews alike. Reports of Jewish adolescents from middle-class families forgoing post-secondary education in favor of entering business at age 17 also are common.[10]


The consensus among individuals interviewed by the writer is that only a small minority of the Jewish population, perhaps two to eight percent of younger and middle-age Jews, is engaged in any type of Jewish activity. (This number may climb to 20 percent if elderly and infirm Jews receiving assistance from Jewish welfare organizations are included in calculations.) Non-participation derives from several factors, including an absence of high-quality programs in non-religious settings that appeal to the largely secular Jewish population, continuing apprehension rooted in the Soviet period about the wisdom of associating with Jewish organizations, uneasiness about political attachments of some organizations and the fear of being drawn into larger conflicts, and discomfort with the perceived low cultural level of several rabbis who lead organizations, especially those rabbis associated with hasidic movements.


Notwithstanding these factors, some observers estimate that as many as 500 Jewish organizations exist in the Russian capital, the overwhelming majority of which are small groups with minuscule followings and equally insignificant budgets. Conflicts between these groups are numerous and concurrently trivial and complex, often exasperating foreign organizations (such as the Jewish Agency, Joint Distribution Committee, and embassies) that desire to maintain good relations with all segments of the Jewish population. The lack of an established civil culture in Russia further impedes development of Jewish organizational life.


Toward the end of the 1990's, the Russian Jewish Congress, led by now-exiled oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, appeared to be developing into a broad-based Jewish civil organization with an expanding program reaching well beyond Moscow into regional Jewish population centers far from the Russian capital. Mr. Gusinsky contributed his own resources and engaged other Jewish businessmen in these endeavors. However, in late 2001, President of Russia Vladimir Putin seemed to signal an end to an independent Jewish community, embracing the Chabad faction associated with oligarch Levi Levayev and its politically pliant Moscow head rabbi, Berel Lazar. Rabbi Lazar was named Chief Rabbi of Russia, notwithstanding the fact that Rabbi Adolf Shayevich already held that position. The Federation of Jewish Organizations of Russia (known as FEOR, its Russian acronym), clearly controlled by Chabad, became the favored Kremlin Jewish organization and is amply vested with both political and financial privilege. Nonetheless, shortly before the writer arrived in Moscow in late 2004, a government-inspired change of leadership occurred within the struggling post-Gusinsky Russian Jewish Congress, perhaps heralding new opportunity for the development of both civil and non-hasidic Judaism in Russia.[11]


The writer asked more than a dozen individuals to name the most highly respected Jews in Moscow. The question itself Vitaly Ginzburggenerated surprise and, initially, elicited only negative responses, most commonly, “not the oligarchs. Several individuals subsequently mentioned Vitaly Ginzburg, one of three 2003 Nobel laureates in physics. Professor Ginzburg, who is publicly pro-Israel and equally publicly an atheist, is now 88 years old and is moderately active in the Russian Jewish Congress. No other individual was mentioned by name by any of the respondents.


Nobel laureate physicist Vitaly Ginzburg is seen at right.








[1] The writer's most recent previous visit to Moscow was in 1999. For a report of the 1999 experience, as well as reports of other visits to the post-Soviet states, see the website


[2] The writer is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Subcommittee on Education in the FSU.


[3] It is estimated by some that as much as 80 percent of Russian economic activity is centered in the Russian capital.


[4] The writer arrived in Moscow on the day following the first 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. Russia was perceived by many as improperly intervening in the Ukrainian election campaign, actively supporting Viktor Yanukovych. Mr. Yanukovych was declared the winner of a fraudulent contest, which was later invalidated by the Supreme Court of Ukraine. Subsequently, Mr. Yanukovych was forced to submit to a re-run, which he lost to Viktor Yushchenko.


[5] The leading nationalist political parties are the Motherland (Rodina) party and the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia; the latter is headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose father was Jewish. Activists in the United Russia and Communist parties also are associated with frequent antisemitic declarations.


On December 20, 2004, Chabad Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar issued a statement urging authorities to establish a program protecting religious cemeteries. Rabbi Lazar stated that cemetery desecrations have become a “nationwide issue. Considered a close ally of the Kremlin, Rabbi Lazar often denied the existence of antisemitism in Russia in the past. See also pp. 47-48.


[6] The question was asked of nine individuals, including diplomats, officials of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee, rabbis, and local academics. The term “core Jew refers to those individuals who self-identify as Jews.




[7] Sergio DellaPergola, “World Jewish Population, 2003, American Jewish Year Book, Volume 103, (New York: American Jewish Committee, 2004), p. 611.


[8] DellaPergola, pp. 603-694. The term extended Jew refers in this case to non-halakhic Jews and non-Jewish family members eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Israeli Law of Return. The only other large Jewish population center in Russia is in St Petersburg, where approximately 100,000 Jews reside. It is unlikely that more than 20,000 Jews live in any other Russian city.


[9] Izvestia, October 21, 2003. Others assert that the death-to-birth ratio is 11:1.


The general Russian population also is in steep decline, although the proportion of decline is much less severe than that of the Russian Jewish population. (The death-to-birth ratio is 1.5:1.) On January 1, 1992, i.e., one week after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the population of Russia was estimated at 148.7 million. In October 2004, the Russian population was estimated at 144 million people. According to Russian Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov, the decline would have been even greater had not six million people migrated into Russia from other republics after the collapse of the USSR (RIA Novosti, October 18, 2004). Mr. Zurabov stated that the main reasons for the Russian demographic crisis are a low birth rate and a high death rate of able-bodied people (due to declining health care, widespread infectious disease, high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, and health consequences of environmental degradation). The average life expectancy in 2004 in Russia is 58.8 years for men and 72 years for women. Although no supporting statistics are available, many individuals with substantial experience in the Russian Jewish population believe that Russian Jews are in somewhat better health than their non-Jewish counterparts.


[10] The writer recalls hearing such reports about changing career patterns as early as 1996. Most youth in Russia graduate from secondary school at age 17.


[11] See pp. 51-54 for additional information about the Russian Jewish Congress and pp. 23-26, 36-37, 46-48, and 50-51 for information about the Levayev-associated Chabad movement in Moscow.


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