Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Visit to Jewish Institutions in Moscow

November 24 to December 4, 1997

The growth in Jewish day school enrollment in Moscow is due in large part to the reality that these schools have attracted the best teachers [of secular subjects]. Jewish day schools pay their teachers on time and provide a safe and pleasant teaching environment. However, Jewish day schools are not without problems. The more secular schools, e.g., the Lipman school and the ORT school, are enrolling many non-Jewish pupils, a factor that is very problematic in dealing with issues related to the Jewish culture and ethos of the school and the Jewish self-identification of pupils. The more religious schools encounter problems when they attempt to intensify the Judaic content of their curricula; few parents are interested in anything more than a superficial approach to Jewish studies. Some parents fear that the general studies component of their children's education will suffer if too much emphasis is placed on Jewish subjects.

In response to a question about Jewish identification and the July 1997 decision of the Ministry of the Interior of Russia to remove the "nationality line" (Line 5) in internal passports (identity cards), Dr. Shapiro said that he is currently conducting a study on the impact of this decision. 15 The Jewish population is already "totally acculturated" to Russian life, he believes, and removal of the ethnic identity line from internal passports is unlikely to have any impact on a process that is already far advanced. However, he said, removal of Line 5 will also lead to the absence of Jewish ethnicity from statistical data; this loss of in-formation may cause some [research and planning] problems in the future.

Responding to another question, Professor Shapiro said that Russian Jews would be responsive to Reform and Conservative Judaism. He believes that at least one-third of the Russian Jewish population would find these more liberal streams appealing, whereas only about five percent of Russian Jewry would be attracted to Orthodox Judaism. Reform and Conservative Judaism are more democratic in their practice and more intellectual in their content, he said. However, he believes that most Russian Jews will express positive Jewish identity primarily though association with Jewish cultural and charitable activity rather than through religious observance.


17. The Moscow Hillel was established in September 1994, the first Jewish student organization in the successor states. Since then, Hillels have opened in St. Petersburg, Kyiv, Minsk, and Kharkov. Groups of Jewish students and other Jewish young people in a number of additional cities have indicated interest in forming more Hillels. Hillel in the transition states is supported by JDC and Hillel International; its major funder has been the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation of Tulsa.

The writer met with Evgeniya Mikhaileva, Executive Director of Moscow Hillel, and Dr. Eugene Weiner, JDC Director of Special Projects, at the Moscow Hillel Center. The Center premises consist of an apartment that appears inadequate in size for Hillel activities.

According to Ms. Mikhaileva, Moscow Hillel attracts Jewish young people between the ages of 16 and 34. 16 About 1,000 young people participate in its social activities, e.g., holiday celebrations, over the course of a year; about 100 assist in organizing events; and a core group of about 50 are activists.

Moscow Hillel holds various classes, occasional seminars, holiday observances and celebrations, drama productions, and social events. It sponsors a sports club, Israeli song and dance club, and a monthly newspaper. A 1997 Rosh Hashanah service organized by students, under the leadership of Dr. Weiner and Dr. Peter Geffen of the Heschel School in New York, drew 500 student participants as well as about 150 others, mostly American expatriates working in Moscow. In response to a question, Ms. Mikhaileva said that participants were informed of the service through announcements in the Hillel newspaper and by a telephone campaign. It would not be effective to post notices of the service in various universities and institutes, she said, because such notices would be removed by antisemites. Further, telephone contact enabled callers to inform hesitant students that the service would be more "modern" than those in the Choral Synagogue. Most Jewish young people avoid Orthodox services because they understand neither Hebrew nor the ritual. (The Hillel Rosh Hashanah service was organized at the request of Orthodox Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt. See page 23.)

On the horizon for Hillel students are trips to small Jewish population centers to conduct Shabbat services and other Shabbat events. These Jewish population centers are too small to attract rabbis. The students will be trained in Shabbat traditions, ritual, and music in a series of workshops similar to those in which they participate prior to conducting Pesach sedarim in small Jewish centers.

Jewish Culture

18. The writer attended two cultural events of Jewish interest. The venerable Nehama Lifshitz, a native of Kaunas (Kovno), presented a concert of mostly Yiddish (and some Hebrew) songs in one of the most prestigious halls in Moscow. Although the richness of her voice is understandably diminished by time, she is nonetheless an elegant performer. Ms. Lifshitz, who emigrated to Israel in 1969, was an inspiration to many Soviet Jews in the 1950s and 1960s. Her performance in Moscow was underwritten by several prominent Israeli institutions.

The Jewish playwright and director Mark Rozansky presented a dramatization of the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel The Magician of Lublin, a work set in 19th-century Poland. The production was staged at the noted studio theater У Никитских ворот (Nikitsky Gates Theater) established by Mr. Rozansky in 1983.

Jewish Communal Organizations

19. 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 led by Vladimir Gouzinsky. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, has been an important leader in REK, and the Joint Distribution Committee has supported its organizing efforts.

Mr. Gouzinsky, REK president, has recruited four other bankers and businessmen to serve as vice presidents, each of whom chairs an important committee. Mikhail Friedman, a banker, heads the committee on culture; Vitaly Malkin, a banker, heads the committee on social welfare; Boris Hait, a banker, chairs the committee on elementary and secondary education; and Levy Levayev, a businessman, heads the committee on higher education. Genrikh Reznik, a prominent attorney who is a member of the REK Community Advisory Board, chairs the committee on anti-defamation. Other members of the Advisory Board include four Moscow rabbis and the editor of a Moscow Jewish newspaper. All of these individuals are Muscovites, with the exception of Mr. Levayev, who lives in Israel, but maintains residences in Moscow and western Europe. 17 A Board of Directors includes representatives of more than 40 Jewish population centers, some of them quite small (such as Kemerovo and Kostroma), in which REK is active or intends to become active.

According to Dr. Alexander Osovtsov, Executive Vice-President of REK, the regular budget of REK is $2.6 million. 18 The irregular budget of REK, said Mr. Osovtsov, is "much more". For tax purposes, executives in certain businesses contribute goods and/or services as supplemental gifts or, sometimes, in lieu of cash. Between 65 and 70 Jews contribute to REK in Moscow, said Mr. Osovtsov; the smallest gift (cash and/or goods and services) is probably about $50,000, and the largest is more than $1 million. Between 25 and 30 Jews contribute in St. Petersburg, and only three or four donors participate in most of the other Jewish population centers.

Cash donations are effected by bank transfer to ensure accurate record-keeping and minimize irregularities. Dr. Osovtsov said that new tax laws effective in 1998 should encourage more cash gifts. He also said that REK had refused donations from Jews with criminal backgrounds.

Responding to a question about the lack of contributions under $50,000, Dr. Osovtsov said that the slow growth of a middle class precludes donations in the $5,000 to $20,000 range; if individuals are unable to contribute $50,000, they are also unable to contribute $5,000. [Some individuals in the nascent middle class contribute such smaller amounts to Chabad-associated programs. BG]

Individuals in each Jewish population center are now attempting to build local infrastructures. Each community is subject to different local circumstances, such as relations with local and oblast power structures, ease of reclaiming communal property, presence or absence of rabbis, strength of local Jewish leadership, etc. In most communities, a priority project is the development of Jewish community centers. In Moscow, development of one such center is already in progress and approval for a second is expected from municipal author-ities soon.

Dr. Osovtsov said that the most important problem affecting Russian Jewry is the sense among Jews, including the younger generation, that being Jewish is abnormal, unacceptable, shameful. The word еврей (evrey, Jew) was considered impolite during the Soviet era and is still considered impolite today. Many intellectuals expend considerable effort to refer to Jews as "citizens of Jewish nationality", as in Germany prior to World War II, rather than risk accusations of vulgarity by saying "Jew".

15. Line 5 requires citizens to list their nationality. In the Soviet Union, one could be a Russian (or Ukrainian, Estonian, Tadzhik, etc.) or a Jew, but could not be a Russian Jew, Ukrainian Jew, etc., as Jewish heritage was considered a nationality itself. Jews have long complained that forced ethnic identification on a broadly used document facilitated severe antisemitic discrimination. However, it has also been pointed out that retention of Line 5 ensured Jewish identity during the many years that no positive means of Jewish identity were available. Since announcement of the new policy, which became effective on October 1, representatives of many small ethnic groups have voiced concern that their members will assimilate into the majority population. For debate on the impact of this decision on Jews in Russia, see Nezavisimaya gazeta of October 22 and November 10, 1997.
16. It is difficult not to note the similarity in age range between Moscow Hillel and the Soviet Komsomol organization, the youth division of the Communist party. Often presented as a student organization, the Komsomol enrolled individuals between the ages of 14 and 35. Perhaps because of the Komsomol precedent, the broad age range of Moscow Hillel may seem conven-tional to participants.
17. Mr. Levayev is the founder and primary funder of Or Avner, an organization that supports Chabad rabbis and programs in the post-Soviet successor states.
18.  The regular budget was allocated as follows in 1996: religious programs, $340,294; social welfare programs, $276,360; culture, $156,247; elementary and secondary school Jewish educa-tion, $234,700; higher education, $295,000; anti-defamation, $13,900.

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