Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Visit to Jewish Institutions in Moscow

November 24 to December 4, 1997

Some prominent Jews and half-Jews are so intimidated by their Jewish heritage that they are antagonistic to REK, fearing that its very existence provokes anti-semitism. The hope that future generations will be more self-assured and comfortable with their Jewish heritage prompts REK funding of Jewish education.

In response to a question about the potential reception for Reform and/or Conservative Judaism among Russian Jews, Dr. Osovtsov said the liberal forms of Judaism can prosper in Russia because Russian Jews need to "communicate with G-d" in their native language, i.e., in Russian, rather than in Hebrew. A strong sense of spirituality exists among Russians, he said, motivating some Jews to search for G-d in Russian Orthodox Christianity because that is the only religious experience available to them. Several Russian Orthodox priests promote a very intellectual form of Orthodox Christianity that has attracted a number of Jewish intellectuals. Regarding Conservative Judaism in particular, few people understand the difference between Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism because the term "conservative" is often understood in Russian as synonymous with "orthodox"; some people, said Dr. Osovtsov, would interpret "conservative" as connoting more traditional practice than that suggested by the term "orthodox". "Conservative" is not a favorable term in post-Soviet Russia.

Regarding Jewish emigration from Russia, Dr. Osovtsov believes that depar-tures will continue to decline. Most Jews who want to leave have already done so. As long as the Russian economy continues to improve, the appeal of emigration will be limited. A decision to make aliyah is now a very pragmatic decision, rather than a judgment based on emotion, ideology, or romance. A great deal of information about Israel is now available to Russian Jews regarding every aspect of Israel. Russian Jews can even visit Israel to see what it is like, to explore employment opportunities, etc.

20. A meeting was held with Micha Chlenov, President of the Vaad, at Vaad headquarters in the Shalom Theater. Roman Spektor, a vice-president, was present for much of the discussion. The writer has been acquainted with both men for some years.

The Vaad was established in 1989 with the goal of representing all Soviet Jewry. It never attained its objectives and, in recent years, it has been overshadowed by the Russian Jewish Congress. Yet it persists, seeking a role as political voice of post-Soviet Jewry both (a) within Russia and the barely functioning Common-wealth of Independent States, and (b) in international forums on behalf of post-Soviet Jewry.

Dr. Chlenov, an anthropologist, is now working on developing the structure of a new Russian Jewish umbrella organization, the Federal Jewish National-Cultural Autonomy (FENKA or Федеральная Еврейская Национально-Культурная Автономия) designed to unite REK, the Vaad, and the new Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations (KEROOR; see below) in one body. FENKA should be eligible to receive funding from the Russian government for specific purposes under new legislation stating that minorities have the "right" to claim a "share of the national budget" in Russia. FENKA is only a "symbolic consolidation" of the three organizations; each is expected to remain active and independent, said Dr. Chlenov, with the Vaad as the political center of Russian Jewry, REK as the economic center, and KEROOR as its religious center.

Dr. Chlenov said it is likely that two to five years will pass before the Russian government will fund any autonomy. Further, he anticipates certain conflicts within Russian Jewry over federal funding because the legislation provides for support at three different levels -- federal, oblast, 19 and municipal. It is likely that oblast and/or municipal Jewish organizations will file funding applications that compete with applications presented by federal Jewish organizations.

Removal of the fifth paragraph (nationality line) from Russian internal passports (identity cards) will deepen the Jewish identity crisis affecting Russian Jewry, said Dr. Chlenov. He believes that Reform and Conservative Judaism could be very helpful in alleviating this problem. He said that Russian Jewry has a deep need for spirituality (духовность) that is not currently being addressed through Orthodox Judaism. Some Jews within the intelligentsia find certain intellectual groups within Russian Orthodox Christianity attractive.

21. Sharing space with the Vaad in the Shalom Theater premises is MEOD (Moscow Jewish Community Home or Московский Еврейский Общиный Дом), a district community facility. Irina Scherban, Director of MEOD, explained that the organization sponsors a children's choir, children's art club, an ulpan, Shabbat evenings for families, a women's club, activties for senior adults, lectures, a Jewish library, a monthly newspaper, and other programs. The facility is quite small, but is currently renovating some unused space so that its programs can be expanded. It receives support from both REK and JDC.


22. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, a native of Switzerland, is Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Originally funded by Aguda, he is now identified with a broader, more accommodating philosophy. Rabbi Goldschmidt has assisted different Sephardic Jewish population groups in Moscow in engaging rabbis from their own traditions and has welcomed the Reform movement into the Russian Jewish religious umbrella group, the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia. When he was unable to attract young people to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at his own synagogue, he asked Moscow Hillel and JDC to organize services of a more liberal nature and arranged for the auditorium at the (Orthodox) Etz Chaim School to be available for these observances.

Rabbi Goldschmidt has offices in the large and recently restored Moscow Choral Synagogue on Spasoglinichevsky Lane (Archipov Street). A Jewish community center will be constructed on land directly across the street from the Choral Synagogue.

As noted immediately above and in an earlier section of this report (see page 3), Rabbi Goldschmidt attempts to address the needs of diverse Jewish population groups within the Russian capital. In discussing characteristics of Ashkenazi families, he observed that many such families were dysfunctional. Divorce is easy and cheap in Russia; one can change spouses "as easily as one can change shirts". Alimony and child support arrangements are rarely enforced, leaving many single-parent families in serious distress.20 Sephardic Jews, said Rabbi Goldschmidt, also have extramarital affairs, but they are less likely to divorce.

Rabbi Goldschmidt said that the new Jewish community center to be built across the street is designed to attract middle-class Jews. The Jewish "business elite" participate in the Jewish community through the Russian Jewish Congress and independent philanthropic initiatives, and the Jewish welfare population is served by JDC and other organizations. The JCC will offer services to the nascent middle class in the same way that American JCCs serve middle class American Jews. Rabbi Goldschmidt suggested that among the services available at the new JCC would be: sports programs, day care, an alcoholics anonymous group and other support programs, and job training and employment services.

Rabbi Goldschmidt acknowledged that Christian missionary groups in Moscow are targeting Jews. Missionary activity is related to assimilation and the confusion many Jews feel about their own identity, he said. He noted that some Jewish girls wear necklaces with crosses because it is fashionable to do so; when questioned, they seem oblivious to the significance of their "fashion statements". Christian missionary activity and the larger assimilation problem can be addressed only through a positive information campaign about [the joys of] being Jewish.

Among his goals, said Rabbi Goldschmidt, is the creation of about 40 synagogues in and around Moscow. KEROOR (the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia) will be instrumental in developing such institutions so that their independence from foreign influence will be assured. In general, local organizations are less dogmatic than foreign groups and they are not burdened by a history of rivalry and turf battles. Local leaders are more pragmatic than many officials of foreign-based institutions. Rabbi Goldschmidt believes that, within ten years, REK will be very successful in filling Moscow Jewish community needs, except for the extraordinary needs of the elderly, which still will require outside support.

Rabbi Goldschmidt anticipates organizing a home for disadvantaged Jewish children in the very near future. Residents of such a home will include orphans, street children, and children from dysfunctional families. He hopes that an appropriate facility can be developed near the synagogue and the future JCC. Initially, he hopes to accommodate between 40 and 60 youngsters. A family in New York has expressed interest in supporting such a project. Rabbi Goldschmidt is aware of residential programs for Jewish children that exist in Ukraine (Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, and Kyiv).

23. Rabbi Adolf Shayevich is Chief Rabbi of Russia. Rabbi Shayevich's Russian origins -- he was born in Birobidzhan -- are said to be an important factor in his appointment as Chief Rabbi of Russia. KEROOR and the city of Moscow tendered a gala event for Rabbi Shayevich in late November on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. Held at The Great Hall of the Mayor of Moscow, the first part of the event included singing by several Jewish ensembles, including children's groups; speeches in tribute by representatives of numerous Jewish organizations, civic dignitaries, and representatives of Christian and Moslem communities; and the presentation of gifts, including many procla-mations, in his honor. Following the official ceremony, a reception was held for selected guests.

24. Rabbi Berl Lazar is the chief rabbi for Chabad in Moscow. Chabad operations in the Russian capital include two synagogues (Marina Roscha district and Bolshaya Bronnaya Street), schools, a yeshiva, children's and youth clubs, welfare services, and other activities. Rabbi Lazar was interviewed at the Marina Roscha synagogue, a building of recent construction that was nonetheless undergoing massive renovation due to settling.

19.  An oblast is a regional entity with authority between that of a county and a state within the United States. Russia is divided into 89 oblasts plus several other regional structures representing ethnic minorities (republics and districts).
20.  Rabbi Goldschmidt's observations on the instability of Ashkenazi Jewish family life in the transition states has been corroborated in the writer's discussions with rabbis and other Jewish communal activists in numerous Russian and Ukrainian cities.

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