Betsy Gidwitx Reports
A Survey of Jewish Life in Moscow
October 20-29, 1998

Declining Jewish populations, especially through aliyah, may cause Or Avner to withdraw rabbis from some cities in which they now serve. Rabbi Mondshine said that the most likely cities for which Or Avner will end rabbinic support within a few years are Zhitomir and Kherson in Ukraine, and Samarkand in Uzkekistan.

Or Avner subsidizes 15 Jewish day schools in the post Soviet-states (including two separate schools in St. Petersburg that Or Avner considers one unit). A total of about 3,000 pupils are enrolled in these schools. The Or Avner subsidy covers approximately 50 percent of day school expenses. Another 20 percent is provided by the Israeli government through its Tsofia program. The remaining 30 percent must be raised by local rabbis.

Or Avner also subsidizes 15 summer camps, including two (in Moscow and Dnipropetrovsk) that actually are owned by Chabad communities in the respective cities. Additionally, Or Avner supports a number of pre-schools, yeshivot, several women's seminaries, and other institutions throughout the post-Soviet states.

The Or Avner 1998 budget is about $13.5 million, of which Levi Levayev provides about $6 million, individual rabbis raise another $6 million (both within the post-Soviet states and from foreign supporters), and the Rohr family provides about $1.5 million (most for synagogue renovation). Although Mr. Levayev's holdings in Russia have been adversely affected by the Russian economic crisis, he has promised to maintain his contribution at its current level. Another major donor who has lost money in Russia has reduced his gift substantially. Rabbi Mondshine said that the economic situation is forcing Or Avner to place all new projects on hold for an indeterminate time and to increase fundraising in both the United States and Israel. Notwithstanding the economic crisis, Or Avner has found that local Jews are assuming more responsibility and that it is easier to raise funds locally than was the case several years ago.

Or Avner distributed 650 tons of matzot throughout the post-Soviet states at Pesach. The price of the matzot varied according to the economic circumstances of the consumer. [39]

International Organizations

19. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as JDC and Joint) provides support to Moscow Jews through various social services, cultural and religious activities, and education programs. Michael Steiner, the JDC director in Moscow, was in the city during part of the writer's visit, but was unable to meet with the writer during this period.

The writer met with Asher Ostrin, director of the JDC post-Soviet program, and Amos Avgar, head of its welfare operations, in Jerusalem on November 19, 1998. The situation in Moscow was a major topic of discussion.

Rabbi Ostrin said that JDC is waiting for the Russian Jewish Congress (REK) to take the lead on planning the new Jewish Community Center in Moscow, which will be located across the street from the Choral Synagogue. It is REK that will obtain title to the land from the city and will be able to determine the appropriate time for the initiation of a major fundraising drive.

Unlike other cities in the post-Soviet states, JDC does not support a hesed (JDC-initiated welfare center) in Moscow. Instead, it has contractual arrangements with eight different organizations that operate their own welfare programs, such as Yad Ezra, Bikur Cholim, Chamah, and MEOD. A central welfare committee decides the mix of services, such as canteens, meals-on-wheels, and food parcels. Despite the work of the committee, said Rabbi Ostrin, the system could be much more efficient; the various organizations need to cooperate with one another, and each group should be responsible for services in one coherent region. The economic crisis is affecting these programs in two ways: (1) more elderly require assistance, and (2) it is likely that local funding sources, such as REK and Chamah, will have difficulty raising funds.

Because a number of its major donors have suffered serious losses in the current economic crisis, JDC expects that REK will be unable to match its previous fundraising success. However, it may be able to attract a larger number of small- and medium-size gifts.

Regarding its support of rabbis in the post-Soviet states, Rabbi Ostrin said that JDC policy is to support a "limited number of rabbis for a limited time". It is now providing partial funding for Reform rabbis in Moscow and Kyiv, a Conservative rabbi in Moscow, and several [Orthodox] rabbis. Rabbi Ostrin expressed disappointment that the Conservative rabbi in Moscow was occupied with academic responsibilities at Project Judaica, rather than outreach work in the broad Jewish population.

20. Eugene Weiner is Director of Special Projects for JDC in Moscow. Rabbi Weiner's work focuses on the Hillel student organization. In a brief discussion at the beginning of the writer's visit to Moscow before Rabbi Weiner went abroad, he expressed satisfaction at the large number of young people who participated in Hillel Rosh Hashanah services at the Radisson Hotel. He noted that other Rosh Hashanah services in Moscow also were well-attended.

Rabbi Weiner is looking for property that might be used for a young people's synagogue or synagogue center. The success of the Hillel Rosh Hashanah service has convinced him that such an institution might draw young people to study of Judaism and to other Jewish activities. He expressed some ambivalence about the new JDC emphasis on Jewish community centers as a panacea for the weak Jewish identification of so many post-Soviet Jews. In the absence of other institutions, he said, they are empty gateways. Later, Rabbi Weiner said that JCCs have some potential to attract people to various activities in a Jewish context.

From his interaction with Hillel members, Rabbi Weiner is observing some movement toward emigration of students in the wake of the economic crisis. He believes that Hillel organizations might offer additional and more serious instruction in foreign languages and also provide networking services in destination countries that will facilitate resettlement.

21. The writer visited the Jewish Book Fair, a JDC initiative in many post-Soviet cities during the autumn months. In addition to exhibits of Russian-language books on Jewish topics, the event also includes various lectures and cultural events. The Moscow Jewish book fair was held in a building associated with the centrally-located former Lenin Library.

22. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI or Sochnut) operates a variety of programs designed to encourage and facilitate emigration of Russian Jews to Israel. Alla Levy is Director General of the JAFI Unit for the FSU and Eastern Europe and, since mid-1997, Head of the JAFI Delegation in Moscow as well. Ms. Levy was born and raised in Moscow.

Ms. Levy said that Moscow, among all Russian cities, had suffered the greatest damage in the current economic crisis. The "new economy" was more widespread in Moscow than elsewhere, and many Jews had been employed in positions in the "new economy". These included such areas as small to mid-size businesses, banking services, computer technology, marketing, and sales. Many people who have lost their jobs feel that entire fields have simply disappeared. They believe it unlikely that the economy will be restored in the near- to medium-term future and, if it is restored, it will collapse again. Many young people feel that they are wasting an important period of their lives by remaining in Moscow. Some even are abandoning university studies, saying that universities are approaching collapse as many professors are refusing to teach because they are not being paid. Such students are good candidates for Selah, Ms. Levy observed, an aliyah program designed for young people preparing to enter Israeli universities.

Families have expressed new interest in Na'aleh, the aliyah program in which adolescents complete the last three years of high school in Israel. However, since the Israeli government has assumed operation of this program, the number of applicants accepted has been reduced to 25 percent, whereas JAFI accepted 45% to 50%. Some in JAFI believe that it should disassociate itself from Na'aleh because too many false hopes are raised. [40]

The economic crisis has spurred an upsurge in Moscow in requests for information about aliyah, said Ms. Levy. More than 9,300 people made such inquiries October 1998, compared with 3,500 in October 1997. Fully 50 percent of those seeking information are younger than 35.

Ms. Levy stated that Sochnut lacks teachers and classrooms to meet the increased demand for Hebrew (ulpan) classes. Whereas 258 people were enrolled in Hebrew classes in September 1997, 726 had registered for ulpans in September 1998.[41] JAFI headquarters cannot accommodate such numbers. To alleviate space constraints, JAFI has moved its youth activities to the district public cultural center on Vodkhovsky Street, where it already rents space for other programs. (JAFI later opened additional ulpans at the Moscow ORT school.)





A JAFI computer laboratory with 10 workstations is popular with adolescents (shown) and with adults learning new skills in preparation for work in Israel. It operates in very cramped quarters in JAFI headquarters in Moscow.

39. Because of a heavy subsidy in most cities, the imported Chabad matzot often was less expensive than locally-produced matzot.
40. Due to severe budgetary constraints, JAFI transferred operation of Na'aleh to the Israeli government in 1996. However, JAFI remains the recruiting agent for Na'aleh and administers its qualifying examinations in the successor states.
41. Ms. Levy stated during a Jewish Agency meeting in Jerusalem on November 10, 1998, that 90 percent of these students have families and/or friends in Israel. Most are professionals; JAFI will develop professional ulpans that combine instruction in Hebrew with some instruction in appropriate technical English and computer technology for engineers, economists, physicians, nurses, and programmers.

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