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

When JAFI announced a new children's program at the Vodkhovsky Street facility, it expected a registration of 50 children. It had to close enrollment after 210 youngsters had registered because it has no budget for additional teachers or program space. The families of these children are strongly aliyah-oriented and are preparing for departure from Russia sometime in 1999.

Ms. Levy said that Sochnut needs a new large building of its own in central Moscow. She hoped that falling real estate prices would enable JAFI to purchase such a structure.

Another requirement is the improvement of aliyah and absorption preparation. Sochnut and the Ministry of Absorption need to provide emissaries with up-to-date information so that they can take full advantage of opportunities such as the current upsurge of interest in aliyah.

Additional programs in Jewish education also are essential. In many communities, one can see a direct link between Jewish education and the decision to make aliyah. In Moscow, Jewish education is necessary to retain the interest in Israel of those Jews who decide not to leave right away.

In response to a question, Ms. Levy said that the official unemployment rate in Moscow is about 4.5 percent, but that most people believe it really is about 11 percent. She expected it to rise to 15 percent in the near future.

Antisemitism, said Ms. Levy, has increased since the ruble devaluation on August 17. Regional newspapers are publishing more antisemitic articles and Sovietskaya Rossiya, a traditionally nationalist newspaper with national circulation, was also carrying more anti-Jewish writing. Some of this bigoted journalism includes fairly sophisticated accusations of Jewish interference in Russian life. In response, several of the more visible Jews, such as Validimir Gousinsky and Boris Berezovsky, have almost disappeared from public view. They are keeping low profiles.

On a Sunday, the writer visited a JAFI-sponsored seminar of two and one-half days duration on the topic of Russian-language Jewish literature, including such literature published in Russia and other successor states as well as in Israel. The seminar was held in a resort outside Moscow and attracted about 35 Jewish intellectuals, most of whom work in fields related to literature, literary criticism, and other fields of culture. Some were in sociology or anthropology, and one was a physicist. Rabbi Chaim Ben-Yaakov, the new Reform rabbi in Moscow, was another participant. In addition to members of the Jewish intelligentsia, one Russian academic specialist on Israel and one Armenian were also in attendance; the latter urged Israel to retain its Jewish heritage and be true to itself. The writer attended one session in which three olim, all of whom are well-known Russian-language writers, expressed strong Zionist views in a panel discussion. [42]

Ms. Levy explained that such events were intended to bring the Russian-speaking Jewish intelligentsia closer to their roots and to encourage within them warm feelings for Israel. Although the Israeli speakers provided proof that those whose careers are dependent upon the Russian language could indeed thrive in Israel, JAFI realizes that many Jews whose careers are linked to the Russian language will prefer to remain in Russia. Before outreach efforts of this type were initiated, continued Ms. Levy, many Jewish intellectuals in Russia were hostile toward JAFI because they feared that it would try to "force" them to move to Israel and abandon the Russian-speaking culture in which they are immersed in Russia. Now, she said, JAFI is able to include Hebrew lessons in the program which are attended eagerly by many of the seminar participants. Ms. Levy noted that the JDC-initiated Jewish Book Fair, then underway in Moscow and many other cities, also reached out to the Jewish intelligentsia.

23. Marina Ben-Arie supervises Sochnut activity in 22 cities outside Moscow, a large area known as the Golden Ring. This area extends from Rybinsk in the north to Kursk in the south and from Smolensk in the west to Tambov in the east. JAFI offers Hebrew ulpans, holiday celebrations, aliyah clubs, and aliyah preparation in these municipalities. JAFI-trained local Jews serve as aliyah coordinators and Hebrew instructors.

In response to a question about the differences between this year and last year, Mrs. Ben-Arie said that the number of visitors to the Moscow center had increased threefold from this time last year. The 1998 visitors were younger (ages 18 to 40) and much more middle class than those in 1997. The Jews of 1998 feel as if their world has turned upside down, said Mrs. Ben-Arie. Even if they still have jobs, they are worried about unemployment in the future. They are also concerned about the many institutions, such as banks, which don't function properly.

In Moscow, JAFI has 600 new ulpan students. Many are people educated as engineers. They had quit their engineering jobs, where opportunities seemed limited, in favor of positions in the "new economy" -- small businesses, banking services, management, marketing, and sales. The new economy has collapsed -- and now these people have nothing.

Increasing numbers of people also are visiting JAFI in the Golden Ring cities, including Jewish students whose universities appear to be disintegrating under economic constraints. More individuals of working-class background than is the case in Moscow also are interested in aliyah. Antisemitism, which is much more severe in peripheral cities, also spurs aliyah in the Golden Ring area, said Mrs. Ben-Arie.

Sochnut offers eight different Hebrew classes at one time in Moscow on Sundays. Mrs. Ben-Arie said that most students in the classes will emigrate to Israel, but some will remain in Moscow to care for elderly parents or for other reasons. Sophisticated Muscovites, she said, are searching for detailed information about all aspects of life in Israel. Those with relatives in Israel rely on relatives for advice, but others embark on real research projects.

Many prospective olim join JAFI-sponsored special-interest groups to help them prepare for aliyah. JAFI offers aliyah clubs for families, parents of children already in Israel, parents of soldiers in the Israeli defense forces, single people, women, musicians, and people in other specific professions.

Mrs. Ben-Arie said that 55 individuals from Moscow registered for the Yachad (Together) program in one month recently, compared to 20 during all of last year. Yachad is an aliyah program in which Jews between the ages of 18 and 25 form groups while still in the successor states, study together for six months, and then make aliyah as a group. They attend ulpan in Israel together and are mutually supportive as they move through progressive stages of absorption. Another 50 people from Golden Ring cities have registered for Yachad; they will convene in one city for a three-day seminar and then meet regularly in small groups in their own towns before making aliyah together. As in Moscow, only 20 people from Golden Ring cities had joined a Yachad group in all of 1997.

24. Vladimir (Vlad) Lerner is Minister Plenipotentiary of the Embassy of Israel in Moscow. Mr. Lerner represents Nativ (formerly Lishkat Hakesher), an Israeli government entity within the Office of the Prime Minister. A specialist in solar energy, Mr. Lerner is on leave from the Weizmann Institute in Israel.[43]

Mr. Lerner estimates the Jewish population of Moscow to be between 300,000 and 400,000 individuals, according to the Law of Return. Also according to the Law of Return, it is likely that between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews live in all of Russia and that 1.2 million Jews reside in all of the post-Soviet successor states.

Regarding the economic crisis, Mr. Lerner spoke of the severe problems of traditionally vulnerable population groups, such as the elderly. However, he said, conditions in outlying areas are "much worse" (гораздо хуже). He had just returned from a trip to the Ural Mountains region, where the situation is so tragic that he "can't put it into words". The Israeli embassy, he said, is already processing 15 to 20 percent more visa requests and about twice as many requests for information about immigration than during the same period last year. However, he cautioned, observers should not become "overexcited" about increased aliyah; it does not yet look like a repeat of 1990 and 1991 [when almost 182,000 and 145,000 Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel]. Current circum-stances have "great potential" for aliyah, he said, but decision-making about emigration is a complex process for each family and conclusions are not reached overnight.

Mr. Lerner said the situation concerning current antisemitism is "complex". Unlike the Soviet era, government-sponsored antisemitism is now "zero". Universities no longer apply antisemitic quotas to student enrollment.[44]  Street or popular antisemitism is increasing, but not yet as serious as it was in the 1960's and 1970's. A considerable amount of antisemitic literature is available "on the street", much of it distributed by organized groups.

It is possible that the Russian Jewish Congress (REK) is "in trouble", said Mr. Lerner. Some wealthy sponsors have suffered significant losses during the economic crisis and are withdrawing from REK. The bank accounts of other would-be donors have been frozen because the banks are insolvent.

In response to a question about the changes that he sees in Russia since he emigrated to Israel in early 1988, Mr. Lerner said that he perceives very few substantive changes. Most differences are cosmetic. Russians still think in the same manner as they thought during the Soviet period. They still make decisions in the same way. They don't know how to work, many are intoxicated and lazy. Some tell him that he works too hard.

When asked what American Jewish activists should know about the current situation in Russia, Mr. Lerner cautioned that his answer would be very subjective and would reflect his strong Zionist feelings. Russian Jewry is in danger, he continued, but Russian Jews seem not to understand that they are in peril. Mr. Lerner believes that changes in Russia are superficial, that they can be reversed in a short time. He perceives a move to the right. For example, Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist party, has called for a наблюдательный совет (supervisory council) to oversee Russian mass media. Freedom here means freedom to steal. Many local people in business think that a business is successful only if it achieves a profit of 300 percent to 500 percent or more. No economic system can survive such greed. Russians are always looking for someone to blame for their problems, e.g., Jews.

42. The three are Grigory Kanovich, Feliks Dekter, and Eli Luxemburg.
43. Mr. Lerner is the son of Professor Alexander Lerner, a well-known specialist in cybernetics and leader among Moscow refuseniks of the 1970s and 1980s. Vladimir Lerner also was a refusenik.
44. Other observers disagree with this statement. However, most concur that contemporary antisemitic quotas appear to be formulated by individual institutions, perhaps at the direction of a specific external source, rather than implemented generally by broad government decree.

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