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

Etz Chaim staff expressed broad dissatisfaction with the Hebrew curriculum required by the Israeli Ministry of Education as a condition for Israeli government-subsidized Hebrew and Judaic studies teachers in the school. The curriculum itself and suggested teaching methodology may be suitable for Hebrew classes for new immigrants in Israel because pupils there are surrounded by Hebrew in daily life, they said, but it is not appropriate for the diaspora where the classroom may provide the only contact with Hebrew. The Israeli government-required course of instruction offers little instruction in grammar and is too informal in a general sense. [7]

In addition to its day school, Etz Chaim operated a Sunday school for 25 to 30 American Jewish children during the 1997-1998 school year. However, due to the departure of a large number of American families following the ruble devaluation in August, the Sunday school has not opened for the current academic year. Mrs. Goldschmidt said that about eight percent of the pupils in the day school last year had emigrated with their families, most to Israel. So far, no local children had emigrated during the current academic year.

5. Moscow National Jewish School is also known as School #1311 and “the Lipman school”. The last title refers to Gregory Lipman, the school principal. The Lipman school is considered by many in the Moscow expatriate Jewish community to be the showplace Moscow Jewish day school. It is sponsored by Nativ (formerly the Lishkat Hakesher) under its Tsofia program.

Coeducational and operating the standard eleven-grade curriculum, the school enrolls 300 youngsters, an increase of 20 from the previous year. One hundred children are on a waiting list. Mr. Lipman said that 70 percent of the pupils are Jewish according to halakha and the remaining 30 percent are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return. Most are from middle-class families. “The rich ones are in [boarding] schools in America or England.” About 15 percent of the youngsters are from poor families, most from broken homes. About ten percent of school families moved to Moscow fairly recently from either Georgia (Gruzia) or Baku, the capital of Azerbaidzhan.

In response to a question about the impact of the current economic crisis on his school, Mr. Lipman said that everything is more expensive. For example, the cost of food for school meals is three times greater than previously. Many families are suffering. He expects that emigration will increase, although six months will be required for any crisis-related emigration to be visible.

Pupils live in all regions of Moscow. Most commute to school by public transportation. The school has one bus, which operates a shuttle service between a nearby Metro station and the school.

In response to a question about the appeal (Привлекательность) of the school to parents, Mr. Lipman listed the following: (1) the fact that it is a Jewish school; (2) a strong secular curriculum; (3) very skilled teachers; (4) tasty and nutritious school meals; and (5) interesting extracurricular programs. For example, in cooperation with the Joint Distribution Committee, children from the school deliver food parcels to needy elderly Jews and visit with them. Older pupils participate in a bus tour of Holocaust sites in Belarus. Some students also have visited Jewish sites in the Czech republic and Poland on school trips. The school sponsors a one-week family summer camp in which parents and children study Judaism separately in the morning and participate in common recreational activities in the afternoons and evenings.

The philosophical orientation of the school is officially secular, but it appears to be shifting toward a more traditional direction. A Judaic studies staff of 15 individuals teaches pupils four hours of Hebrew each week, two to three hours of Jewish tradition, and one hour of Jewish history. A classroom in which tradition classes are held also serves as a synagogue; it contains an ark, Torahs, prayer books, and various other religious items. A Moscow-born rabbi from Israel conducts services on Friday evenings and on Saturday mornings. These are attended by some pupils and their parents, mostly those of Georgian back-ground.

Mr. Lipman has visited a number of American Jewish day schools and praised the Ramaz School in Manhattan, the Yeshiva of Flatbush, and the Solomon Schechter school in Baltimore. He described his own school as modern Orthodox or “stronger Conservative". When asked if the school might engage graduates of Project Judaica, a Moscow-based program of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, as Jewish-studies teachers, Mr. Lipman responded, “Maybe.” [8]

Mr. Lipman remarked that he would like pupils from his school to establish ongoing contacts with pupils from an American Jewish day school. He noted that many of the older students speak English well.

Academic Judaica

6. SEFER, the Moscow Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization [9], dates from 1994. It was established by the International Center for the University Teaching of Jewish Civilization (Jerusalem), with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Sefer promotes Jewish studies at the university level and represents faculty, students, and institutions engaged in Jewish studies. Its current membership includes more than 300 scholars and nearly 100 institutions throughout Russia and the other successor states. Sefer enjoys official status in the Russian Academy of Sciences, and maintains its headquarters in the building of the Academy of Sciences.

It organizes an annual national Jewish studies conference as well as regional and student conferences, seminars, workshops, and tutorial sessions. It sponsors and coordinates visits of foreign scholars, and arranges for lecturers to speak in peripheral communities. It has published directories of Judaic programs in the transition states, research bibliographies, and curricula for use in teaching various Judaic courses. It is building a Judaica library at the Sefer center in Moscow. Sefer is dependent upon JDC for funding.

The writer met with Rashid Kaplanov, Chairman of the Sefer Board of Directors. Dr. Kaplanov is a historian who teaches at the Jewish University of Moscow and at Maimonides Academy. (See below for reports on each.) In response to a question about the impact of the economic crisis on Sefer, Dr. Kaplanov said that it is too early to predict what will happen. In general, he expects the impact on Sefer to be limited because Sefer has never had much money. Even before the crisis, JDC was disinclined to raise its allocation to Sefer, and Sefer finds it difficult to raise its own money [because of inexperience in fundraising and because its needs appear less compelling than other causes]. Both faculty members and students in Judaic studies are committed to the field, "if not to the country". They need "half a chance" to develop their field.

He believes that the course of Russian politics may determine the future of Sefer in particular and Russian Judaic studies in general. If communists should gain more influence, their antipathy to Jews and Jewish particularism might have a severe impact on the field. Relations with Israel and the West would also suffer. A new Russian government is likely to be center-left in orientation, perhaps led by Yuri Luzhkov (the mayor of Moscow). Mr. Luzhkov is something of a rabble-rouser, commented Dr. Kaplanov, but he has been good for the Jewish population.

At the request of the writer, Dr. Kaplanov reviewed each of several academic institutions related to Jewish studies. (See below for reports on visits to several of these institutions.) The Jewish University of Moscow (JUM) is now part of Moscow State University (MGU), according to an agreement reached earlier in 1998. MGU itself is bankrupt, and the President of MGU is a communist. REK will continue to support the program, but Dr. Kaplanov fears a severe cutback in REK funding (of all beneficiaries) due to the economic crisis.

The relationship between MGU/JUM and Hebrew University will be good for MGU/JUM because their strengths are complementary. Hebrew University is strong in Talmud and rabbinics, and MGU/JUM has good resources in history and Semitic languages. The new alliance will permit MGU/JUM to offer a Ph.D. degree in Judaic studies.

Project Judaica concentrates on philology and archival studies. Its students appear to lack interest in Jewish history, said Dr. Kaplanov. Maimonides Academy is strong in Hebrew and Yiddish, and Touro College in Moscow is strongest in Talmudic studies. It has a more religious orientation and attracts older students.

Noting institutions in other cities, Dr. Kaplanov mentioned the Jewish University in St. Petersburg, the new European University (which will do postgraduate research in Jewish studies) in St. Petersburg, and the Center for Jewish Studies at Riga State University in Latvia. He described International Solomon University in Kyiv as "very independent" and, to date, unable to develop an infrastructure for exploring Jewish archival material in Kyiv. The latter has "excellent" potential for study, but a framework must be established. The Kyiv-based Institute of Modern Jewish Studies, a two-year program of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, is not a research institution, but should be very helpful in training para-professional Jewish communal service workers for the Progressive movement. Elsewhere in Ukraine, Dr. Kaplanov noted that International Solomon University had recently opened a branch in Kharkiv, a "very brave" move in view of the difficult political situation in that city and ISU's own problems in Kyiv. He regards the lack of any Jewish studies program in Odessa as very strange, especially in view of that city's history in Russian Jewish intellectual life. A brief discussion ensued about the possible reason for such an absence; heavy Jewish emigration from Odessa was posited as a conceivable cause. Dr. Kaplanov observed that Sefer has few functional ties with Judaic studies programs in most former republics of the Soviet Union, such as Latvia, or with former east bloc countries. Every country is chauvinistic and no local institution wishes to appear to be closely associated with Moscow.

7. Complaints about the Hebrew curriculum were widespread, a circumstance that became known during a seminar for Moscow-based Hebrew teachers sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Education itself during the time that the writer was in the Russian capital. The Ministry has had little experience with diaspora populations.
8.This possibility had been suggested to the writer several weeks before her visit to Moscow by a high-placed individual at JTS.
9. SEFER is the Hebrew word for book. The full title in Russian of SEFER is Центр научных работников и преподавателей иудаики в ВУЗах "Сэфэр" which translates most accurately as Center for Scientific Workers and Instructors of Judaica in Institutions of Higher Education [associated with] Sefer.
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