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

When asked (in 1997 and 1998 before the devaluation) where they would go if they emigrated, 36% of Jews in Russia and 40% in Ukraine said they would go to Israel, 18% in Russia and 16% in Ukraine said they would go to the United States, and 8% in Russia and 12% in Ukraine said they would go to Germany. Eleven percent in Russia and nine percent in Ukraine said they would go to other countries, such as Australia or Canada. Dr. Shapiro said that he believes that the preferred destinations are somewhat interchangeable.

He said that many Jews now are "shopping" for information about refugee status in the United States and jobs in Israel. Their capacity in foreign languages is also a factor in decision-making. He added that many dual nationals, i.e., people with two passports who are active in international trade, are returning to Israel or the United States, sharply curtailing the amount of time spent in Russia or Ukraine.

Dr. Shapiro said that the deteriorating economy is the main factor stimulating emigration. However, as the economy declines, some people find that Jews are a convenient scapegoat. Antisemitism is now a major factor in generating departures. Although anti-Jewish bigotry used to be more severe in Ukraine, it is now worse in Russia, said Dr. Shapiro.[24]  Rukh, a major Ukrainian political party, is more supportive of Jews than any political party in Russia; Ukrainians know more about the Holocaust than do Russians[25] ; Russian nationalists, especially the Black Hundreds and similar groups, are more antisemitic than Ukrainian nationalists; and, concluded Dr. Shapiro, relations between Ukraine and Israel are warmer than relations between Russia and Israel. A third major factor in stimulating Jewish emigra-tion, according to Dr. Shapiro, is family reunifi-cation. The majority of Jews in the successor states now have relatives living abroad.





These young women are selling newspapers
of the Russian nationalist Black Hundreds
group in Moscow.
(Photo: Moscow News)

In the same study, Dr. Shapiro asked respondents about their preferences concerning the different streams of Judaism. Six percent of the respondents in Russia prefer Chabad, four percent prefer Orthodoxy other than Chabad, four percent prefer Conservative/Masorti, 23 percent prefer Reform/Progressive, and 58 percent do not know the difference between the various movements. [26]  According to Dr. Shapiro, the appeal of Reform Judaism lies in its use of the Russian language in worship services, the equal role that it provides for women, and its tolerance of non-halakhic Jewish practice.


11. The writer met with Evgenia (Zhenya) Mikhaileva, director of the Moscow Hillel student organization, at the Moscow Hillel Center. Ms. Mikhaileva also directs Hillel activities in Central Russia, the Ural Mountain area, Central Asia, and the Caucasus Mountain area.

Moscow Hillel has a telephone list of about 1,000 individuals. The majority are undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 25. Between 200 and 300 such young people participate in Hillel activities during any given week, and a core group of 30 to 50 are real activists. Some participants are as old as 35, including some university faculty who participate in Hillel activities alongside their students. To serve this older age group, Hillel is developing a club for young families in which the parents are between the ages of 27 and 40.

Ms. Mikhaileva said that the preceding academic year had been difficult for Moscow Hillel. In its third year of existence, the organization had experienced "growing pains". Veterans of the first two years did not welcome an influx of new members. The Hillel Center, which is a small apartment, had become too confining to accommodate a multiplicity of interest groups.

However, Ms. Mikhaileva was optimistic that 1998-1999 would be a better year. It had started very well with Rosh Hashana services attended by 1,300 young students (and some older people) held in a rented hall at the Radisson Hotel. The services were organized by Hillel members, under the guidance of Rabbi Eugene Weiner of JDC and Rabbi Jane Kanarek of Project Judaica, and led by Dr. Peter Geffen of the Heschel School in New York. Hillel activists had made 1,000 telephone calls to inform Jewish students of the Rosh Hashana observance. Ms. Mikhaileva said that 70 students attended a Rosh Hashana service in 1995, 300 in 1996, and 550 in 1997. In response to a question, Ms. Mikhaileva said that it is likely that the major factor attracting students to Rosh Hashana services was a need to be with other Jews at a time of crisis, i.e., one month after the ruble devaluation, rather than the nature of the holiday itself or a need for prayer.

A major task during the 1998-1999 academic year would be assisting students in adjusting to the economic crisis. Hillel is providing food to families of some students whose parents have lost their jobs. The situation has stimulated good discussions about tzedekah. The crisis also is generating consideration of aliyah (emigration to Israel) among many Hillel members. None has made a decision to emigrate yet, but they are thinking about departure and want to discuss that possibility with her. [27]  Many students had planned to build their careers in the "new economy" and have been shattered by recent events. They are a "lost generation" (потерянное поколение), afraid of what the future may bring. Ms. Mikhaileva has begun to work with Alla Levy, Director of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Russia (see below), and hopes that this new partnership will lead to an intelligent consideration of aliyah.

A significant increase in local antisemitism is another factor encouraging students to think about aliyah, said Ms. Mikhaileva. The prominence of Vladimir Gousinsky, Boris Berezovsky, and other Jews in media and banking has led some Russians to point to Jews as scapegoats. Students who wear a magen David as jewelry or who are seen entering Jewish Agency offices or attending Jewish events may become targets of antisemitic remarks. Unlike previous years, it is rare now for bystanders to intervene, to admonish those who ridicule Jews. Many of the students are concerned and fearful.

Initially, collaborative efforts with JAFI will not focus on aliyah, but will center on a Shabbat project similar to the successful Pesach project in which Hillel has been engaged for the last several years. In cooperation with the World Zionist Organization Center for Religious Education in the Diaspora, JAFI has developed a "Shabbat kit" that includes kosher wine, a suitable wine glass, Shabbat candles, a challah cover, kipot, and a richly-illustrated bilingual (Russian/Hebrew) handbook that explains Shabbat traditions and includes appropriate prayers and songs. Using the services of local JAFI coordinators in small Jewish population centers to arrange Shabbat gatherings, teams of Hillel members will take these kits with them as they go out to lead Shabbat observance in Jewish communities that are too small to attract rabbis.

About 25 students participated in a Shabbat seminar during the past year, spending two and one-half days in a resort outside Moscow. The setting provided a relaxing atmosphere in which Hillel members could ask questions and discuss various topics of interest. Ms. Mikhaileva would like to offer additional Shabbat seminars, but lacks the budget to do so; the cost per student is between $90 and $100, and most students require full subsidy.

Other, more common Hillel activities include various classes and interest groups, holiday celebrations, and social events. Hillel students also produce their own newspaper.

Ms. Mikhaileva was enthusiastic in her praise of Rabbi Eugene Weiner, JDC Director of Special Projects, whom she described as "an important advisor" and "a gift to me". Rabbi Weiner, she said, has been very helpful to her and to students in explaining how to feel comfortable with their Jewish heritage and how to incorporate Jewish tradition in their lives.

When asked to list her priorities for the 1998-1999 academic year, Ms. Mikhaileva indicated the following: (1) more educational programs, especially those addressing the question of how to live in a crisis situation; (2) more Shabbat programs; (3) increased cooperation with the Jewish Agency; (4) development of a Hillel choir, a project in which a number of students have expressed interest; (5) improvement in the overall Hillel program; and (6) development of family programs, such as a kabbalat Shabbat for students and their parents. Regarding student-parent programs, Ms. Mikhaileva said that many Hillel members would like to do something for their parents.

Jewish Communal Organizations

12. 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 and other businessmen, led by media magnate 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. Gousinsky continues as President of REK. Three individuals, all of whom are bankers, are vice-presidents: Boris Hait, Mikhail Friedman, and Vitaly Malkin.
The Governing Board includes the four officers plus 20 other individuals. Most are businessmen, but the Board also includes four rabbis and several people from the academic and cultural arenas. Yevgeny Satanovsky is Chairman of the Board of Directors, which includes 12 at-large members as well as representatives from 46 REK regional branches. All of these individuals are men.

24.In the same pre-devaluation study noted above, 35 percent of Jews in Ukraine and 15 percent of Jews in Ukraine said that antisemitism is a key factor in decisions regarding emigration. Twenty-eight percent of Jews in Ukraine and 17 percent of Jews in Russia said that economic conditions are an important factor in such decisions.
25. According to the Holocaust Museum at Poklonnaya Gora, 1,400,000 Jews were killed in Ukraine and 100,000 in Russia during the Shoah. Nazi troops occupied all of Ukraine and a relatively small portion of Russia.
26. Conservative/Masorti Judaism is almost unknown in the successor states. According to some observers, the word conservative has a very negative connotation in Russian; many people believe conservative and orthodox are synonymous terms.
27. Ms. Mikhailova is a psychologist by education and experience.

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