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

REK has five major program committees: primary and secondary Jewish education; higher lay education (academic Judaica); higher religious education (yeshivot and women's seminaries); social welfare; and Jewish culture. It also supports various religious activities and anti-defamation efforts. REK allocations in 1997 totaled $15,360,634, including $8,502,591 for construction of the Memorial Synagogue at Poklonnaya Gora.

The writer met with Alexander Osovtsov in REK offices. Mr. Osovtsov said that REK was at a time of transition. It had completed the memorial synagogue and museum at Poklonnaya Gora and, in 1999, would begin a special fundraising campaign for the construction of a large Jewish community center to be located across the street from the Moscow Choral Synagogue (Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt) on Spasoglinichevsky Lane (Archipov Street). The total cost of the JCC is estimated at between $15 million and $18 million, of which JDC has promised $5 million. Therefore, REK will need to raise $10 to $13 million. In order to maximize fundraising potential for the JCC, REK will not pressure donors to increase their gifts to the annual campaign.

Mr. Osovtsov said that the economic crisis in Russia would necessitate a REK budget cut of 15 to 20 percent for the last three months of 1998. All beneficiaries had been asked to "find the algorithms of minimizing expenses". However, he did not anticipate that any programs would be cancelled. He believes that the situation at the date of the interview (October 22) was much better than it had been on September 1. Panic then has turned into uncertainty now.

The 1999 REK budget, said Mr. Osovtsov, depends on the economic situation in Russia. It is likely that further budget cuts will be made.

The most important factor about the current economic situation, said Mr. Osovtsov, is that it is terrible for everyone. Official registered unemployment is about 4.5 percent, but unofficial employment is about twice as high.[28]  Individuals are embarrassed to register as unemployed, and unemployment benefits are so meager that registration may not even be worth the effort. It is likely that economic conditions will lead to an increase in emigration among both Jews and non-Jews, but he believes that most Jews in Russia will remain in Russia.

Mr. Osovtsov continued that he is not optimistic about the new Primakov government, but that the Western press is too pessimistic about Russia. "Nothing tragic will happen; no one will starve." [29]

In response to a question about the number of Jews in Russia and in Moscow, Mr. Osovtsov said that about 700,000 people in Russia are listed as Jews on their passports, but many more, perhaps 2,000,000 in all, would identify themselves as Jewish on a questionnaire. He estimated that more than 250,000 Muscovites would identify themselves as Jewish on a questionnaire, but that the majority of them would be unable to prove Jewish lineage.
Intermarriage is not an important factor in Jewish identification, said Mr. Osovtsov, because many intermarried families self-identify as Jews. More critical, he said, is liberalization of the economic and political systems so that antisemitism would recede and Jews would be more comfortable with themselves. Of course, antisemitism had helped to preserve Jews as Jews and stimulated the great energy and drive that one finds in many Jews who believe that antisemitism requires them to be twice as competent as others in order to succeed.

The major portion of the REK donor base consists of about 70 individuals across Russia who give between $50,000 and several million dollars per year. In addition to Moscow, major givers can be found in St. Petersburg, Kazan, Samara, Saratov, Chelyabinsk, and Krasnoyarsk. In some of these cities a major donor is the lay leader of the Jewish community; in other cities, the leader is not a major contributor, but is an individual with good organizing skills. In addition to the major gifts, REK receives hundreds of smaller, mostly unsolicited gifts that individuals transfer to the REK bank account. Some smaller contributions are less than a dollar. REK has made little effort to establish a systematic annual campaign targeting donors of less than $50,000 annually.

Mr. Osovtsov spoke with great pride of the synagogue and museum at Poklonnaya Gora. It was important to REK's self-respect that Russian Jews fund its construction without participation from Israel or diaspora contributors. Vladimir Gousinsky was a particularly strong proponent of this view. The synagogue will be used on Shabbat, different memorial days, and other occasions by all Jewish denominations according to a schedule. The museums are very important for educational purposes. Mr. Osovtsov said that the proximity of the memorial complex to a Metro station facilitated visits by school groups and others.

Mr. Osovtsov said that Jewish day schools have a good future in Russia and that REK will continue to support them. When asked about the Jewish education of his own sons (ages seven and ten), Mr. Osovtsov said they attend a selective public school and do not have time for Jewish education. On Sundays, when they might attend a Sunday school, they take lessons in 'extreme sports', specifically, in karate and other self-defense activity.

13. Tancred Golenpolsky is chairman of the Editorial Board of United Jewish Publications (probably a deliberately inexact translation by Mr. Golenpolsky of Объединенная редакция МЕГ; МЕГ refers to Международная еврейская газета). United Jewish Publications include: the weekly newspaper Международная еврейская газета (International Jewish Gazette); the monthly journal Русский еврей  (Russian Jew, the same title as that of a tsarist-era publication); the quarterly Diagnosis (antifascist review, published in several languages); Jewish Russia Internet page; Jewish Moscow monthly guide; and the quarterly Yiddish journal Di Yiddishe Gas (The Jewish Street). Mr. Golenpolsky is a member of the Governing Board of the Russian Jewish Congress, which subsidizes the various United Jewish Publications ventures.

Regarding the Russian economy, Mr. Golenpolsky expects that the coming winter will be very tough. He thinks that the Russian government should initiate protective rationing for the most vulnerable population groups, i.e., children and the elderly. Pensions have declined in value from an average of $50 monthly to $25 monthly. He was unsure of official unemployment statistics, but believes that the unemployment rate is at least twice the reported level. He cautioned that observers should be aware of the practice of 'unpaid extended leave', i.e., placing employees on unpaid leave for an indeterminate period, which, technically, is not considered unemployment. Mr. Golenpolsky said that his wife has been on unpaid leave from a publishing company for two years.

Mr. Golenpolsky believes that the International Monetary Fund should extend aid to Russia in the form of actual food, rather than money. Some IMF money is used to pay salaries and other IMF money disappears into insiders' pockets -- and little of it is used to build anything constructive. Industry is almost non-existent in Russia, he noted; therefore, the Russian tax base is extremely limited.

Antisemitism, said Mr. Golenpolsky, "lives by itself" -- and doesn't need a connection to anything, such as a deteriorating economy. It is just more public now because "hoodlums" need a scapegoat. However, it is true that 85 percent of the money in Russia belongs to 15 to 20 Jews, and Jews are also 'over-represented' in liberal political parties. Many Communists, continued Mr. Golenpolsky, remain antisemitic. General Albert Makashov, a member of the Duma who is notorious for his antisemitic remarks, is a Communist. Members of the Duma asked CP head Gennady Zyuganov to condemn Gen. Makashov's bigoted declarations, but Zyuganov has failed to do so. Zyuganov did issue a somewhat apologetic statement to Golenpolsky (to be published in Международная еврейская газета), but it falls far short of what it should be.

Regarding aliyah, Mr. Golenpolsky stated a view about potential aliyah that differ from that of all others interviewed. He believes that Sochnut predictions of increased aliyah are "mere speculation", designed to attract a larger budget from Jews in the United States. He attributes lower aliyah during the past year to three factors. First, he said, Jews in Russia are receiving negative feedback from friends and relatives who have already made aliyah, mainly because these new immigrants have found it impossible to manipulate the Israeli 'system' in the same manner in which they manipulated the Soviet/post-Soviet 'system'. For example, bribes to various officials cannot buy a place in an Israeli kindergarten for one's child or cannot secure other privileges in Israel. Second, most Jews in the post-Soviet states already have what they need, such as an apartment and, in many families, also a car. Their neighbors are known to them. They do not need to face so many unknowns in Israel. Third, Israel does not need 'economic migrants' -- and post-Soviet Jews are aware that many Israelis resent them.

Mr. Golenpolsky acknowledged that he has "reservations" about the Russian Jewish Congress. It should be an organization that leads or, at the very least, coordinates, but it is just a foundation.[30] It is not even a congress because it doesn't debate anything. He believes that REK should become more active in human rights activities, but Vladimir Gousinsky believes that REK should steer clear of politics. Mr. Golenpolsky then mused that Russian spiritual values are being lost to financial values. Young people in Russia, he said, are interested only in money, not in politics. They have no social orientation.

REK leadership, said Mr. Golenpolsky, is too busy with their businesses to really consider the issues facing Russian Jewry. Some of the professional staff are not committed to their work, would rather be working elsewhere, and, in any case, are not suited to Jewish communal service.

The synagogue and Jewish museums at Poklennaya gora are essential to Jewish self-respect and to the education of non-Jews. However, he believes that some of the exhibits portray too much Jewish victimization; greater attention should be directed to Jewish heroism. As for the synagogue, it is located too far from Jewish population centers to be used on Shabbat and other holy days. Perhaps it will be used only for memorial services and special occasions.

Mr. Golenpolsky said he was unsure that democracy would ever take root in Russia. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, neither of them a democrat, are the popular heroes in Russian history. It is possible, he said, that either Gennady Zyuganov or Alexander Lebed will be elected President of Russia. He predicted that at least 50 years will pass before Russia becomes democratic.

Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow, is a "master politician", commented Mr. Golenpolsky. He is a populist and is eager to become President of Russia.

28. Mr. Osovtsov's estimates on unemployment are consistent with those heard by the writer from others in Moscow.
29. Thirteen people died on the streets of Moscow from exposure and hunger by mid-November, i.e., within a month of this interview.
30. On another occasion, Mr. Golenpolsky referred to REK as a "wallet".

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