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

However, the various regions resent Moscow's financial and political clout -- 80 percent of all Russian money is concentrated in Moscow -- so Luzhkov may have difficulty in a national election. In order to win, Luzhkov would need a good partner, perhaps Grigory Yavlinsky, as Prime Minister.
Yevgeny Primakov is increasingly popular as Prime Minister, observed Mr. Golenpolsky. He is very well-informed. Primakov's Jewish heritage has not been an issue with Communists, said Mr. Golenpolsky, because Primakov is left of center, a Russian nationalist, and, while Foreign Minister, he returned Russia to importance in the diplomatic arena. However, Primakov seems unsure of himself on economic issues and tries to satisfy all sides on every aspect of the Russian economy; thus, no decisions have been taken on economic policy.

Mr. Golenpolsky expressed concern about conflict between the various ethnic groups in the ex-USSR, such as hostilities in Chechnya and other areas of the Caucasus Mountain region. Further, he said, for defense reasons, the Soviet Union had developed installations of its military-industrial complex in numerous localities throughout the vast USSR. Desperate for cash, the new independent countries in which these factories are located might be tempted to sell armaments to rogue states. For example, individuals or governments in the post-Soviet Islamic countries in Central Asia might sell nuclear weapons to Arab countries or to Iran. Kazakhstan, he noted, has its own space capacity. Belarus and other successor states in the European part of the former USSR are more likely to sell armaments to the various combatants in former Yugoslavia, he said.

Mr. Golenpolsky estimates that between 120,000 and 180,000 Jews live in Moscow. He perceives the Georgian and Mountain Jewish newcomers in Moscow as bringing an important sense of religious commitment to Moscow Jewry. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, "gives them space" and encourages them to maintain their own traditions. However, Mr. Golenpolsky fears that Georgian and Mountain Jews, because of their generally darker skin color, may encounter considerable racism.

Mr. Golenpolsky was generous in his praise of both Rabbi Goldschmidt and Michael Steiner, the JDC director in Moscow. Both men, he said, "understand how Russia works" and are "priceless gifts" to the Jews of Moscow and Russia.

Troubled by conflict between Rabbi Goldschmidt and Rabbi Berl Lazar, the chief Chabad representative in Moscow, Mr. Golenpolsky wrote an editorial in a late August issue of Международная еврейская газета on Jewish unity. Aware that a large group of English-speaking Jews would be in Moscow for the dedication of the Poklonnaya gora complex in early September, he published an English-language digest of the newspaper that included this article. After 70 years of state-mandated atheism, said Mr. Golenpolsky, Russian Jews need Judaism, not partisanship. [31] He is worried that the "international battles of [the Jewish] religious streams will take root here". Judaism in Russia, he said, is too weak to withstand such struggles. Mr. Golenpolsky said that he did not know the new Moscow Reform rabbi (Rabbi Chaim Ben Yaakov) well, but he hopes that the World Union for Progressive Judaism supports him. A strong Reform Jewish group is needed in Moscow, he continued. Rabbi Goldschmidt, he commented, understands this need, i.e., that "some Judaism is better than none".


14. Mark Rykel, a native of Baku, is onsite director of World Union for Progressive Judaism programs in Russia. The writer met with him and with the WUPJ shaliach (emissary) to outlying communities, Valery Sheinin, at WUPJ Moscow headquarters. [32] The World Union has two offices in space shared with the Russian Va'ad, the Shalom Theater, and MEOD (Московский Еврейский Общиный Дом or Moscow Jewish Community Home), a district Jewish community facility.

Mr. Rykel said that 55 WUPJ congregational groups are active in the post-Soviet successor states (in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine), of which 20 are located in Russia. Most of these groups offer kabbalat Shabbat evenings, festival celebrations, and Bar and Bat Mitzvah programs. In all, 12 WUPJ-affiliated Sunday schools are active, some with co-sponsorship of Nativ, an Israeli government agency (see below). WUPJ also sponsors four kindergartens (two in Kyiv and one each in Vitebsk and Omsk), three summer camps for adolescents (one each in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine), and one summer camp in Belarus for university students. WUPJ operates the Kyiv-based Institute for Modern Jewish Studies, a two-year program currently enrolling 16 students, that prepares paraprofessional Jewish communal workers for WUPJ programs in Ukraine. According to Mr. Rykel, the World Union would like to open a similar institute in Moscow to train paraprofessionals for Russia and Belarus. WUPJ holds four seminars each year for educators in its various youth endeavors.

Mr. Rykel noted that the World Union operates local programs only in the post-Soviet successor states and in Israel. In all other countries, local communities raise their own funds and operate their own programs. Observing that a delegation from the U.S. Union of American Hebrew Congregations had visited Progressive groups in the successor states recently, Mr. Rykel said that he is anticipating support from American Reform Jews soon.

Three Progressive rabbis work in the post-Soviet states. Rabbi Chaim Ben Yaakov and Rabbi Nelly Kogan, both native speakers of Russian, are posted in Moscow and Minsk respectively. Rabbi David Wilfond, an American, is in Kyiv. Each is young and inexperienced. Four Russian-speaking rabbinical students currently are enrolled at Leo Baeck Institute in London. Mr. Rykel believes that only rabbis of Russian background will know Russian culture sufficiently well to be successful in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

In response to a question, Mr. Rykel said that the chief priority of WUPJ in the post-Soviet states is to open new congregations. New congregations, he said, concentrate on holidays and life cycle events, such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and weddings. Each congregation determines congregational priorities; for example, one group may focus on a youth club and another may decide to operate programs for the elderly.

Local Jews are attracted to WUPJ congregations through advertisements in local Jewish publications and through personal contacts. Many newcomers had some previous exposure to Orthodox Judaism, but had been discouraged from further participation by what they considered an overemphasis on such issues as kashrut.

Mr. Rykel said that the chief problem for WUPJ in the post-Soviet states is the lack of professional personnel. The Progressive movement needs three rabbis in Moscow alone, as well as other trained personnel. The second problem, he said, is a lack of congregational premises, i.e., synagogues with associated program space, office facilities, etc. In some cities, it rents a local hall for Friday evening services, but a congregation requires permanent operating facilities. However, centrally-located space is usually very expensive. Chabad rabbis fight WUPJ for any synagogue that is returned to the Jewish community. No WUPJ congregation in the successor states has adequate facilities, said Mr. Rykel.

Twinning relationships with Reform congregations in the West would be very helpful, said Mr. Rykel. However, he cautioned that such arrangements often are difficult to organize.

Mr. Rykel said that 500 people attended 1998 Rosh Hashana services in Moscow, which were held in a rented hall. About 250 participated in Rosh Hashana services in Minsk, which were held in a banquet hall, and about 150 attended such observances in Kyiv.

Turning to the difficult situation in Kharkiv, Mr. Rykel said that a "war" (война) existed between Chabad and Eduard Khodos, a local Jew with a criminal past who heads a group of Progressive Jews in the city. Khodos occupies the second floor of the Choral Synagogue; the ground floor is occupied by the Chabad movement. Mr. Khodos holds strong Ukrainian nationalist and anti-American views, the latter frequently expressed by burning American flags before television audiences. Mr. Khodos is the lead suspect in ordering a fire bomb attack on the synagogue earlier this year.[33]  Mr. Rykel acknowledged that, "without a doubt" (без сомнения), Khodos himself is a "problem", but a problem would exist even if Khodos was not there. The real problem, said Mr. Rykel, is that 200 Liberal and Progressive Jews in Kharkiv have no premises in which to meet.[34]  Mr. Rykel continued that he does not "love Khodos", and that Khodos is not his "friend". Further, he does not even speak with Khodos because Khodos is a "bad boy" and "abnormal" (ненормальный). In fact, said Mr. Rykel, Khodos has his own mafia in Kharkiv. Mr. Rykel is aware that the municipal government of Kharkiv is "embarrassed" by Khodos.[35]  Even if it wanted to do so, said Mr. Rykel, the World Union of Progressive Judaism would be unable to bring any pressure upon Khodos because Khodos "believes that he is the representative of G-d". Quite apart from Mr. Khodos' delusions, Mr. Rykel is reluctant to accept the notion that Khodos should leave the Choral Synagogue for another reason; in common with several others in WUPJ; he thinks that Khodos should retain his foothold in the building on behalf of Progressive Judaism. [36] speaker at events sponsored by the Jewish Agency [37]  and the Joint Distribution Committee, and attracted 500 people to Rosh Hashanah services held in a rented hall.

31.Without exception, observers in Moscow place the responsibility for this friction on Rabbi Lazar. Rabbi Lazar has condemned Rabbi Goldschmidt in public for the former's good relations with the Reform Jewish movement in Moscow and his acceptance of the Reform movement in religious umbrella organizations. Rabbi Lazar is also thought to be envious of Rabbi Goldschmidt's title as Chief Rabbi of Moscow, the prominence of Rabbi Goldschmidt's synagogue on Archipov Street, and Rabbi Goldschmidt's good relations with the press, especially the Western press.
32. Rabbi Chaim Ben Yaakov, the Progressive rabbi in Moscow, was out of town when the writer met with Mr. Rykel and Mr. Sheinin. However, Rabbi and Mrs. Ben Yaakov invited the writer to their home for dinner several days later.
33. For background information on the synagogue situation in Kharkiv, see the author's Visit to Jewish Communities in Ukraine and Moldova, April 1-30, 1998, pp. 11-12, 51.
34. Two groups of Jews identifying with the World Union for Progressive Judaism exist in Kharkiv.
The Jewish Congregation for Liberal Judaism is headed by Khodos. A second group is called The Religious Congregation of Progressive Judaism; although this group is nominally led by another individual, some believe that it is controlled by Khodos as well.
35. The city government is said to be embarrassed both by Mr. Khodos' bizarre behavior and by the fact that his continuing occupation of the second floor of the synagogue is deterring the Chabad movement from completing renovation of the building. City officials would like the synagogue to be fully restored because a renewed Choral Synagogue would enhance the image of Kharkiv.
36. Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, Executive Director of the WUPJ, and Menachem Leibovic, a WUPJ staff member who works on programs in the post-Soviet successor states, both have expressed this view to the writer.
37. Rabbi Ben Yaakov teaches a course entitled Introduction to Jewish Tradition within a JAFI ulpan.

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