Rebirth of Jewish Life in Russia Cuts Emigration

Borukh Gorin, all of 22, is editor of Lekhaim, a monthly magazine for Russia’s Jews that began in December 1991 with eight muddy black-and-white pages, published in 3,000 copies.

The latest issue, in color and stuffed with advertisements from some of the new Russia’s most prominent Jewish businesses and banks, is 80 pages, with 50,000 copies published. The name of the magazine is the Russian transliteration of l’chaim, Hebrew for “to life.”

Mr. Gorin, who was born in Odessa, Ukraine, came to Moscow in 1989 to study at one of Russia’s few yeshivas. “I grew up in the Soviet Jewish tradition of quiet assimilation,” he said. “We did have a mezuza on the door and kept some holidays.

“But it was very hard for my parents and myself, because you can’t live two lives. My father’s dream was to emigrate, to go out of Russia to America, and then I could go to yeshiva. Now my parents are about to leave, but I’m staying. It’s my work, and Russia is my home. I feel myself at home here.”

Mr. Gorin’s experience is not atypical. Jewish emigration from Russia is dropping sharply. Most of those who leave now are older, while their children are making lives in the relative freedom and openness of a marketizing, democratizing Russia.

More Russian Jews are willing to identify themselves as Jews, and more, especially the young, are doing so with pride in a country where open religious practice in general is surging after years of official repression.

Aleksandr M. Israilevsky, a mayoral aide in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, said he was “a typical Soviet Jew” — assimilated, wary, nonreligious. But his 16-year-old son now goes to religious school and openly follows Orthodoxy.

“His Russian friends are actually impressed with him,” a proud Mr. Israilevsky said. “They’re impressed with his belief and commitment, while they find nothing to believe in.”

Rabbis note a new and growing interest among Russia’s long-assimilated Jews to learn more about their religion, to read about it and practice it. But money for such projects from international Jewish organizations is declining and the dollar is losing purchasing power here.

“We had 500 kids at our summer camp in 1992, and it cost about $2 a kid a day,” said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of Moscow’s Choral Synagogue. “Today it costs $15 a day to do the same.”

Simultaneously, he said, aid is dropping. “Russia is off the front pages and there seems less crisis for Jews here,” he said. “When Israel is talking land for peace and dealing with the P.L.O., the average Jew in Chicago is not so happy.”

No one pretends that Russians have suddenly lost their long-ingrained anti-Semitism, which was manipulated by the state going back to pogroms under the czars and forward to the Soviet era. Then, the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate became a delicate cold war issue.

Anti-Semitism is still propagated today by ultranationalist politicians at the fringes, but official anti-Semitism has gone, and openly anti-Semitic acts are few. Jews here remain uneasy but are growing more confident about a place in Russian life.

This year, for the first time, more Ukrainian Jews have applied to emigrate than Russian Jews. And because of immigration from the turbulent Caucasus region and Central Asia, the Jewish population of Moscow has grown, again for the first time in recent memory.

In the former Soviet Union, there are an estimated 2 million to 2.5 million Jews, though official statistics in 1985 listed 1.8 million Soviet citizens who had their nationality listed as Jewish in their passports. Many found it advisable to assimilate then; many still do, but fewer than before.

Russia’s Jewish population is estimated at 1.6 million, and Moscow’s at 200,000 to 300,000. Some 15 percent are Sephardic, and Sephardic children now make up about 40 percent of those in Jewish schools.

But the number of regularly observant Jews is comparatively tiny.

“That’s our main challenge,” said Rabbi Berel Lazar, an Italian-born American who is in charge of the expanding Chabad Lubavitch activities here. “Most Russian Jews know little about Judaism. We want them to feel Jewish and to live a Jewish life. Nobody really knows how many Jews are here. But there are enough for us to work our whole lives here.”

While financing from traditional Jewish organizations is smaller, a Hasidic group, Chabad Lubavitch, is expanding its work and budget, and it has been more successful in finding local or Soviet-born businessmen willing to contribute.

Lubavitch was founded in 18th-century Byelorussia, and many adherents believe that their last Grand Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in Brooklyn in 1994, is the Messiah. The Lubavitchers work to promote Jewish life within the former Soviet Union and do not advocate emigration to Israel.

In Moscow the Lubavitchers run two synagogues and several schools — including a yeshiva, kindergartens and a seminary for young women — a soup kitchen for the poor and a “meals on wheels” program for the elderly. They print Lekhaim, Mr. Gorin’s magazine, publish and sell books on Jewish themes and this year distributed 35,000 copies of a glossy calendar that describes Jewish holidays, traditions and ceremonies.

The Lubavitchers are putting the finishing touches on a 4,000-square-foot synagogue, built with local help for about $150,000, and are raising money to build a Jewish community center.

Unlike most other Jewish denominations, the messianic Lubavitchers are also working and living in 29 other cities in the former Soviet Union. “We’re doing 10 times what we did two years ago,” said Rabbi Lazar. “Before, our budget was $50,000 a year, and now it’s $5 million to $6 million. A lot of the money is now coming from the local Jewish community, who are finding more pride in open identification with their tradition.”

The Lubavitchers have benefited in particular from the generosity of Levi Levayev, whose father was a Hasidic rabbi in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Mr. Levayev, a diamond merchant who lives mostly in Belgium and Israel, set up the Keren Or Avner foundation in his father’s name and is said to contribute nearly $2 million a year to the Lubavitchers’ activities here.

The main point, Rabbi Lazar notes, is engagement on the ground. “It’s not five years ago,” he said, “when people were starving. It’s not enough anymore for Jewish organizations to give a little money and that’s all, and expect all the credit. We need people to come in here and live and roll up their sleeves and go to work.”

Rabbi Goldschmidt, who is Swiss, is working to find more contributions from local Jewish business owners while trying to maintain aid from abroad. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is spending more than $11 million this year on the Jews of the former Soviet Union, but other organizations find that they must retrench.

Touro College in New York, a Jewish-run nonsectarian university with 10,000 students, started a business college and a school to teach teachers of Judaism in 1991, “to contribute to the needs of the Jewish community in Russia and rebuild Jewish life,” said its president, Dr. Bernard Lander.

Touro spent several million dollars at up to $500,000 a year, but its own budget is shrinking because of general cuts in state and Federal aid for education, Dr. Lander said in a telephone interview.

“When you retrench, you want to keep what you have,” he said, while encouraging programs to pay their own way. So Touro cut off aid last year to the business college and has decided to keep financing the Jewish program for another year, though again at a lower level. With the cuts, the number of students has dropped to about 150.

Rabbi Goldschmidt sees the cuts as indicative of new difficulties, some of which stem from his success in making Moscow, rather than turbulent Jerusalem, a magnet for formerly Soviet Jews.

While many Russian Jews are staying, most of the Jews applying to emigrate to Israel are from other, more chaotic parts of the former Soviet Union: Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Caucasian Russia, especially Dagestan and Chechnya.

But many of these Sephardic Jews have come to Moscow, says Rabbi Goldschmidt, increasing Moscow’s Jewish population for the first time in memory. And for the first time, in addition to regular Sabbath services in the synagogue, there are three additional services for the Georgian, Bukharan and “Mountain Jews” now living here, who speak little Russian or Hebrew.

The Georgians are about 2,000 families and have their own rabbi; the Bukharan Jews are about 200 families, and the Tats, the so-called Mountain Jews from the Caucasus, mostly Dagestan and Azerbaijan, several thousand. While the Tats are most numerous, “they are less literate, and few know how to pray,” Rabbi Goldschmidt said. But he provides a Moroccan Jew as a cantor.


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