Monday, May 13, 2002

Jewish Life in the Former Soviet Union

Winston Churchill’s famous definition of Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma is an apt description of the current state of Russian Jewry. After seventy years of Communism and anti-religion, the Holocaust, widespread intermarriage and Jewish abandonment, great population movements and the wear and tear of an eventful century, it’s nearly impossible to figure out how many Jews remain in the Former Soviet Union. There is broad disagreement, with estimates ranging from perhaps two million to as low as 500,000.

Much depends, as in this country, on defining who is a Jew, a question that is more complicated in the FSU than it is in Israel or the U.S. Who passes these days for a Jew in Russia makes the American Reform advocates of patralineality look like a bunch of frummies. What is certain is that the number of Jews has declined dramatically. More than one-million left Israel for Israel after 1989 and there has been substantial emigration to Germany and elsewhere. Previously, many came to North America and also to Israel. Since those who remained tended to be older, there obviously has been population loss, an outcome further advanced by a birthrate that is below zero population growth.

Emigration to Israel is now a trickle, while some who left have returned, a recent development that may accelerate because of Israel’s security problems and the improved economy in Russia.

With the important exception of the spiritual domain, there were few advantages to being identified as a Jew during the long Communist night. That has changed. Jewish identity has made it a lot easier to leave, which is why persons of questionable status decided that they were Jewish. Nowadays, there are substantial benefits for Jews who remain.

As the Iron Curtain came down and the doors of what was the USSR opened, emigrating Jews were met on their way out by a small army of organizations and functionaries that were on their way in. Most came with good intentions, although there was also an excess of vanity and the recognition that there were ripe fundraising and public relations opportunities to be exploited. Furthermore, the desire to serve Russian Jews was not matched by an understanding of the landscape or the situation of the people who were to be served. Projects and institutions that were launched with fanfare have already disappeared, while some that remain are just going through the motions.

Still, the Israeli and Jewish presence is substantial, even startling. The major players include the Israel government which provides funding for educational, cultural and other activities and also the Jewish Agency. As elsewhere, Israeli officials and Jewish Agency personnel often operate as if the other is the enemy. There are too many other organizations, foundations, funders to list here. I estimate that the Jewish philanthropic investment in the FSU, including expenditures by Israel and contributions from local Jews, come to more than $200 million a year. No wonder that Russia and Ukraine are being so nice to Jews.

The Jewish Agency illustrates the vastness of the network of Jewish activities in the FSU. During a recent trip I was told that Ukraine alone has 700 employees and a budget of
$9 million.

For FSU Jews, this philanthropic investment is translated into free benefits, including food packages, trips, special schools, cultural activities, summer camps, programs for the elderly – in short, the full range of activities that are available elsewhere in organized Jewish life. In St. Petersburg and Kiev there are public schools with distinct Jewish divisions. Students who enroll in them receive differential treatment. As a consequence, Jews are better off than their non-Jewish neighbors, especially in the large cities.

Because activities supported by Israel are designed to promote aliyah, as immigration to Israel has been curtailed there is a strong prospect that there will be a corresponding reduction in the willingness of the Israel government to continue to support at a high level projects in the FSU. Whether others will fill the likely gap remains to be seen.

From the time that Jews were permitted to leave, there has been a mild debate whether Jewish communal life in the FSU has any future. Another way to look at the question is whether it makes sense to provide philanthropic support for projects that are intended to build and sustain Jewish life in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. For the moment, the issue is being resolved in a sense by the determination of Jews to remain and to build a communal infrastructure that includes schools, large synagogues, community centers, and an array of local organizations. Much of this may turn out to be illusory if the vast majority of Jews of questionable status wither away and the next Jewish generations are a pale Jewish shadow of their predecessors.

Whatever others may do, Chabad or Lubavitch is certain to remain an important force in FSU Jewish life. Throughout the Communist era, there was clandestine Chabad activity, which is a heroic chapter in the history of the Jewish people. When Communism collapsed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe took advantage of the contacts that had been made and the willingness of dozens of emissaries and their families to relocate and undertake the difficult task of rebuilding Jewish life. Chabad is now the dominant Jewish force throughout the FSU. According to a survey conducted by the Jewish Research Center of the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, it is also the best known and most respected.

Chabad’s influence already encompasses every community in the FSU with a meaningful Jewish population and involves hundreds of workers and dozens of facilities. Its role is enhanced by the substantial philanthropic support it receives from major philanthropists, notably Levi Levayev, and Jewish businessmen in the FSU. Its influence and prestige have been helped by the close association forged between its key leader, Rabbi Berel Lazar, and President Putin. Rabbi Lazar is a young man who now effectively serves as the Chief Rabbi of Russia. He is learned, talented and blessed with a winning personality.

It may not please those who do not like Chabad’s ideology or practices to learn that the future of Jewish life in the FSU will depend greatly on Chabad’s role.