Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Springtime in Moscow

I was in Moscow last week, eleven months after my last visit. There is evidence everywhere of economic growth, in the hotels packed with foreign business people and the elegant shops and new malls, as well as in the renovation of old apartment houses. No more than elsewhere are these developments translated into an improved standard of living for most of the population. But many have benefited already and the good times are leading to better wages for working people. Economic progress has also resulted in huge traffic jams that threaten to choke the heart of the city.

Much of the wealth of Russia is concentrated in the Moscow region. What happens there isn’t representative of the rest of the country where there are large pockets of poverty. Overall, though, there have been gains nearly everywhere. It is no wonder that Russians strongly support Vladmir Putin.

With an instinct for entrepreneurship and creativity, Jews have taken advantage of the new economic opportunities. While attention has been paid to the billionaire oligarchs whose time probably has passed, perhaps more importantly there has been an accumulation of wealth among Jews in a number of business fields. This is evident in Moscow which has by far the largest concentration of Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Although FSU Jewish population figures are largely guesswork, it’s no guess that Moscow’s Jewish population has grown steadily and Jews have relocated there because of the financial opportunities.

This doesn’t refute entirely the fairy tales being told to and endorsed by Judge Edward Korman of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn who has fallen hook, line and sinker for the claim that FSU Jews are experiencing grinding poverty. There are quite a few poor Jews, but certainly not in the numbers that have been claimed and even they are being helped by communal social service projects. Arkady Mil-Man, Israel’s ambassador to Russia, told me that 95% of Russian Jews have visited Israel. The figure is an exaggeration, yet it points to the economic situation of Russian Jews, as do the long lines of Jews waiting for visas at the Israel embassy.

Another bit of evidence is provided by the thousands who have returned from Israel after making aliyah. Their usual reason, as one young woman told me, is that there are better prospects for a good livelihood in Russia.

It is too early to know how Russian Jewish life will evolve. One positive sign is the strong attachment to Israel, fed by the close familial ties between the Jews of both countries. Israel’s enormous investment in FSU Jewish education and other activities has paid off handsomely. Another good sign is the flowering of Russian Jewish communal life, with Lubavitch-Chabad being the dominant force.

These developments might suggest that seeds have been planted for the emergence of a vibrant Jewish community. There is another side to the picture. Overwhelmingly, Russian Jews are secular, as must be expected after more than two generations of Communism. To boot, a majority of those who are identified as Jews qualify for this identity under an expansive interpretation of Israel’s Law of Return, so they have a tenuous connection to Jewish peoplehood.

Apart from Chabad, efforts to encourage religious commitment appear to be floundering. Some religious institutions and programs have closed and others are on wobbly legs. There are notable exceptions, as in the advanced yeshiva outside of Moscow and the impressive girls school in the city directed by Rivka Weiss. Most Russians who have been influenced in a religious direction now live in Israel, a salutary circumstance that obviously detracts from religious life in the old country. Another factor is the inherent weakness of religious activities that rely heavily on itinerant educators and functionaries, usually from Israel and the U.S. When they are gone, too often so are their accomplishments.

Chabad is different. Its people come to stay. There are now hundreds of Chabad families, mostly young couples with young children, spread throughout the FSU all the way from Siberia to Vladivostok in the Far East near Japan.

There has been nothing like the Chabad FSU experience in modern Jewish history, as no movement has been as dominant. There are Chabad schools, synagogues, camps, community centers and social service centers in nearly every place of Jewish settlement and the number grows steadily. Many Chabad institutions are housed in attractive facilities, which is testimony to philanthropic support, increasingly from Russian Jews.

On one large tract in a key part of Moscow, Chabad is now building separate facilities for a boys seminary, a high school, a large social service center and the Museum of the History of the Jews of Russia.

In Russia, Chabad is led by Rabbi Berel Lazar, an impressive young man of talent and vision who has emerged as a key world Jewish leader and is accepted by most as the country’s Chief Rabbi. His close relationship with President Putin has obviously advanced the Chabad cause and added to his prominence. Rabbi Lazar has a lot more going for him than political connections.

In his zone of authority, Chabad’s messianic message is muted, a reflection I believe of the diminished role of messiansm in the Chabad-Lubavitch scheme of things, as additional time goes by since the passing of the Rebbe. It may also be that a movement whose everyday business is not theology but the conduct of communal affairs has less interest in trumpeting messianism.

It is also the case that with the wide variety of secular responsibilities, Chabad in Russia – and elsewhere where it serves secular Jews – has a decreasing or perhaps ambivalent religious character. In most places outside of Israel, Chabad has fudged the “Who is a Jew?” issue, as it is being confronted by the reality that as it spreads its net even further, there is a diminishing supply of halachic Jews to reach out to. What may happen in Russia is that Chabad will develop into a bi-polar arrangement, with one segment consisting of core Chabad families and perhaps some other religious Jews and the larger consisting of secular and quasi-Jews who are attracted to Chabad because of the important services that it provides.