Jewish Religious Life in Russia Suffers from Lack of a Central Body

Religious life among Jews of the Soviet Union is practically dead, special correspondent of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, David Miller, established here today. Despite claims by the Soviet authorities of the existence of religious freedom, the fact remains that circumcisions are rare, if performed at all; religious ceremonies at marriages are virtually unknown; religious ceremonies at funerals are abrupt and only occasionally observed: Bar Mitzvahs have disappeared completely and no Jewish youth sows even the meaning of phylacteries, since he has never seen any during his life.

Noreligious instruction on an organized basis is offered anywhere in the Soviet Union to Jewish youth. The number of synagogues has steadily decreased since the end of World War II, despite official claims that the number has doubled since the Revolution. No new construction for religious purposes is permitted, a restriction felt by other denominations as well.

The synagogues still in use–especially the ones in areas usually visited by tourists–are in good repair and prominently display the Star of David. However, Soviet Jews have long suffered from a lack of prayer books, prayer shawls, religious calendars, candle holders and other symbols of Jewish religious life.

But these shortages alone do not account for the decreasing participation in religious activities. Among the most important factors is the lack of any organization of any type for any segment of the Jewish population.

In the Soviet Union today there are no Jewish community councils, no relief groups, no synagogue sisterhoods, no young peoples’ clubs–nothing that can be identified as Jewish. All energies are channeled into state-approved activities. Jews are alleged to be a distinct national group but do not have the right to organize themselves in any way.

In the Soviet Union no one can speak for the Jews as a group. Where there is a rabbi or a synagogue, there is some kind of a rallying point. But that interest must be strictly religious–not social or community.

SOVIET JEWS KEPT UNINFORMED OF JEWISH EVENTS IN U.S.S.R. AND ABROAD

As such, the Jews have little information about other Jews not only in the Soviet Union but elsewhere in the world. No newspaper or magazine serves Jewish interests. The only information available comes from official sources like Pravda or its regional editions, or–in a much more limited manner–from tourists or from letters abroad.

The elimination of strictly Jewish organizations has also resulted in a steady decrease in the continuity of Jewish traditions and customs. A young Jew, influenced in his early years by Communist youth groups in the schools, can learn only from his parents something of his cultural heritage. It is impossible to estimate how much home instruction remains. No one talks about it.

That second factor–the absence of young people in the synagogue–is serious and could affect the whole future of Soviet Jewry. Young Soviet Jews have only the vaguest ideas of their religion or of the age-old customs of their people. Few speak Yiddish and almost none know Hebrew or the ritual of prayer.

“I AM A JEW, BUT I AM NOT SURE WHAT THAT MEANS,” STUDENT SAYS

“I am a Jew, yes,” an 18-year-old engineering student admitted on Gorky Street, “but I’m not sure what that means. I feel something in my heart but don’t speak to me in Yiddish because I don’t know more than a dozen words.” He was working hard to perfect his English. He refused an offer to join this reporter at Sabbath services the following day.

“I’m not even sure where the synagogue is,” he said. “I doubt if any of my friends know either. But I’ll be glad to show you around Moscow.” At 18, he could not remember ever having been in a synagogue. Yet he said both parents were “pretty religious Jews” who tried to talk to him occasionally about what it meant to be a Jew.

At the same time, his identity card removed any doubt as to the official Soviet view of his nationality. No matter what he thought or how much it ill-fitted him, the card read Jew. The only ones who manage to attend synagogue services these days are the old people.

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