NEW YORK (Mar. 24)
Specialists in Soviet Jewish affairs today voiced guarded hope that a report that a Russian youth will be permitted to study for the Russian rabbinate in Hungary will point to an easing of one area of the “Soviet Jewish problem.” “This could be a step forward–an objective one–if it comes to pass,” said one source. “We will be watching and waiting.” The report was made here yesterday by Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue, who recently visited the Soviet Union to attend the 75th birthday celebration of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin of Moscow’s Central Synagogue. He is president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation and was accompanied to Russia by Father Clement J. McNaspy, associate editor of the Jesuit weekly “America.” Also visiting Russia with them, though not at the celebration, were Foundation trustees John Mosler and Joseph P. Williams.
Rabbi Schneier said that the problem of the lack of replacements for the few elderly rabbis in the Soviet Union was brought up at a conference his group had with Peter Makartsev, a top official of the Soviet Council for Religious Affairs of the USSR Council of Ministers. The problem stems from the dearth of rabbinical seminaries in Russia and the suggestion was made that Jewish students be allowed to study for the rabbinate in Hungary, the only Communist bloc country with a rabbinical seminary, Rabbi Schneier said.
The members of the group told Mr. Makartsev that the Foundation would absorb the expense involved in the training of rabbinic students and suggested that the students chosen for study in Budapest commit themselves to return to the USSR after completing their course. Rabbi Schneier said Hungary was chosen because it was within the orbit of the Soviet Union and not subject to fluctuating East-West relations. “Mr. Makartsev told us that this would be a satisfactory arrangement and suggested that Rabbi Levin designate the first student,” Rabbi Schneier said. Rabbi Levin agreed and it is believed that a student from Georgia, USSR, is likely to be the first student recommended, he said.
Some easing of the difficulties encountered by Soviet Jews in observing their religious practices was reported by the group. Rabbi Schneier said that Father McNaspy discussed with Mr, Makartsev the possibility of establishing a kosher facility in Moscow to enable local Jews and Jewish visitors from abroad to observe their dietary laws. The Soviet official said that it was a possibility but would have to be taken up with Intourist, the official Soviet travel bureau which has jurisdiction over such matters.
The group visited Odessa Rabbi Israel Schwartzblatt and saw the extensive damage done to Odessa’s only synagogue by a fire last November which the rabbi said would cost about $55,000 to repair. He said, “Miraculously, the ark and the 58 Sifrei Torah were not harmed” by the blaze which was attributed to a short circuit in an adjacent matzoh bakery. Some sources have contended that the fire was of suspicious origin. Rabbi Schneier said his group urged the head of the Odessa Council of Religious Affairs to do everything possible to speed reconstruction of the synagogue which is the only one serving the city’s 200,000 Jews. They offered a $10,000 gift toward the repairs. The group also visited 88 year-old Rabbi Lubanoff of the Leningrad Synagogue where a major restoration project was underway on the 80-year-old building. The work is expected to be completed in time for Passover, Rabbi Schneier said.
The visitors described Rabbi Levin’s birthday celebration as an historic event for Soviet Jews. “One of the shortcomings of Jewish life in the Soviet Union is the lack of a central organized Jewish community such as the Russian Orthodox and Baptist churches enjoy,” Rabbi Schneier said. “In this respect, the gathering of synagogue leaders from Odessa, Leningrad, Riga and Georgia to honor Rabbi Levin was a milestone which, hopefully, will mark the beginning of a coordinated Jewish religious life.”