TEL AVIV (Dec. 28)
Six visitors from the Soviet Union, including the chief rabbis of its two largest cities, praised the policies of President Mikhail Gorbachev on their arrival here Tuesday night, but painted a dismal picture of Jewish religious life in their country.
The visitors are Chief Rabbi Adolph Shayevich of Moscow; Chief Rabbi Haim Levitis of Leningrad; Aharon Litvan, head of the Jewish community in Odessa; and three other Jewish representatives from those cities.
They are in Israel for a two-week stay at the invitation of the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv. The invitations have been extended for years, but this is the first time they have been accepted.
It is also the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 that the chief rabbis of the two most important Soviet cities were allowed to come here on a visit.
They credited this to Gorbachev’s “glasnost” (openness) policies. The Foreign Ministry welcomed the visit as “opening a narrow channel of direct contact between Israel and the large Jewish community of the Soviet Union.”
But the visitors despaired of the state of religious life in that community.
They attributed the situation to ignorance of Judaism on the part of most Soviet Jews, and 70 years of anti-religious indoctrination by the Communist regime.
Litvan said an entire year can go by without a single Bar Mitzvah being celebrated at Odessa’s one synagogue.
He said the synagogue can accommodate 800 people, but that no more than 30 to 50 worshipers attend Sabbath services.
TOWN WITHOUT A MOHEL
There is also no mohel in the city, and when their services are needed, one is brought in from Riga, Chernowitz or Leningrad to perform the ritual circumcision, Litvan said.
Levitis said he recently received permission to teach Hebrew and Jewish studies in Leningrad, but only to adults and not to children.
“The adults are like children,” he said, in their knowledge of Jewish subjects.
He said the Leningrad synagogue has a minyan every morning, between 50 and 100 worshipers attending Sabbath services and more on holidays.
Shayevich said synagogue attendance was larger in Moscow.
Both rabbis were ordained at the rabbinical seminary of Budapest, the only one in Eastern Europe. Both speak Hebrew, and Litvan also speaks Yiddish.
Shayevich is a controversial figure here because he was a member of the government-sponsored Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public.
Asked on his arrival if he was still a member of the Jewish group, he replied, “The committee no longer exists.”