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Soviet Recognition a Mixed Blessing for B’nai B’rith Unit in Leningrad

When the Leningrad unit of B’nai B’rith International opened an office there last October, it became the first Jewish cultural institution to be officially recognized in the Soviet Union.

Official recognition has made it easier for the 150-member unit to conduct its programs, said Grigory Vilenchik, the chapter’s president. At the same time, however, “it is more dangerous for us” because anti-Semitic groups “now know about us, know our address.”

Anti-Semitism has come out into the open in Leningrad, as it has across the Soviet Union, because of the country’s move to a more open, democratic society, Vilenchik said in an interview at B’nai B’rith International headquarters here.

But the same process has allowed B’nai B’rith to emerge from underground into a legitimately recognized organization in Leningrad, he said.

He noted that frequently, in the streets of Leningrad, a member of the anti-Semitic group, Pamyat, will be handing out leaflets, while nearby a member of B’nai B’rith or some other Jewish group is doing the same thing.

As in other countries, B’nai B’rith in the Soviet Union has become a symbol for those attacking Jews, with articles in the newspapers accusing the international organization of all kinds of crimes, particularly economic ones, Vilenchik said.

To neutralize such threats, the unit has sought to establish close contacts with Leningrad municipal officials, Vilenchik said.

“We realize that at any moment we can be closed,” he said. “We have to be very careful in our work to know the laws.”

Vilenchik was in Washington under the auspices of B’nai B’rith’s international department to pick up some pointers on programs and to meet with the organization’s officials and representatives of other Jewish organizations.

Other members of the Leningrad unit are currently visiting Israel, Britain and Finland.

400 PEOPLE TAKING HEBREW

The organization seems off to a good start since its founding in 1989. Vilenchik, a 37-year-old building engineer, was one of the original organizers and became the unit’s president when the former president emigrated to Israel.

Vilenchik said that Jews in Leningrad want to know more about Jewish history and culture. He said that while there are many Jewish organizations in the city, the B’nai B’rith unit has been able to provide a broader program because of its assistance from B’nai B’rith’s international department in Washington.

Hillel Kuttler, the international department’s Soviet unit coordinator, keeps in touch with the Leningrad group weekly by telephone.

But he stressed the growth of the unit has been largely due to the initiative of the leaders in Leningrad.

The membership is mainly made up of men and women 25 to 45 years old, Vilenchik said. Many plan to emigrate to Israel, but others want to remain in the Soviet Union.

The unit’s success is due to a core group of 15 to 20 people, whose personal and professional skills fuel the chapter’s programs. For example, teachers provide English and Hebrew lessons and doctors contribute to the medical program.

The most popular program is Hebrew, with classes on various levels held throughout Leningrad. Some 400 people are taking Hebrew classes, mostly adults planning to make aliyah. Children learn Hebrew outside the B’nai B’rith program in classes held at the Leningrad synagogue either after school or on Sundays.

The unit does, however, have several sports programs for the youth. Among them is a class in the martial arts. Students in that program provide security at the unit’s meetings, Vilenchik said.

After Hebrew classes, the most popular program is a sort of medical “hot line,” in which people with medical problems call B’nai B’rith and are referred to the proper specialists.

There is also a program for older people living alone, who receive food, medical help, clothes and other necessities.

Exhibitions of Jewish artists are scheduled in private homes, and a new program has been organized for visiting tourists, offering tours of Leningrad highlighting sites of Jewish interest.

There are also lecture programs which serve to introduce many non-members to B’nai B’rith.

The Leningrad chapter even follows members who have left for Israel. Two members now in Israel have opened a office in Ramat Gan to help new immigrants from Leningrad.

Vilenchik invited former Leningrad residents now living in Israel, the United States and elsewhere to join the Leningrad chapter, which is allowed to have foreign members.

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