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Jews in Former USSR Gather to Decide Whether to Work As Unified Community

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Delegates from the far reaches of Siberia to the coast of Estonia gathered this week in this historic center of Jewish culture to decide whether Jews of the former Soviet Union should continue working together as a united Jewish community.

There was talk of aliyah and anti-Semitism, and heated exchanges over internal finances, But the central issue facing the third congress of the Vaad was an existential one: Should the Confederation of Jewish Organizations and Communities in the former Soviet Union survive?

The issue arose last year with the secession of the Baltic republics and became a major challenge after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in December.

The Lithuanian Jewish community has pulled out of the Vaad entirely, and only a small delegation from Latvia showed up for this week’s conference.

Russia and Ukraine, meanwhile, each set up their own Vaad, and some delegates argued that such bodies at the republic level made the overall confederation unnecessary.

But members of the Vaad presidium argued forcefully for preserving a confederation uniting Jews from a region that covers one-sixth of the earth’s land mass.

“We subscribe to preserve our union here,” Josef Zissels, a Vaad co-president from the Ukrainian town of Chernovtsy, told some 300 delegates to the conference in the opening speech Sunday night.

“Whatever states we live in,” he said, “we have a common path and a common future.”

Michael Chlenov of Moscow, the Vaad’s other co-president, told the delegates that the organization should “emphasize our unity and at the same time stress the individuality of the various communities.”

Chlenov, a short man with twinkling eyes who has made numerous visits to North American Jewish communities, recounted how Odessa’s rabbi had asked him before the congress whether it would turn into a funeral or a wedding. He told the rabbi that the Vaad leaders had instead decided to have a birthday.

But even as the Vaad celebrates the beginning of its fourth year, it is clearly undergoing growing pains.

“We have entered a phase of maturity, when the number of internal conflicts is increasing,” said Chlenov.

But the Vaad often still acts like “an infant who waddles with joy on the grass,” he added.

That became clear Monday, when the Vaad audit committee delivered a scathing report detailing extensive mismanagement of the organization’s finances during the last year.

Among the findings were that few records were kept concerning income or expenditures. Some bills were paid more than once, and in many areas, far more money was spent than was budgeted.

In one case, a gift of 562,000 rubles (about $5,500 at the current exchange rate) was made to an undisclosed recipient. There were also reports that the bookkeeper, who has since been fired, embezzled millions of rubles to buy an apartment for her daughter.

The report rocked the auditorium as delegate after delegate rose to express indignation. When the head of the audit committee announced that 300,000 rubles had been given to individual republics, a delegate from Kazakhstan rose to ask why his Central Asian republic had received none of the money.

Called to account for this conduct, members of the Vaad presidium ducked questions and gave sheepish responses.

“It’s quite right that no books were kept at the initial stage,” Chlenov admitted. But he added that the Vaad had since “passed through the state of organizational teething problems.”

Whether that is true remains to be seen. But there is little doubt that leaders of the Vaad want Jews in the former Soviet Union to be treated like a mature Diaspora community.

“The Jewish world continues to proceed from the assumption that we are a vanishing community,” Chlenov said Sunday night. He said world Jewry continues to treat the former Soviet Union as a Jewish “no-man’s land,” when in fact the Vaad represents some 400 flourishing Jewish organizations and communities.

“We resist all attempts to eclipse our efforts,” Zissels said in his speech. “We want to be part and parcel of the entire Jewish people.”

At the same time, leaders of the Vaad say they feel they cannot depend on world Jewry, as generous as it has been in revitalizing Jewish life and assisting in emigration.

Chlenov recalled that during the second day of the failed coup against former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev last August, international Jewish organizations stopped their activities in the Soviet Union.

“We were in danger of facing this situation on our own,” he said. The incident proved that “nobody from the outside can actually help us, despite their well-wishing.”

But the coup also “became the testing ground for the Vaad,” Felix Milshtein, a member of the presidium, said in a speech Sunday night. “The putsch proved that all of us were united.”

Whether that holds true in the future still remains to be seen.

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