Behind the Headlines: Strengthening Jewish Life Emerging As the Top Priority in Ex-soviet Union

Reviving Jewish culture has displaced emigration as the top communal priority for Jewish activists in the former Soviet Union, according to a Russian demographer who has been studying the community for the last three years.

“The Jewish movement’s priorities have changed,” Professor Vladimir Shapiro said in a recent interview here. “The center of interest has shifted toward reconstructing community life.”

Shapiro, who is president of the Jewish Research Center in Moscow, has been surveying Jewish community leaders from the various republics since they first gathered together in December 1989 at the founding congress of the Vaad, the confederation of Jewish institutions and communities in the former Soviet Union.

The 300 delegates who attended the Vaad’s third congress here in mid-May were each asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire soliciting their opinions on a range of Jewish issues and information about their Jewish involvement.

The results of those surveys are still being tabulated and analyzed. But Shapiro was able to report findings of a similar survey he conducted in April at the founding congress of Russia’s own Vaad in Nizhni Novgorod, formerly Gorky.

The most striking finding, Shapiro said, was that while facilitating emigration and combatting anti-Semitism were listed as the most urgent national priorities by delegates to the first two Soviet Vaad congresses, those attending the Russian Vaad congress listed aiding the Jewish cultural and national revival as the top priority.

The Russian Jewish leaders were asked to gauge the urgency and importance of each of 10 goals. While 78 percent rated “revival of Jewish tradition, culture and community life” as a top priority, only 37 percent gave the same rating to “supporting aliyah and absorption in Israel.”

Doing charity work was seen as the second most important goal, with 70 percent of the Jewish leaders rating it as a top priority. Promoting Jewish education came in third, with 66 percent rating it as a top priority.

“Broadening contacts with Israel and world Jewry” came in next, with a 57 percent rating, followed by the need to secure human rights and combat anti-Semitism, which 54 percent saw as a top priority.

43 PERCENT DON’T WANT TO EMIGRATE

The shift in communal priorities can also be seen, Shapiro said, by looking at the responses to a survey question that asked how foreign Jewish organizations should be spending their money in the Soviet successor states.

Half of the respondents said outside Jewish groups should divide their money equally between supporting emigration and the “reconstruction of Jewish life.” But 35 percent said more money should be spent on revitalizing Jewish life, while only 9 percent said more money should be spent on promoting emigration.

Respondents to the Russian Vaad survey also seemed less eager to emigrate than participants in the previous surveys. Forty-two percent said they were not planning to emigrate and 1 percent said they would not leave under any circumstances.

Those planning to emigrate were, for the most part, unsure when they would do so. While 13 percent of all respondents said they would leave within two or three years, only 5 percent said they had begun the application process. A sizable 35 percent said they intend to emigrate but do not know when.

Shapiro, whose research center is affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences, also asked delegates to the Russian Vaad congress a number of questions about their level of Jewish religious observance.

More than half the respondents said they observe Shabbat at least sometimes, with 39 percent saying they light Sabbath candles occasionally and another 8 percent saying they do so regularly.

While very few keep kosher, half said they attend synagogue at least sometimes, and another 13 percent said they do so regularly.

What was perhaps the most striking finding was the high level of holiday observance. A majority of respondents said they always observe the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, Purim and Passover. And smaller pluralities said they always observe other major holidays, such as Yom Kippur and Simchat Torah.

Pesach was the most widely observed holiday, with 71 percent saying they celebrate it always, and another 22 percent saying they celebrate it sometimes.

The second most popular holiday was Purim, where the numbers were 67 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Then came Chanukah, with 63 percent saying they observe it always and 26 percent saying they do so sometimes.

While Shapiro was quick to point out that these numbers represent the practices of the Jewish leadership, rather than the Jewish population as a whole, they provide an interesting glimpse into how the rebirth of Jewish life in the former Soviet empire is taking shape.

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