ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (Jul. 9)
Eight years after Jewish activists in the Soviet Union openly began their organizational efforts, communal leaders gathered here to assess ways to make life in the world’s third largest Jewish community more meaningful.
Today, more than 2 million Jews are estimated to live in Russia and the other Soviet successor states, but the challenges confronting their survival as a community remain severe.
In an effort to overcome those challenges, some 150 delegates from Jewish communities across the former Soviet Union and from Israel, the United States and Western Europe gathered here last week to air their assessments of Russian Jewish life and to share ideas for charting the future.
The four-day conference, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and several European groups, brought together optimists as well as pessimists.
With the median age of the Russian Jewish community well past 50 and the rate of intermarriages exceeding 65 percent — and higher in the provinces — the pessimists had grounds for genuine concern.
Recent surveys indicate that only 5 percent to 10 percent of Russian Jews take part in communal life, with a somewhat higher participation in Ukraine.
“There is no community in Russia. The old community that was more like a ghetto has gone. A new one is not built yet,” said Moscow activist Tankred Golenpolsky. “We have too many Jewish organizations and too few Jews in them.”
Also far from optimistic was Yuriy Lozinsky of Tomsk, a city in eastern Siberia that confronts many of the problems typically found in the Russian hinterland.
Asserting that religion does not play an important role for most Russian Jews, Lozinsky said, “We have been torn from our roots and there is no hope we will be able to rediscover them.
“In the beginning of this century, there were three synagogues in Tomsk. Today, we have only one observant Jew out of the 3,000 that live in Tomsk.
“He is a 93-year-old man and he prays alone at home.”
Lozinsky, 54, head of a Sunday school in Tomsk, said his generation of Jews might be the last in the provinces.
Other local leaders agreed with his dim prognosis, pointing to the lack of teachers and religious leaders in the provinces.
But still others pointed to the strides forward made by the community since 1988, when the new openness encouraged by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged Jewish leaders to start creating organized Jewish life on Soviet soil.
“Russian Jews have not disappeared and they are no longer mute,” said Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad, the Jewish Federation of Russia.
His opinion was shared by activists from communities located far from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“In our city we have a real community,” said Mark Arshinsky, leader of the 14,000-member Jewish community in Khabarovsk, located in the Russian Far East.
He said he believed that there is a future for Jews in Khabarovsk, but added that “it will depend on a complex of political, economic and even climatic conditions, since many Jews are leaving Khabarovsk because of the severe climate.”
In the five years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, organized Jewish life here has developed along two separate paths — as religious communities and as charitable organizations.
Religious and lay leaders at the conference spoke of the importance of combining their efforts, something that has “not been achieved in practice yet,” Chlenov said.
But some leaders felt that the two approaches could not be joined.
“The synagogue cannot be a center of organized Jewish activities,” said Zinoviy Kogan, leader of Hineini, the Moscow-based Reform congregation.
Kogan, who also serves as director of Yad Ezra, a Jewish charitable organization, said that in many Russian communities, elderly and needy Jews make up more than half of the Jewish population.
“In most places, welfare and charity should be the core of communal life,” he said.
Some leaders said many Jews get involved in communal life only if they want to emigrate.
“There are lots of such examples,” said Alexander Sakov, Jewish communal leader from Omsk, located in eastern Siberia.
Local communal leaders “in many cases see their role as only temporary before emigration,” he said.
Victor Voronkov, a St. Petersburg sociologist, agreed.
“Jewish identity and communal involvement is becoming a strategic solution for most Russian Jews when they decide to emigrate,” he said.
The question of what role foreign organizations can play in shaping Russian Jewish life was also discussed at the conference, but it emerged as an issue with no clear answer.
Among those on hand for the discussion were Andrew Baker, the AJCommittee’s Director of European Affairs, Nate Geller of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and Martin Horwitz of the New York City-based Jewish Community Development Fund.
Unable to attend the conference was David Harris, AJCommittee’s executive director, who was denied a visa by Russian authorities.
“Much as I would like to believe that this experience was nothing more than a bureaucratic snafu, I cannot,” Harris said last week.
The visa denial was but one of several recent events — including the suspension in April of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s license to operate in Russia — that highlighted the question of what the Russian authorities’ future attitude toward Jewish activities will be.
This may prove the most troubling challenge to face the community in the months and years ahead.