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Russian Jewish groups create umbrella to coordinate activity

MOSCOW, Oct. 15 (JTA) — Russia’s Jews have a new umbrella group. The group, known as the Jewish Community of Russia, brings together three of the community’s leading Jewish organizations in an effort to streamline their activities and prevent discord. The group, created late last month, was cosponsored by the Va’ad, the Russian Jewish Congress and the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations. “This is a moment of great symbolic meaning,” Mikhail Chlenov, the Va’ad’s president, told a Moscow news conference after the new body’s inaugural meeting. “It symbolizes a unity in our community that we have at last managed to achieve,” he said. Estimates of the Russian Jewish population run between 300,000 and 1.5 million, but only a small minority are actively affiliated with the community. Since the fall of communism six years ago, a wide range of organizations and programs have been created — including day and Sunday schools, cultural societies, publications, and welfare programs – – to meet an increased interest in Judaism. Chlenov said there are as many as 500 different Jewish groups currently operating in Russia. The proliferation has led to replication of efforts and bureaucratic snafus that have hindered the community’s development, particularly in some provincial centers. By “calling the new organization the Jewish Community of Russia, we can promote the further consolidation of the forces that are present inside the community,” Chlenov said. Most prominent among these forces are the three umbrella groups that are cosponsoring the new organization. The Va’ad, the Jewish Federation of Russia, was formed in 1989 as the first umbrella organization to represent Jewish interests. The Russian Jewish Congress, created in early 1996 by some of Russia’s most prominent Jewish bankers and businessmen, has recently started building its own nationwide structure. The Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations, known as KEROOR, serves as an umbrella body for Russia’s 60 Orthodox and Reform congregations. According to Chlenov, most of the Jewish organizations that exist in Russia are members of one of these three groups. He described the Va’ad as the political center of Russian Jewry, the RJC as the community’s financial nucleus and KEROOR as its religious center. Chlenov said these umbrella groups will continue to function separately, but that the new organization will help overcome potential conflicts among them. The leaders of the three groups were elected co-chairmen of the new body: Alexander Osovtsov, executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress; the Va’ad’s Chlenov; and KEROOR leader Adolph Shayevich, who is Russia’s chief rabbi. The newly created Jewish Community of Russia, Chlenov said will oversee three national programs: * Educational, including the preparation of texts used in Jewish schools; * Setting strategies for communal welfare activities; and, * Creating an informational network to serve local Jewish organizations. The Jewish Community of Russia was created after the Russian Parliament passed a law last year allowing minority groups to form their own groupings — known as federal and local autonomies — to serve minority interests on the national and regional level. Since late 1996, eight local Jewish autonomies have been formed in central and southern Russia, Siberia and the Ural Mountains. It was representatives of these groups that gathered in Moscow to establish the new organization, which will operate as the community’s federal autonomy. The Law on National-Cultural Autonomies passed last year not only grants state recognition to Jews and other minority groups to preserve their traditions, culture and languages. The law also obliges the authorities to provide financial support for the various minorities’ needs. Jewish leaders would not estimate how much financial assistance they might receive from the federal budget. Chlenov said that the Jewish community would like to see its needs taken into account in the 1998 budget, which the Russian Parliament will soon be considering. But Osovtsov of the RJC said that government funding for Jewish communal needs might come in the more distant future.