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CHANUKAH FEATURE (2) Expatriate group fulfills needs of foreign Jews living in Moscow

MOSCOW, Dec. 2 (JTA) — Just before Chanukah last year, Faye Siegel was desperate. She wanted to set up a holiday party for other American Jews living in Moscow but she didn’t know many — so she called the U.S. Embassy. “Tell me, please, do you have any Jews out there in the embassy who might be interested to celebrate Chanukah,” she asked a marine guard at the embassy switchboard. “I’m Jewish, madam, and I’m interested,” he answered. In the end, some 40 Jewish expatriates gathered in a private home to celebrate Chanukah. That event marked the founding of JIM, or Jewish in Moscow, a group that aims to provide a feeling of community — especially during holidays — for Jewish expatriates. What started as a small group of enthusiasts has turned into a vibrant Jewish group with participants who come to celebrate holidays — 140 people attended a Passover seder at the U.S. Embassy — and a steering committee to plan future activities. “My entire life has been part of the Jewish community,” said Siegel, who heads JIM. For a number of years, she was in charge of the women’s division at the Atlanta Jewish Federation. Last year, she came to Moscow after her husband was transferred by the accounting firm Deloitte and Touche. Today, JIM involves 160 people, most of them Americans who are working in a wide range of businesses, including fast food restaurants, travel agencies, banks and law firms. Eugene Weiner, who has been behind much of the expatriate Jewish activities in Moscow and hosted last year’s Chanukah party, estimates that some 300 to 400 American Jews are working in the Russian capital. “Most of them are in their late 20s or early 30s,” said Weiner, who immigrated to Israel from New York 25 years ago. “They tend to be single and very entrepreneurial.” Usually, Americans come to work here for two or three years, but many stay longer. “They are very inclined to be interested in joining the Jewish community,” said Weiner who came to Russia last year as head of special projects for the Moscow office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “None of the expatriates is interested in settling here, but they are interested in maintaining their Jewish identity while they are here,” Weiner said. Just a few years ago, Avi Aliman had what was then a typical Jewish expatriate experience in Moscow. Aliman, the general director of the Moscow-based company Travel House, recalled how he invited his friends to a Passover seder at what was then the city’s only restaurant that advertised itself as Jewish. “We came and what we first found on our table was vodka and bread,” said Aliman, 25, a member of the JIM steering committee who came here from Los Angeles five years ago. Now that the holiday events have already become a tradition, the group wants to expand its activities by having regular Shabbat dinners at members homes, starting a newsletter, organizing classes to study classical Jewish texts and even by establishing a Jewish school for their children. But Aliman, like other JIM leaders, believes that the group’s activities should not be restricted to expatriates. “We are interested in connecting up with Moscow Jews, in participating in the community here,” said Aliman. Siegel said her dream is to establish a place in Moscow that “we can call our community center, where the expatriates and Russian Jews can come to study, to learn, to celebrate together.” Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, said expatriate Jews in Moscow can contribute significantly to the city’s native community. “They think they don’t know much, but they know much more than most Jews here,” said Goldschmidt, who is probably the longest-term Jewish expatriate in Moscow. Born in Switzerland, Goldschmidt lived and studied in Israel and the United States before coming here in 1989 and taking his rabbinical post the following year. “I would like to see more Jewish expatriates coming out of the closet,” he said. As the first experience of cooperation with the local community, JIM leaders cite the High Holidays celebration that the group organized at a Moscow Jewish day school. “We had about 100 expatriates and 550 Russian Jewish students whom we invited through the Moscow Hillel group,” said
Inna Prilutzky, who emigrated from Russia to Kansas City, Mo., with her husband and children 15 years ago. Prilutzky, 50, cites JIM as one of the reasons she decided to return to Moscow a few months ago with her husband, who obtained a managerial position with an American-Russian joint venture. “Judaism became a part of our life only after we emigrated,” said Prilutzky, citing her children’s Hebrew school experience and her younger daughter’s bat mitzvah ceremony in Kansas City. “It’s important to meet people who are spiritually close to you,” she said of JIM. But because of her Soviet background, Prilutzky said she is the “least Jewishly educated member of the group.” In return for education about Judaism, Prilutzky said she can offer the group her knowledge of the Russian language and culture necessary to become more connected to the local community.