Although a large portion of Soviet Jewry has emigrated in recent years, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry believes that there is a continuing need for American Jews to remain engaged with the sizable remaining Jewish communities.
For the second consecutive year, congregations across the United States are being encouraged to dedicate a Shabbat in April to reconnecting with Jews in the former Soviet Union.
The NCSJ’s Shabbat of Renewal and Reconnection project calls upon congregations to demonstrate their solidarity with the Jews in the former Soviet Union and to raise awareness of the conditions faced by Soviet Jews.
With a population of about 1.5 million, the former Soviet Union has the world’s third largest Jewish community, according to the NCSJ.
Passover was chosen as the most appropriate time to renew this connection with Jews from the former Soviet Union.
“Traditionally, this is the time we focus on freedom,” said Nate Geller, director of community services and cultural affairs for the NCSJ. “Passover has been associated with liberation and, in a sense, that is what we are talking about here.”
Although conditions have changed in the former Soviet Union in terms of “relatively free emigration” and a “public Jewish communal life,” there is still reason to remain concerned, aware and educated, Geller said.
“There is turmoil and transformation going on there and there needs to be vigilance,” he said. “There is really a shell of fundamental democracy, and the direction, especially in Russia, could be a reversion with regards to the treatment of minorities.”
Geller pointed to the current Russian presidential race – elections are slated for June 16 – as a main reason for concern.
One of the candidates, Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, congratulated U.S. presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan on his victory in the New Hampshire primary. Zhirinovsky also wrote in his congratulatory letter of “this troublesome tribe and how they need their own place,” Geller said, an apparent reference to Jews.
Another presidential candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party in Russia, also spoke of the “inordinate power of the Jewish Diaspora and their economic power,” said Geller. “The Communist influence runs very deep in Russia and certainly in Ukraine and Belarus.”
A recent poll showed Zyuganov in the lead, Yeltsin in second and Zhirinovsky in third.
But another poll put Zhirinovsky in second and Yeltsin in third.
Geller said Passover is a time for American Jews to renew their support of Soviet Jews, and the Shabbat program is “an attempt to inject new energy” into reaffirming that connection.
Among the programs suggested in the package sent by the NCSJ to about 3,000 congregations and rabbis are Shabbat program readings, educational presentations and sermons around Passover themes such as the Exodus and entering Promised Land, from slavery to freedom or assimilation to renewed peoplehood.
The NCSJ also urges families to continue the tradition of a special reading for the middle matzah – of unity – which symbolizes a link to all the Jews in the world, especially those who are oppressed.
“The Haftarah speaks of how the Jews were without the Torah and without the laws and tells the story of finding the Torah. I think it is a metaphor for what is happening in the FSU in terms of re-identifying and reclaiming their Jewish heritage,” Geller said.