Russian Jews Can Now Study Hebrew in the Light After Decades of Darkness
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Russian Jews Can Now Study Hebrew in the Light After Decades of Darkness

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Some 30 years ago, Soviet Jews began learning Hebrew underground.

In the past decade, the study of Hebrew in Russia has made its way to the surface — as the use of Hebrew by all the presenters at a recent conference here makes clear.

The conference of The World Union for Hebrew, a program of the World Zionist Organization that works to build Hebrew-language activities around the world, featured lectures and reports, presented by Israeli and European professors and by Russian university teachers, on topics ranging from ways to teach modern Hebrew to the similarities between the Hebrew and Russian languages to the history of the struggle for Hebrew in the former Soviet Union.

The conference was also held under the auspices of the Israeli Cultural Center, the main educational facility of the Israeli Embassy. Nativ, Israel’s bureau for Jews in the former Soviet Union, provided its financing and logistics.

The participants in the conference had a lot to gloat about.

More than 2,000 Jews in Moscow alone are currently studying modern Hebrew, according to estimates: About 1,400 to 1,500 students are in classes sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel; around 500 people learn their Hebrew in classes run by the Israeli Cultural Center; and nearly 300 students are studying modern Hebrew at institutions of higher education in Moscow.

Some 7,000 children are now studying at supplementary schools in Russia, while some 1,100 are studying Hebrew in far eastern Russia — an area where the Jewish population exceeds 50,000, according to one Jewish official.

It wasn’t always this way.

Hebrew was rarely officially taught in the Soviet Union. Classes were available at a few universities, and there were also some “closed” classes at institutions, such as the KGB academy, that taught modern Hebrew for future military or intelligence officers specializing in the Middle East.

In 1969, the first Jewish groups studying modern Hebrew appeared in Moscow.

The first teachers were mainly young math and physics graduates from Moscow University who had no teaching background, but they and their students were especially motivated.

The results were spectacular. Some of the members of these groups of the 1970s and 1980s, which functioned as underground Hebrew clubs, managed to learn Hebrew rapidly.

Despite persecution and pressure, the number of underground Hebrew teachers in the USSR immediately before Mikhail Gorbachev took over as Soviet leader in 1985 was up to 100 — and by that time Moscow had become the center of Hebrew study in the Soviet Union.

In the late 1980s, Israeli organizations, such as the Jewish Agency and Nativ, moved in and established their Hebrew classes.

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