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Jewish higher education booming in Russia

MOSCOW, Feb. 13 (JTA) — Jewish higher education is booming across the former Soviet Union.

Courses in Judaica are currently being taught at nearly 100 universities and other academic institutions across the former Soviet Union, and every prestigious university in Russia has opened or is going to open a department for Jewish or biblical studies.

The overall number of students, roughly 4,000, is modest compared with numbers in the United States, but only 10 years ago, the Soviet authorities did not permit Jewish studies.

Moreover, the field is still expanding — and in a return to Soviet days, crystallizing Jewish activities and activists.

A three-day annual conference on Jewish studies near Moscow earlier this month brought together 400 scholars — double last year’s attendance — from across the former Soviet Union and around the world.

The conference is organized annually by Sefer — The Moscow Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization in the Former Soviet Union.

The previous annual conferences were high-level academic events, but this time the gathering was an important public event as well.

“Many presentations and discussions this time were not strictly academic, but dealt with various aspects of Jewish community life in today’s Russia,” said Victoriya Motchalova, the head of Sefer.

During the days of the Soviet Jewish underground, before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the Jewish national movement concentrated on studying Hebrew, Torah and Jewish history classes. They also held seminars, conferences and supported underground educational summer camps.

Now, with its organizational life splintered among bickering factions, Russia’s Jewish community is continuing this tactic of trying to gain self-identification and self-organization through academic and educational activities.

Many of the non-Jewish presenters at the conference first become attracted to Judaism through Jewish studies and research.

Archival research allowed Alexander Antchikhin, a history lecturer at a university in the city of Voronezh in southern Russia, to became acquainted with the history of the Jewish community in Voronezh, which “opened for myself an entirely different world that I had not been aware of,” he said.

In at least one community, the growing interest in Jewish studies has proven unexpectedly useful in strengthening ties with other Jewish communities.

“I am getting a mass of orders from other cities and other countries for making Jewish genealogical ‘family trees.’ I can’t even fulfill all of them,” said Igor Semyonov, a historian from the city of Makhachkala in the war-torn Caucasus.

The Sefer center, a nonprofit association set up and supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to promote and coordinate the teaching of Judaica subjects and Jewish research at institutions of higher learning in Russia, is widely considered one of the JDC’s most successful ventures in the former Soviet Union.

Today this association, which works under the aegis of the Russian Academy of Sciences, unites more than 1,000 lecturers and researchers in Jewish studies from across the former Soviet Union.

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