U.S. Jewish group sees fruit of Russian investment

MOSCOW, Aug. 6 (JTA) — The microphones had been removed from the stage of Jewish School #1311 and the high school students, who had spent an hour serenading their guests in Yiddish and Hebrew and then another hour leading them on a tour of their school, had lapsed into casual teen-aged banter.

The executive committee members of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture gathered outside the building, where the sun still shone here at 10 o’clock on a summer night.

The Memorial Foundation delegation packed many memorable events into its three-day meeting last month, but many cited the visit to the school as particularly moving.

The evening began with a speech from principal Grigory Lipman — a former teacher who founded the school a decade ago — and featured a series of endearing performances by students who came to the school to deepen their Jewish identity.

The performance ended with a line of students dancing through the auditorium, joined by figures such as Hebrew University rector Menachem Ben- Sasson, and Menachem Elon, head of the World Union of Jewish Students and a former justice on Israel’s Supreme Court.

The scene couldn’t have been better scripted from the perspective of the New York-based Memorial Foundation, which was holding its annual executive committee meeting in Moscow for the first time, despite 35 years of activity in Russia.

“I already know about this school, but I wanted our people to see it,” said Jerry Hochbaum, the Memorial Foundation’s executive director. “Many American Jews still see Soviet Jewry in terms of ‘Let My People Go,’ ” the slogan of 1970s efforts on behalf of Jewish refuseniks.

“They don’t realize what the fabric of Russian Jewish life is today,” Hochbaum said. “I take offense when people say there’s no future for Jews in Russia. You can’t tell me that a community like we saw tonight” has no future.

While it’s not clear how many of the foundation’s 36-person delegation would agree — dire demographic forecasts and the tenuousness of Russian Jewish identity were sources of frequent debate at foundation meetings — many members of the delegation were surprised by the extent of the Jewish renaissance they saw around them.

“I was moved to tears,” Eli Zoborowski, chairman of the International Society for Yad Vashem, said of the performance at Jewish School #1311.

The last time he was in Russia, Zoborowski said, it was 1979 and the Jews he met feared to talk with him. One particularly brave soul slipped Zoborowski a note beneath the table, giving Zoborowski his address and asking him to write.

When they did finally speak it was haltingly — the Russian man speaking in German, Zoborowski replying in Yiddish.

At Lipman’s school, the students showed they could speak decent Hebrew, and were informed enough about Israeli pop culture to mimic songs by their idols.

Reflecting back to his 1979 trip, Zoborowski said, “we never dreamed we would see a day like this.”

Lipman’s school is the crown jewel of a burgeoning system of Jewish education that is one of the Memorial Foundation’s key projects. Only a decade after the collapse of communism, the Association of Jewish Schools and Principals of the Former Soviet Union has grown to include 53 elementary and high schools — of all ideologies and affiliations — that teach nearly 30,000 students.

At the university level, Jewish studies programs draw both Jewish and non-Jewish students. The Memorial Foundation has been one of the backers of Project Judaica, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s graduate program at the Russian State University for the Humanities.

While the first crop of students arrived at the university with virtually no Jewish background, Project Judaica is starting to receive graduates of schools like Lipman’s, who come with a fair amount of Jewish knowledge, according to director David Fishman.

The schools are particularly important for the rebirth of Jewish life in Russia.

In most countries, Jewish schools reflect the character and values of the community, Hochbaum said. In the former Soviet Union, where a rich Jewish life was devastated by the Holocaust and decades of Communist repression, the schools are the main building blocks of Jewish renewal and students are responsible for teaching parents about their heritage.

The educational projects are relatively new for the Memorial Foundation, which was founded in 1965 with Holocaust reparation money from West Germany and charged with rebuilding the Jewish life that had been destroyed by the Nazis.

Since then, the foundation has spent some $10 million on projects in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Given the constraints imposed by Soviet officials, the foundation for years focused mainly on publishing books on Jewish history and culture, working closely with an Israeli govermental agency known as the Liaison Bureau that combined community outreach with intelligence gathering.

To date, the foundation has published more than 600 titles in Russian.

The foundation also trained religious functionaries and communal workers — rabbis, those who perform ritual circumcisions — to take up positions in the community.

Yet Hochbaum sensed that the ground was shifting in the Soviet Union.

“There was a feeling that one day the situation would change, and we ought to have the resources in place to deal with it,” he said.

That day came with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy, and the foundation quickly branched out into educational programs and leadership training programs.

Among the leaders the foundation sponsored were prominent refuseniks such as Yosef Mendelevitch, Yosef Begun and Knesset member Yuri Edelstein.

The foundation also supported religious and cultural figures such as principal Lipman. Another grantee was Ilya Altman, an archivist who received funding in the early 1990s to help identify all the government and state archives in Russia that might contain Jewish material.

Several years later, Altman has finished his doctorate and directs the Moscow Holocaust Center, the country’s leading independent institution for Holocaust research and education. The government recently agreed to use his books as part of the first Holocaust curriculum in Russian schools, Altman told JTA.

In addition, the foundation supported the training of both of Russia’s chief rabbis — Adolph Shayevich, head of Moscow’s historic Choral Synagogue, and Berel Lazar, the Chabad rabbi who heads the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia — a remarkable display of ideological flexibility given the leadership struggle the two rabbis have waged in recent years.

The conference also has supported Reform and secular leaders. Indeed, the crowd at the opening session of the annual meeting — where foreign Jewish organizations and the four umbrella organizations that claim to speak for Russian Jewry all were represented — showed how deftly the foundation has maneuvered through the minefields of Russian and international Jewish politics.

In all, the foundation has given nearly 1,000 institutional grants and 1,700 individual ones in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and more than 100 people have gone through its leadership training programs.

With the initial work of rebuilding Russian Jewish life well under way, the foundation is moving to the second stage, empowering local leaders to make decisions for the community.

As a generation of homegrown Jewish leadership develops, however, it could cause friction with international Jewish organizations that want to dictate the Russian Jewish agenda and, in some cases, justify their own budgets.

Hochbaum sees that power shift as a welcome development.

“We don’t believe we have to call the shots,” Hochbaum said. “The external agencies are still important, but it’s inevitable that the Russians should be the leaders of their own institutions and shape them according to their own vision of Jewish life.”

And, he says, it’s important for world Jewry to understand that “there’s an authentic Jewish life developing here, whose institutions in some cases are as good as institutions in the West.”

A few members of the executive committee with extensive background in Russian Jewish affairs were not surprised by what they saw during the foundation meeting.

“If you had shown me this 10 years ago I would have reacted with more emotion,” said Herman Branover, a physicist at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and editor of the Encyclopedia of Russian Jewry. “Now we’re already getting used to it.”

But others considered the renaissance of Russian Jewish life a revelation.

“For me, this visit is like seeing the day after having seen the night,” said Jose Meiches, a professor of engineering in Sao Paolo and former president of Brazil’s Jewish community.

The last time he was in Russia, in 1989, was just before Glasnost, Meiches said. On a visit to Leningrad — known today as St. Petersburg — the group’s guide refused to take them to a synagogue, dropping them off some distance away so he could tell authorities he didn’t know their destination.

“It was quite an experience trying to find something Jewish then,” Meiches said, comparing it to the student performance he had just seen at Jewish School #1311. “This is a real story of rebirth. We will keep these memories until the end of our days.”

(JTA Managing Editor Michael S. Arnold recently visited Moscow on a trip partially sponsored by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.)

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