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Russian Jews of the World Unite, but New Group Already Has Dissidents

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An unusual procession slowly moved along King George Street in the downtown section of the Israeli capital earlier this month.

Some 200 people, mainly middle-aged, wearing white T-shirts with the inscription “World Congress of Russian Jewry,” waved Israeli flags, carried posters calling for the unity of the Jewish people, and chanted “Haveinu shalom aleichem.”

At Kikar Zion, the heart of Jerusalem’s downtown, the marchers, part of a new group dedicated to representing Russian Jews around the world, stopped for a rally.

Mikhail Chlenov, the leader of Va’ad, the oldest umbrella organization of Russian Jewish groups, said the time has come for Russian Jewry to unite and help Israel.

Israeli Deputy Absorption Minister Yuli Edelstein, a former Soviet dissident, echoed that call during the Moscow portion of the conference, saying “We need to organize the unique energy hidden in Russian Jewry.”

Some of the groups speakers took a hard-line view of the Middle East crisis.

Dmitry Litvak, an Estonian Jewish leader, drew significant applause when he said, “We should help Israel throw the Arabs out of the West Bank.”

The group’s goals remain unclear to many participants, who said they themselves didn’t fully understand what they want out of the new group except the general idea of somehow unifying the roughly 4 million Russian-speaking Jews now scattered around the world.

“I can’t understand how from Moscow or Jerusalem they can help us integrate in Boston. It all seems to be a P.R. action,” said Yelena Shur, 25, a Moscow-born Harvard post-graduate student.

Despite her ambivalence, Shur attended the Moscow part of the conference.

The rally capped a four-day inaugural effort in both Moscow and Jerusalem.

Some 350 people from 22 countries, including Russia, Israel, the United States, England, Germany and Australia met earlier this month at a Moscow Lubavitch-run JCC and then at a Jerusalem hotel to establish the World Congress.

The gathering was sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, the leading Russian Jewish umbrella organization, which is also providing the initial funding for the group.

According to Valery Engel, a federation official who was appointed chief executive of the new group, the congress will “support Israel, fight terror and anti-Semitism, improve Jewish education and help FSU-born Jews integrate into their new host countries.”

Engel dismissed the accusation that the new group is simply a public relations effort, noting that the group already has concrete projects, such as creating university and high-school textbooks of Jewish history in Russian for Russian-speaking communities across the world and organizing campaigns to fight anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe.

At a reception for rally participants at the home of Israel’s president, all of the speakers, including Israeli President Moshe Katsav, spoke about the need for Jewish unity.

But as is often the case, unity was more manifest in words than in actuality

The Russian Jewish Congress, another Russian Jewish umbrella group, ignored the founding conference — as did some U.S.-based Russian activists.

It is not clear why these people boycotted the gathering, but Engel believes they are motivated by personal animosities.

And some communities in the Baltics — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — sent representatives to the conference, but refused to join the group, arguing that the Russian language shouldn’t serve as the main unifying factor and that the title “Congress of Russian Jewry” has undesirable political connotations for people who live in countries that were controlled by Russia during the Soviet era.

Yuri Shtern, a member of the Israeli Knesset from the Russian immigrant party Our Home, Israel, addressing some of the criticism of the new initiative, said: “It’s probably as impossible to unite Russian Jewry as the Jewish world on the whole, but we must try.”

Both of the main Russian immigrant parties in Israel are backing the new group.

To many conference attendees, the transcontinental gathering is a historic event.

However, Yakov Bondar, the leader of a 500-member community of former Soviet Jews in the city of Hammeln, Germany, is more interested in practical matters than soaring ambitions.

Bondar’s community is getting no help and no attention from German Jewish leadership, he said, and he would be happy if the new organization creates a center for consulting and for the distribution of Jewish books and religious items for the Russian communities scattered across the world.

Whether the World Congress will satisfy him remains an open question.

“Let’s wait and see what will come out” of the new group, Bondar said.

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