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Jews thrive in city´s leadership positions

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Simon Spector, deputy governor for the Sverdlovsk region, an influential area of 4.5 million in Russia's Ural Mountains. (Ezra Nathan)

Simon Spector, deputy governor for the Sverdlovsk region, an influential area of 4.5 million in Russia’s Ural Mountains. (Ezra Nathan)

YEKATERINBURG, Russia (JTA) — Simon Spector has thick, expressive eyebrows and a heavily wrinkled forehead. But the 67-year-old’s portrait won’t be gracing the cover of any fund-raising brochures depicting elderly, impoverished Russian Jews slurping borsht at a soup kitchen. The dapperly dressed Spector is the antithesis of a needy Russian Jew. He is a man in power, representative of a disproportionately high number of prominent local Jews who are revealing their ethnic roots and transforming the face of Russian Jewry — though it’s not clear how willing they are to use their clout in support of local Jewish life. Spector is the deputy governor for the Sverdlovsk region, an influential area of 4.5 million in Russia’s Ural Mountains, where Europe and Asia meet. Yekaterinburg, the regional center and Russia’s third largest city, is home to just 13,000 Jews, or 0.05 percent of the population. “There’s a myth in Israel that Russian Jews cannot be powerful people. Israeli doctors come here and cannot believe I’m Jewish,” says Spector, who heads the local veterans hospital. “The governor tells me to go to Israel, recruit 30,000 Jews and bring them here, because we’re such good leaders.” Three other Jews also serve as deputy governors, including the health and property ministers. There are 10 Jewish cultural directors in the region, including the head of the Yekaterinburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Russia’s Motion Picture Union. Other prominent local Jews include the head coach of the Russian chess team, the dean of the local university, Yekaterinburg’s chief cardiologist, the region’s chief doctor, who oversees 33 hospitals, and dozens of businessmen, including a bank president. Indeed, Yekaterinburg can be seen as a microcosm of Russia, where five of 12 owners or majority stockholders of the largest industrial or financial institutions are Jewish — a considerable number for Russia, where Jews make up less than 2 percent of the population. Such success is no faint achievement, considering that only 15 years ago many Jews encountered glass ceilings in the workplace and “every life sphere was under surveillance,” says Alla Domnich, director of the local Jewish Community Center. “Most of us didn’t even have our own flats. We shared with Russians and it was dangerous to speak Yiddish.” But the Jewish presence hasn’t been entirely successful in Yekaterinburg, where the mafia rules so supremely that it even has sponsored a knock-off version of McDonald’s, which doesn’t dare to compete here. Virtually all of these Jewish leaders — like most Jews in the Urals and Siberia — are thoroughly assimilated, having shed their Jewish identity during Soviet times. While their names and appearances often reveal their ethnicity, most shy away from actively referencing their roots — aside from the occasional, well-plotted face time at public Jewish holidays. That trend started a few years ago, when Russian President Vladimir Putin began publicly lighting a menorah of the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities. The act’s significance was heightened by the fact that most Russian citizens and officials take their cues from the head of state. The elites’ public displays of tolerance for Judaism have encouraged an extraordinary number of local Jews to acknowledge their religion in recent years. Despite mass migration to Israel, Yekaterinburg’s Jewish population has lingered between 10,000 and 13,000 since 1989 — mainly because as more Jews flee to Israel, an equal number are coming out of the closet. Yekaterinburg’s rabbi, Zelig Ashkenazi, says the last two years have seen “a revolution” of Jewish expression due to Putin and local Jewish authorities, who strongly influence public opinion. But the region’s chief cardiologist, Yan Gabinsky, disagrees, insisting that the comfort level “has developed gradually, on pace with Russia’s reforms, and wasn’t even noticeable.” The willingness of prominent Jews to assist local Jewish communities is a question of politics. Domnich and Yekaterinburg’s Hillel director cannot cite any specific support, but the government gave the ambitious Ashkenazi — a Chabad rabbi who enjoys close ties with the Kremlin — a free, 45,000-square-foot plot of land in the city center to build a $1.6 million community center and synagogue. They currently are under construction after four years of delays. What’s more, the separate Jewish day school that Ashkenazi runs is tax- and rent-free. The new complex will be Russia’s largest Jewish center outside of Moscow and will house two mikvahs, a gym, a weight room, a pool, a medical center, a library, a computer lab, a music studio and study rooms. It also will have a soup kitchen to feed 2,000 people a day, 90 percent of them secular Jews. “I don’t know another rabbi in Russia who enjoys such support,” Ashkenazi says. “The governor laid the first stone, and the mayor has been here five times.” “These people support the rabbi because they know he has much money and they accept the official presidential policy,” says Michael Oshtrakh, the liberal and candid leader of Yekaterinburg’s Yad L’Yad office. His group does not get along with Chabad — one example of Jewish infighting in the former Soviet Union. Founded six years ago, Yad L’Yad partners synagogues in the United States with those in the former Soviet Union, providing food and medicine to the Jewish elderly and supporting Jewish education, religious life and communal development. Jews cite history and regional tolerance — 120 ethnic groups coexist here — as the main reasons for their rapid success in Yekaterinburg. Thousands of Jews flocked to the Urals before World War II from Ukraine and Belarus, where quotas had prevented them from entering credible universities. Many graduated with high honors and opted to remain in this harsh climate in lieu of returning to the poverty and anti-Semitism of the Pale of Settlement. Masses of accomplished Jews flooded the region after the beginning of World War II, when entire factories in western Russia relocated to the east. “It’s very hard to find a Jewish family here without a higher education diploma,” Domnich says. “Russian families call me and ask how they can get into the Jewish school,” Spector says with pride. Gabinsky, meanwhile, is gearing up for a mayoral campaign in September. Though he’s “never revealed or concealed” his ethnicity, “everyone seems to know,” he says. He predicts that he might win another 3 percent of the vote if he were ethnically Russian, but he argues that “this small figure shows the ethnic question is not very acute here — almost non-existent.” Spector, who lost a mayoral bid in the last election, insists that his ethnicity was not a factor. But perhaps Yekaterinburg, where a top tourist attraction is a cemetery dotted with statues of murdered mobsters dangling their Mercedes’ keys, isn’t as democratic as insiders claim. Few here are eager to discuss the ethnicity of the mayor, who says he’s Ukrainian although his secretary asks Ashkenazi for matzah and his mother attends Jewish events. “He’s as Ukrainian as I’m black,” Spector says. The “mayor isn’t alone. These Jews don’t see any good for themselves in being officially Jewish,” Oshtrakh says. “They aren’t afraid of anti-Semites or pogroms; it’s a result of the Soviet policy of assimilation. People here say ‘I’m Russian, I speak Russian, I think Russian.’ ” Oshtrakh says the vice mayor and the philharmonic director also conceal their Judaism. “When I asked him to play at a Jewish festival, I said ‘I know your mom visited Hesed,’ and he opened up to me,” Oshtrakh says of the orchestra leader. Hesed is a Russian Jewish charity organization. “In the end, I got a discounted rate for not announcing his origin.” “Sure you can find leaders like Spector who aren’t afraid of being Jewish. But most of them are far from Jewish policy and community,” Oshtrakh continues. “As powerful elites, they don’t want to get involved in our problems. They just follow state policy.”

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