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Science center to get Jewish renewal

A group of women in Akademgorodok, Russia, take part in a weekly social lunch where they discuss Jewish culture, politics and history. (Ezra Nathan)

A group of women in Akademgorodok, Russia, take part in a weekly social lunch where they discuss Jewish culture, politics and history. (Ezra Nathan)

AKADEMGORODOK, Russia, Sept. 1 (JTA) — Celebrating Shabbat has never come easily for Lew Vertgeim, a religious Jew who lives and works inside Russia’s grand Soviet-era Science Academy known as Akademgorodok. During Soviet times, Vertgeim and his father were the first Akademgorodok residents to trek 20 miles to the cosmopolitan city of Novosibirsk to track down its secluded synagogue, a rundown country cottage with a Magen David on its front. “It was in a suburban district and difficult to find. The streets weren’t marked and it was flooded in the spring,” recalls Vertgeim, 34. “Services were really rare and it was usually locked.” After the collapse of communism, Vertgeim bused an hour each Friday for a short Shabbat celebration in Novosibirsk’s new synagogue before catching the last bus home. Today, the bearded mathematician refuses to handle money on Shabbat, a restriction that leaves him lonely on Saturdays inside his tiny apartment in one of the world’s best-known scientific centers. But Vertgeim’s days of yearning for a close and communal Shabbat are about to end, thanks to the Federation of Jewish Communities of th Former Soviet Union. The organization is in the process of synthesizing science and religion by establishing an official Jewish community inside Akademgorodok, where Jewish life is growing rapidly. “Finally I’ll have a chance to practice with people here,” the soft-spoken Vertgeim says. “I studied in America and lived in a Chabad house and saw a real live community. And if we want to involve younger people, it’s critical to have a meeting place.” Established in the 1950s, this university and research city housed 30,000 of the most distinguished Soviet scientists and their families, including thousands of Jews who were plucked from their homes in the former Pale of Settlement and sent here by Soviet authorities. Their two-fold task was to propel the state in the arms race and to exploit Siberia’s natural resources. Despite being the only area of the Soviet Union that welcomed Western cultural influence, citizens here subscribed to only one religion: science. “There were no traditions here except science traditions,” says Anatol Roitman, 57, a physicist from Ukraine. “I just had no interest in Judaism in that time. I thought the Communist ideology was the truth. That was my upbringing.” Today, this wooded, melancholy city bordered by an artificial sea is a self-contained research hub that has fallen victim to a lack of state funding: The best minds have immigrated west in search of more money, though Akademgorodok is slowly transforming into a profitable information technology center. Establishing a Jewish community in this environment will surely be no easy task for Zalman Zakles, the ambitious federation rabbi in Novosibirsk who long has felt the need to support these Jewish scientists who were stripped of their faith over decades. Zakles is in the process of purchasing a modern facility where the group can convene for cultural events and Shabbat. He estimates that 1,000 Jews remain in Akademgorodok, though local Jews say there are only a few hundred. “Nowadays there’s no fear about being Jewish, but just no interest,” says Leonid Bokut, 65, a Jewish activist and mathematician. “People here understand the physical world and they don’t need anything like religion that can’t be scientifically verified in a lab. So we have a challenge to accept some axioms that cannot be experimentally verified.” Zinaida Kaptelina, 63, says a new center is needed no matter how small the Jewish population. The journey to Novosibirsk is too exhausting for the elderly, and there’s a gap in mentality between the two communities. “Most of us have doctorates,” Kaptelina says. “Novosibirsk has lesser educated people, so they study less serious topics and they wouldn’t understand our discussions and lectures. We have a different level of thinking.” The community center will provide a serious boost to Akademgorodok’s limited Jewish scene, which includes a Torah study class and a Sunday school sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Both projects were launched in 2002. There’s also a weekly luncheon for senior citizens sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The community began holding Chanukah and Passover only last year. Spiritual fulfillment seems opportune for Akademgorodok’s elderly generation, who earn an average monthly wage of $129 and suffer from a declining status in a nation where businessmen are held in more esteem than academics. “I would return to Soviet times if I could,” says Aza Dashevskaya, 64. “I saw a doctor of science looking for a burnt cigarette on the ground because he didn’t have enough money to buy them.” Zakles says the founding of a Jewish community could incite anti-Semitism inside Akademgorodok, which — unlike the rest of tolerant and diverse Siberia — has a long history of anti-Semitism. Institutional anti-Semitism ran high during Soviet times, when strict quotas blocked many Jews from jobs after graduation. In the 1950s, one of Akademgorodok’s leaders whose statues rests at the entrance to the city, was a violent anti-Semite who swore the city would “never become a synagogue.” In the early 1990s institutional anti-Semitism was replaced by the growth of hate speech, including the founding of Pamyat, Russia’s nationalist, anti-Semitic movement. Feelings of jealousy ensued when many Jews emigrated to take more lucrative jobs abroad. Zakles mails his community newspaper to Jewish addresses. He says he has received about 100 requests saying, roughly, “It’s really beautiful but stop sending it. We’re afraid our neighbors will learn we’re Jews.” But everyone seems happy and safe inside Svetlana Rusalenko’s living room, where 10 elderly women convene for their weekly lunch: borscht, carrot salad, meats and bread. The lively chatter and hostess’ pleas for guests to eat resemble a traditional American Jewish home. After several l’chaims, the women discuss how the weather affects their blood pressure. When asked to describe usual conversation, Rusalenko proves her academic past by unveiling a log of previous discussions. “We read Jewish magazines, discussed Jewish playwrights, artists, painters,” she says. “Last week we celebrated the birthday of Matvej Blant, a Jewish composer, and we sang his classic ‘Katusha.’Before that we discussed Israel and origins of terrorism.” When she begins singing her childhood favorite “Lo Mir Zingin,” no one seems as touched as Kaptelina, who discovered her Jewish identity only last year. “I found documents with my real middle name. So I took an interest in this,” she says. “I went to the Sunday school and Torah lectures. It’s turned a new page in my life.”

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