In an Isolated Russian Land, Community Finds Ways to Survive

Flying along the long, narrow stretch of pockmarked highway that serves as the sole lifeline between Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and the local airport in the nearby town of Elizovo, one easily could make the mistaken assumption that the mythical end of the world described by medieval mariners lay just beyond every upcoming turn.

In the cool dark air of a March evening, with the lights of town far behind and nothing but the hulking forms of the mountains to mark your way, the sense of isolation is palpable.

The refuge that this isolation brought from the repressive measures of the Soviet regime and its quotas was partly what drove the first waves of Russian Jews to this far-flung region. The measure of peace it brought them has since sustained the tiny Jewish community in Kamchatka, one of the most rugged and geographically isolated regions in the world.

When Bella Leidental, now 73, arrived here in 1958 to work as an ambulance driver, the isolation provided her with a sense of acceptance she had rarely known.

“Everyone here was like one big family,” the rambunctious, gray-haired grandmother said. “No one’s doors were ever closed, and it was common to take a stranger into your home. It was wonderful.”

Coming from someone who survived not only the destruction of her Ukrainian shtetl at the hands of the Nazis but the siege of Stalingrad, four years in a Russian salt mine and the backhanded praise of her co-workers in Stalin’s Moscow that “they didn’t consider me a Jew because I was a good person,” the words carry special weight.

The Kamchatka Peninsula, some 4,600 miles west of Moscow — farther even than Japan — was a closed region for decades. Unreachable by car or train from the mainland, it served as the base of Russia’s Pacific submarine fleet, as well as a hub of Soviet communications and geo-science. It was a natural place for the government to send bright young Jewish scientists fre! sh out o f university.

Cut off from the large urban centers of European Russia, maintaining their Jewish roots was doubly hard for the Jews of Kamchatka. The results are still visible today, as many members of the community have little knowledge of their history or traditions.

“The isolation is the biggest problem,” Zhenya Lotman says.

Lotman, 38, is director of Tsafon, the Jewish cultural center that is the hub of Jewish life in the regional capital of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.

Tsafon’s offices, located in one of the many crumbling apartment blocks in the winding alleys of the “5-Kilometer” neighborhood, are at the center of a Jewish revival that has had to be more resourceful than most.

Founded in 1993 to reunite the Jews of the region, Tsafon currently splits its annual budget of approximately $23,000 from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee between educational programs for Jewish youth and the distribution of food and medical aid to the community. Many in the community are elderly and have difficulty surviving on tiny government pensions.

Beyond economic and religious problems, there’s the simple question of finding members from among the estimated 300 local Jews to attend holiday services and parties hosted by the center. Lotman, whose day job is with the local police force, chose a solution as unique as the surroundings.

“When I would get a call that a crime occurred, I would sometimes see that the name on the document was Jewish,” she says with a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. “So I would say something like, ‘Oh, where’d you get such a beautiful surname from?’ “

Lotman estimates that she brought at least 40 people to the center using such unorthodox methods.

Unorthodox may in fact be the best adjective to describe the community’s eclectic flavor, born out of sheer necessity.

Tsafon religious leader Sergei Kurbatov, who oversees the teaching of cultural traditions in the commun! ity, cam e to Kamchatka from Uzbekistan in 1983 as a manual laborer in the Red Army. A Bukharan Jew with no formal Jewish training, Kurbatov and fellow volunteer Sasha Gorina, 24, are learning Hebrew from an online course.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, the Chabad umbrella organization that dominates Jewish outreach in the FSU, provides much of the funding for the community’s religious and educational aspects, including a reading library.

For a community so unused to Orthodoxy and with few children who are Jewish according to halacha, the relationship can be trying.

Lotman, whose father was the community’s first religious director, insisted that the community in no way objects to Chabad’s brand of Orthodox Judaism, but she also indicated that she’d gladly welcome the help of additional partners.

Given the logistical difficulties inherent in working in the region and Russia’s lack of well-funded alternatives to the FJC, such aid seems unlikely in the near future.

Their isolation afforded them some sense of autonomy, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that Kamchatka Jews were free of the Soviet Union’s systemic anti-Semitism.

Lotman’s father worked for decades at a state-owned communications company but never rose higher than deputy chief. Now, though, her brother is director of the same company, an irony from which she draws great pride.

Indeed, most of the Jews wandering in and out of the Tsafon offices are faring well in their careers. The nine people of working age at the community center’s seder included a world-class seismologist, a doctor, a lawyer, an opera singer and a teacher.

As a small community struggling to define itself, even successful Jews of dubious distinction are lauded. JTA was told repeatedly that one reason for the lack of anti-Semitic activity was due to a mysterious Jewish patron in the local mafia whom the people had elevated almost to the status of folk hero.

The ! communit y’s uncharacteristically strong tie to local non-Jews is another measure of its idiosyncratic status compared to other small outposts of Russian Jewry. Tsafon’s choir twice has won a regional contest for its performance of Jewish songs, and every year the indigenous Koryak people present the community with a gift on Rosh Hashanah.

Still, Kamchatka is not without its share of anti-Semitism. Economic difficulties following the fall of the USSR have led to high unemployment and a decline in the types of services that are essential to a region so far from the country’s administrative center.

On a visit in March, Chabad representatives were accosted by a drunken youth in one of the region’s many natural hot springs. The incident ended before becoming violent, but it deeply unsettled the Chabad pair.

Lotman, however, doesn’t believe that such incidents should distort the larger picture of what the community enjoys in Kamchatka.

“We very often think of what we do not have,” she said. “But very seldom do we think of what we do have.”

NEXT STORY