75 years on, Jews in Russia’s Jewish autonomous district hold on

The main theater in Birobidzhan displays a banner celebrating 75 years of the Jewish Autonomous Region. (Grant Slater)

The main theater in Birobidzhan displays a banner celebrating 75 years of the Jewish Autonomous Region. (Grant Slater)

Dov Kofman helps carry in his Beit Tshoova community's new Torah, a gift from the Jewish community of Japan, in 2003. (Daniel Turk)

Dov Kofman helps carry in his Beit Tshoova community’s new Torah, a gift from the Jewish community of Japan, in 2003. (Daniel Turk)

Tefillin and kipot are stored in cubbies in the main hall of the Birobidzhan synagogue. (Grant Slater)

Tefillin and kipot are stored in cubbies in the main hall of the Birobidzhan synagogue. (Grant Slater)

Khava Yavitz, 77, reads from a copy of the collected works of Shalom Aleichem in Birobidzhan's Jewish community center. (Grant Slater)

Khava Yavitz, 77, reads from a copy of the collected works of Shalom Aleichem in Birobidzhan’s Jewish community center. (Grant Slater)

A railway worker conducts repairs to the Birobidzhan railway station. The sign behind him is in both Russian and Yiddish. (Grant Slater)

A railway worker conducts repairs to the Birobidzhan railway station. The sign behind him is in both Russian and Yiddish. (Grant Slater)

BIROBIDZHAN, Russia (JTA) — The diminutive leader of the handful of Orthodox Jews in this nominally Jewish district of Russia, 90-year-old Dov Kofman, e-mailed his friend and benefactor in Tokyo to say he could go on no longer.

Kofman was planning to return to Israel and would pass on to his protege, Alexander Kleinerman, control of the Torah scroll that the Jewish community in Japan had provided, as well as the keys to the paint-slathered lean-to where his congregation worships.

"I am confident that the community Beit Tshoova will live,”  Kofman wrote in his e-mail last week.

Beit Tshoova’s shul is situated on the outskirts of Birobidzhan, the capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region and a relic of a misguided Soviet plan to resettle Jews in the far east of Russia, near the Chinese border, in the 1930s.

Kofman’s departure says something about the enigmatic nature of this Jewish capital on this, its 75th anniversary. The town of 80,000 is developing quickly by Russian standards, and there is a newer synagogue and Jewish community center off the main square.

But at times there is a sense that the veneer of Judaism in Birobidzhan is no thicker than the fresh coat of paint applied citywide for the anniversary festivities. Political expediency and regional independence seem more likely motives for an emphasis on Jewish culture and government placards printed in Yiddish than the region’s dwindling Jewish population, which now stands at about 5 percent.

The town receives a cultural budget from the government in Moscow each year to sustain Jewish activities like an International Jewish Cultural Festival the week before the anniversary. In mid-September, the Jewish educational organization Limmud held a conference here.

Nearly 4,000 miles from Moscow, the Jewish Autonomous Region is unique among the patchwork of entities that makes up the Russian Federation. All other autonomous regions were declared independent republics with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Chlenov, the secretary general of the Eurasian Jewish Congress, said that Birobidzhan and its environs are not strong enough to be a republic. Fearful of stepping on Israel’s toes with the creation of another Jewish state, Chlenov called the region’s status "a delicate matter."

"It was not easy to start and it will be more difficult to eliminate," Chlenov said as his car sped past the remnants of collective farms where Yiddish-speaking settlers attempted to tame the mosquito-plagued swamps 75 years before.

A wave of Jewish immigrants traveled the thousands of miles from European Russia or further in the mid-1930s to settle here. But many left the district after the verdant promises of Soviet propaganda yielded to the reality of harsh winters and swampy terrain. Still others left when a more hospitable Jewish homeland came into existence: Israel.

Today, however, the region is on the cusp of an economic boom. By 2014 or before, a rail bridge across the Amur River will carry granular iron and other metals from Russia into China, with its booming economy. The bridge is the first border crossing constructed together by the Russian and Chinese governments, and only the third bridge to be built across the border.

It’s not clear, however, whether this will bolster the region’s Jewish spirit.

Though Birobidzhan always resembled other Soviet towns of similar size, its Jewish character made it unique. Yiddish is an official language here. Statues of Jewish violinists and accordion players dot the city. A golden menorah presides over the fountain in front of the train station, and Tevya from "Fiddler on the Roof" is frozen in bronze on his nearby haywagon — a Jewish Disneyland.

"All this is beautiful, but people have started to live worse," said Igor Magadenko, a retired lawyer, who relaxed recently with visiting friends from Israel on a new riverwalk built for the 75th anniversary. "There are no jobs, and the wolves in the government are hunting the profits from the new bridge."

Marina Gitikh lives in a ramshackle two-room house where the first Jewish collective farm here was founded in the late 1920s. Unemployed, she lives with her elderly mother and a son from her second marriage.

"We won’t go to the city for the anniversary," she said as she poured beer from a five-liter bottle into a teacup. "Why should we celebrate with those people when there aren’t better houses or jobs for us? There’s no work anywhere."

Rabbi Mordechai Sheiner, a Chabad emissary who arrived in Birobidzhan in 2002, just before the new synagogue was completed six years ago, said that the community is going through hard times. Chabad suffered a funding crisis last year when its main donor lost a significant portion of his wealth.

Roman Leder, the head of the community that runs the new synagogue and community center, said Chabad’s funding to the city was cut in half.

The biggest benefactor of the Jewish community there, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, warned of impending cuts but they never came. The nine community groups supported by the center continued unscathed, he said.

The city of Birobidzhan provides free heating to the two buildings despite laws prohibiting it, Leder said.

Daniel Turk, the president of the Jewish Community of Japan, said his group provided a Torah to the elderly Orthodox Jews in Birobidzhan out of a sense of charity and, in part, to provide the community with a source of religious support other than Chabad.

Despite the obvious challenges, the Jews of Birobidzhan have kept Judaism alive in this remote corner of the earth.

Three decades ago, when this was still part of the Soviet Union, Chlenov recalls being approached by a waiter who appeared to be Jewish. Quietly, he invited Chlenov to Shabbat prayers.

"We have no shul," the waiter said, "but we have a minyan."

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