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Soviets Promise Cultural Center and to Allow Hebrew Teaching

November 7, 1988
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A promise to legalize the teaching of Hebrew in the Soviet Union and the establishment of a Jewish cultural center in Moscow appear to be the prime fruits of talks held last week in Moscow between Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Jewish leaders.

Participants in the extraordinary two-hour discussion, which reportedly covered all substantive issues of concern to Soviet Jewry, included Edgar Bronfman and Israel Singer, president and secretary-general respectively of the World Jewish Congress; Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency Executive; and Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.

Elan Steinberg, WJCongress executive director, described the talks as taking place “in an atmosphere of warmth and openness.” He said the discussion covered “general international relations, the Mideast and the Soviet Jewry question in all its aspects.”

“By their actions, they are indicating that they are eager to get the question of Jewish rights and emigration off the bargaining table. And it’s actions, rather than simply words, that count,” said Steinberg.

A participant to the talks who asked not to be named said the discussion included a “lengthy review of emigration statistics and procedures. We were advised that the recent favorable trend in terms of numbers would continue.”

The Jewish delegation also raised the issue of government anti-Semitism.


Of central importance to the talks was the establishment of a Jewish cultural center, which is expected to open in February. Agreement for the center was inked Oct. 21 in Moscow between Isi Leibler, head of the Australian Jewish community and vice president of the WJCongress, and Mikhail Gluz, director of the small, official Moscow Jewish Musical Theater.

The center is expected to feature a Jewish library, including books in Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish and English. The Jewish delegation brought to Moscow the largest shipment ever of books on Jewish subjects in those languages.

The center will be named the Solomon Mikhoels Cultural Center, after the famed Russian Yiddish actor who was murdered by Stalin in 1949. Mikhoel’s relatives, who live in Israel, will be invited to the February opening of the center.

The center is expected to be directed by refuseniks, Hebrew teachers and Jewish activists, including Yuli Kosharovsky, Mikhail Chlenov and Velvel Chernin.

Kosharovsky, one of the most critical voices among Soviet Jews, hailed the center as “the most important breakthrough on Jewish culture in the Soviet Union over the last half century and an important demonstration that perestroika (restructuring) can work even for the Jews.”

The delegation was given assurances that the de facto legalization of the private teaching of Hebrew had taken place, and that the law prohibiting that activity would be deleted from the revised Soviet penal code, possibly by spring.

In addition, the contract for the cultural center provides in its second phase for a facility for the teaching of Hebrew and Yiddish.

In New York, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry issued a statement Friday saying it could not “accept the WJC/Soviet Ministry of Culture agreement at face value.”

Shoshana Cardin, the conference’s new chairwoman, said, “We will not accept token gestures; we urge a fully functioning Jewish resource center, in which Soviet Jews will be informed about their history, tradition and modern homeland in Israel.”

The normally hard-line Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, however, said last week it welcomed the establishment of the cultural center.

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