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Activists Mix Joy with Caution at Moscow Jewish Center Opening

February 14, 1989
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The Jewish Cultural Center that opened Sunday night in Moscow, though certainly welcome, has not garnered rave reviews among Soviet Jews or their supporters in the West.

But those who want something Jewish–of substance–in the Soviet Union, are quick to acknowledge this center as a first step.

“At the moment, it’s all they’ve got,” said Glenn Richter, national coordinator of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.

But Richter and others pointed out one ominous note, that the much-reviled Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public has not been disbanded, despite promises that it was.

This fact tempered the optimism over the center and of the recent articles in the Soviet press supporting Jewish life and aspirations.

Last week, the Soviet Communist Party weekly, Arguments and Facts, published a long article by the co-chairman of the Anti-Zionist Committee, Gen, David Dragunsky, attacking the cultural center.

In Chicago, Marilyn Tallman, co-chairman of Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry, said Jewish culture in the Soviet Union “is Jewish culture as interpreted by the Soviet government, not freely and independently by Jews.”

Neither Richter nor Tallman believes that the cultural center yet represents that independent Jewish culture.

But hoping that it one day will, leaders of Soviet Jewry groups in the United States flocked to the opening, to rub shoulders with foreign ambassadors and refuseniks.

Yuli Edelshtein became the first former prisoner of Zion to return to the Soviet Union, returning from his home in Israel to participate in the history-making event.


Edelshtein, who emigrated 19 months ago, said before his flight from Ben-Gurion Airport, “I think I can perform a mitzvah by returning to Moscow. I hope to develop connections with the emerging Jewish cultural groups there and, as a Jewish educator, to contribute to what is taught at the cultural center.”

Edelshtein was granted a visa to return to the Soviet Union through the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, Australia, with the assistance of Isi Leibler, who arranged Soviet visas for the entire Israeli contingent.

Leibler, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, is the main person responsible for the Solomon Mikhoels Jewish Cultural Center.

Both Micah Naftalin, the executive director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, and the group’s president, Pamela Cohen, were there, as were Shoshana Cardin, chairwoman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, and Myrna Shinbaum, the National Conference’s outgoing director.

Shinbaum, in a telephone conversation from Vienna, characterized Sunday night’s event as a mixture of joy and caution.

“All the Western speakers, while applauding the opening of the Jewish cultural center, expressed caution that there not be too much euphoria, and that we see the actual operation of this cultural center open to all Soviet Jews,” Shinbaum said.

Shinbaum described a tumultuous scene at Taganskaya Square, in which hundreds of people packed the inadequate theater that was most recently the Moscow Jewish Musical Theater and which accommodates only 300.

Outside, teeming crowds gathered to witness history, dancing horas and singing in Hebrew.

The five-hour program, which began at 5 p.m. with the affixing of a mezuzah by Leibler, was heralded by a group recitation of the “Shehecheyanu” — thanking God “for giving us life, and sustaining us and bringing us to this day.”

The ceremonies took place in four languages: Russian, English, Hebrew and Yiddish.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, who dedicated the center, admitted that 25 years ago, when he described Soviet Jews as “The Jews of Silence,” he did not believe they would become a major Jewish presence.

“I did not have enough faith in you,” he told the crowd. He called on the Soviets to establish relations with Israel and reveal the facts about Raoul Wallenberg, who the Russians say died of heart failure at the age of 35 in a prison.

There were speeches by Roman Spektor and Mikhail Chlenov of the Jewish Cultural Association, as well as Leibler and WJC President Edgar Bronfman, who met Monday with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to discuss U.S.-Soviet relations and the Middle East.

A brochure, printed in Russian, English and Hebrew, contained the speakers’ messages and included one from Yuli Kosharovsky, the longest-waiting refusenik until he received permission in December.

Kosharovsky, present at the ceremony, expects to leave for Israel March 1. He expressed hope “that others will not have to wait the 17 years” and “not have to go through” what he did.

Refuseniks told Cardin they were concerned “that attention not be diverted from their situation.” Cardin assured them that “the issue of emigration would remain a priority.”

Upstairs at the center, refuseniks and Jews who have not applied to leave milled through two exhibits. One was the “Courage to Remember” a Holocaust exhibit from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The other display was photographs of Soviet Jews by Yuri Lev, husband of Olga Goldfarb and son-in-law of former refusenik Prof. David Gold-farb, who returned to visit Russia in October 1987.

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