Behind the Headlines: Jews Staying Behind in Former USSR Want Help in Rebuilding Jewish Life
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Behind the Headlines: Jews Staying Behind in Former USSR Want Help in Rebuilding Jewish Life

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American Jewry has been generous in assisting the emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, but it should do more to support those who wish to stay, Jewish activists there believe.

“The 10 percent who make aliyah get half a billion dollars, while the 90 percent who don’t get nothing,” Michael Chlenov complained in a recent interview.

Chlenov is co-president, with Yosef Zisels, of the Vaad, the Confederation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of the former Soviet Union.

While thousands of Jews are streaming out of the newly independent republics each month, tens of thousands have postponed their departures and many others have no plans to leave.

Those who have decided to stay are apparently convinced that the threat of anti-Semitism is either not imminent or manageable. One member of the Vaad recently compared that threat to the intifada in Israel.

“It’s like an allergy you can live with for a long, long time,” Evgeny Satanovsky said in a separate interview.

In fact, the problem of anti-Semitism is only in third place on the Vaad’s list of priorities.

Like Chlenov, Satanovsky feels that aliyah is not the only alternative for Jews in the Soviet successor states. Both believe it is possible to resuscitate Jewish life after 70 years of Communist suppression.

While many American Jewish organizations have set up operations in the former Soviet republics to promote Jewish culture, activists like Chlenov and Satanovsky feel American Jews should support existing indigenous groups.


Satanovsky, a longtime Jewish cultural activist and a successful Moscow businessman, wears several organizational hats.

Among them, he directs the Ariel Jewish Information Center. Founded as a samizdat, or underground, publishing house, Ariel last year printed 200,000 copies of 10 different titles on such subjects as Jewish ethnology, history, cooking and folk tales. It is a money-losing venture, Satanovsky said.

“If you bring to the Soviet Union now science fiction, there is a profit. You bring Jewish stories– all right,” he said with a shrug.

The finely printed folk tales are jarring to an American eye, featuring illustrations of hook-nosed, bearded Jews that echo of anti-Semitism.

But Satanovsky cautioned that imported Jewish material, written in the West and translated into Russian, is similarly inappropriate in the East.

The Jews of the former Soviet Union, he said, “are really Jews of one country, and very seriously changed from the Jews of other countries in their mentalities and their life situations.”

Just how many Jews of the former Soviet Union are taking part in the now above-ground Jewish culture is uncertain–as is, for that matter, the number of Jews there altogether.

Even after 700,000 Jews have left the country, most in the past four years, population estimates continue to rise. Jews are coming out of the woodwork, say leaders of the Vaad.

“According to the Jewish Agency, 200 percent of the Jews in Baku have applied to leave. That means the official number of Jews is not correct,” said Chlenov, an ethnographer.

He estimates the number of Jews involved in Jewish life is in the hundreds of thousands.

“The democratic movements that are taking place now are bringing to active Jewish life more and more participants,” he said.


Satanovsky explained that with the demise of central government, services such as education and security are being taken over by communities.

“You must be a member of a community for a normal life, for the life of your children,” he said. “You must have help from somebody for your life. For Jews, this makes them build communities.”

Chlenov said about 80 percent of Jewish organizations in the states of the former Soviet Union are under the Vaad’s umbrella. The exceptions are the Union of Synagogues and extremist groups such as the Communist Party-sponsored all Union Organization of Jewish Soviet Culture, on one end of the spectrum, and the pro-aliyah Irgun Zioni, on the other.

The Chabad movement of Lubavitcher Hasidim, which maintained an underground network during the decades of Soviet oppression and has since stepped up its activities, takes a mixed view toward the Vaad: Some Lubavitch groups and rabbis affiliate, while others do not. One Lubavitch rabbi sits on the Vaad’s internal court.

The biggest controversy over Vaad membership comes from the non-Russian republics, where there is fear that affiliation with an organization whose reach corresponds to that of the hated Soviet empire will offend local sensitivities.

One response has been the formation of Jewish communal structures on the republic level in the Ukraine and the Baltic states. This intermediate layer, Chlenov hopes, will insulate the Vaad from nationalist criticism.

There has been concern that nationalist sentiment will strengthen as food shortages worsen, and that the resulting demonstrations will turn ugly, with anti-Jewish overtones.


But Chlenov said he was not worried about this. “The whole of last year we also had shortages, and I wouldn’t say anti-Semitism has grown immensely over the past year,” he said.

More worrisome for him are right-wing political forces, but he sees the main danger as “simply a blind uprising of the mob.” And even that, he said, is “a possibility, not a probability.”

He also dismisses, at least for now, the danger of a radical Islamic takeover in the Central Asian republics.

“The governments, at least on the level of formal declarations, have been quite friendly to Jews,” he said, “though we’ve been told in Uzbekistan that our relations are so good because we’re leaving.”

So far, Azerbaijan, which has joined the worldwide Islamic Conference, has not yet changed its attitude toward the Jewish community and Israel. “But we can expect it,” said Chlenov.

Zisels said that in his native Ukraine, both the government and the democratic opposition have good relations with the Jewish community.

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