Ten Years After the Wall: Moscow’s Chief Rabbi Forges a Future for Jews Who Stayed After Soviet Fall
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Ten Years After the Wall: Moscow’s Chief Rabbi Forges a Future for Jews Who Stayed After Soviet Fall

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When Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt first arrived in Moscow 10 years ago, the city nearly scared him away.

“It was like traveling 50 years back in a time machine,” the chief rabbi of Moscow says, recalling his first impressions of the city to which he had come to teach Judaism in a recently established yeshiva.

“The streets, the cars, the way people looked — everything was not just another country, it was like another century.”

When Goldschmidt arrived, the Soviet Union still existed. The Jews were a beleaguered population — Jewish life was confined to few synagogues, and the shadow of the all-powerful KGB was still hanging over the Jewish community – – whose only hope seemed to lay in emigration.

The policy of glasnost, or openness, instituted by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev offered some hope, yet few believed the policy would last — or lead to political or societal overhauls.

Goldschmidt admits that before he moved to Moscow he never thought of becoming a Russian rabbi.

Indeed, why would he?

The Zurich-born son of an Orthodox Jewish family, he has no Russian heritage. His family fled to Switzerland from Germany and Hungary during the Holocaust – – the chief rabbi of Denmark was one of his great-grandfathers.

What made him trade a pulpit in Israel for a position in Russia was his desire to avoid the more-well-trod rabbinical paths.

“I was always looking for a place where there is nothing — to try to create something,” says Goldschmidt, 36, sitting in his cozy office with floor-to- ceiling bookshelves inside Moscow’s Choral Synagogue.

“To be a rabbi here, you have to start from zero” and be willing “to work with people who completely were not in touch with the Jewish world.”

When he was offered a job as an adviser on Jewish law to Russian Chief Rabbi Adolph Shayevich soon after he arrived in 1989 to teach at the yeshiva, Goldschmidt could never have envisaged the whirlwind of change that the next decade would bring both to himself and his new community.

At 25, Goldschmidt was probably the youngest member of the congregation that he also took over soon after he arrived.

“In those days, the synagogue was like an old-age home,” Goldschmidt recalls.

The congregants were mostly elderly pensioners who did not have to risk their jobs or benefits by going to synagogue.

“On my very first visit to the synagogue, an old man came up to me and said in Yiddish, pointing at another pensioner, `Don’t talk to him, he is a KGB collaborator.’ Minutes later, that second man approached me and repeated the same thing, referring to the first old man.”

When the Iron Curtain fell in late 1989, and Jews began to pour out of the country to Israel, Goldschmidt’s career took on a new twist as he now had to authenticate many of the would-be emigrants’ Jewishness.

As the head of the Beit Din, or rabbinical court, he dealt with cases coming from across the Soviet Union.

The task was especially challenging given the fact that many families were coming out of the Jewish closet after 50 or 60 years, Goldschmidt says.

“It was an exodus of biblical proportions,” Goldschmidt says of a mass wave of aliyah in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “No one was doing any long-term planning; we just tried to help people with their immediate needs. I felt like I was a rabbi for a DP camp.”

Yet Jewish leaders had to think about the future — if only as it pertained to their own children.

Goldschmidt helped to start the first Jewish kindergarten in Moscow in 1989, where his older son was in its first class.

“It was mostly for our children and the children of the refuseniks, who in fact were half out the door,” he says.

But soon after the collapse of communism in 1991, it became clear that not every Jew was going to leave right away, and Goldschmidt increased his involvement in Jewish school projects.

His wife, Dara, an American who is a graduate of Yeshiva University, began helping Goldschmidt and is now the principal of a Jewish day school in the Russian capital.

The home life of the Goldschmidts, the first rabbinical family from abroad to make Russia their new home, was filled with different challenges. For several years, kosher food was impossible to get at local stores, and the family had to bring in the majority of their rations from abroad.

Goldschmidt, the father of six, says that his family had to abandon their notions of healthy eating.

“In the morning, we usually had kasha or roasted potatoes. It was a totally different diet, and it took some time till we got used to it.”

Today, Goldschmidt runs an active kashrut program, negotiates with food factories, issues lists of kosher food available from Russian stores and oversees some kosher catering businesses in Moscow.

The family also had to learn Russian. Today he speaks only Russian to his congregants, and his children converse mostly in Russian with each other.

During the past decade, Jewish life in the former Soviet Union had to rely on funds from abroad. As a result of inflation and price increases, Jewish leaders realized that foreign donors could not keep up with the growing needs of a community undergoing a rapid revival.

In 1995, Goldschmidt, along with other Jewish leaders, started to plan a local organization of Jewish businesspeople to fund some of the community’s activities.

“Most people were afraid of touching on Jewish topics, so they wouldn’t even agree to see us and talk,” he recalls.

People close to the Russian Jewish Congress credit Goldschmidt with persuading Vladimir Goussinsky, a prominent banker-turned-media-magnate, into giving his name and financial support to a new Jewish group.

The creation of the RJC, the first domestic Russian Jewish charity in 70 years, helped the community to become at least partially self-sufficient. But Goldschmidt believes that a more significant outcome is a steady growth in self-esteem among Jews who were impressed that some prominent figures in Russian society were both admitting their Jewish roots and were proud to affiliate themselves with the community.

“More people on different levels now want to be part of Jewish life,” Goldschmidt says. “This is our main objective: to propagate Jewish pride and Jewish responsibility.”

In a recent conversation, Goussinsky admitted that he understands little about Jewish politics and attends Jewish events abroad that “Pinchas tells me to go to.”

Goldschmidt says that although the future generally looks better now for the Jewish community than at any time during the past decade, Russian Jews face many unique challenges.

“Here you can’t recreate an exact replica of the communities like Los Angeles, London or Zurich. You have to take specifics into account and accept Russia the way it is.”

Russian-born Jews who have worked with Goldschmidt during this decade say he has as good an understanding of Russia as any of them.

“He understands Russia as if he was born here,” says Shayevich, Russia’s chief rabbi.

Not all Russians share Shayevich’s warm feelings toward Goldschmidt. With his Orthodox black hat and beard, Goldschmidt stands out on Moscow’s streets. He says that since the rise of anti-Semitism that followed Russia’s economic collapse last August, he has experienced more verbal abuse on the streets, especially when he walks to synagogue on Shabbat.

But few believed in a long-term future for Jews in Russia 10 years ago. Now, despite the past year’s troubles, it remains an open question.

In 40 to 50 years, Goldschmidt says, Jews from the countryside will have moved to communities in Russia’s larger cities — a process that has already begun.

Goldschmidt is contributing more than his share to this future.

This year, he summed up his vast experience in Jewish law in a volume of rabbinical responsa — the first book of this genre published in Russia since the 1930s. The volume is intended to be used in congregations around the world that have Russian-born members.

And despite anti-Semitism, he says he has no plans to leave Russia — and strikes an optimistic note when discussing the present and future of Russian Jewry.

“It is becoming more and more a normal community like any other Jewish community in the West,” he says.

“If Russia is going to evolve in a positive way, so will the Jewish community.”

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