JCCs central to Jewish life in former Soviet Union


MOSCOW, Jan. 2 (JTA) – In the United States, Jewish community centers are known mostly for their pools and nursery schools.

In the former Soviet Union, however, JCCs are seen as an essential tool for rebuilding Jewish life.

The centers, the majority of which are funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, house Jewish activities including religious services, Hillel student clubs, Sunday schools, welfare centers and Hebrew classes.

“If the Joint suddenly pulled out, we wouldn’t die, but the greater part of local Jewish life would come to a standstill,” says Yevgeny Vakulenko, a Jewish community leader in Penza, a city southeast of Moscow that is home to 3,000 Jews.

In addition to the JDC, Chabad-Lubavitch is the other major player in JCCs in the former Soviet Union, sponsoring 70 community centers.

The JDC donated $15,000 to Jewish community projects in the city last year, Vakulenko said, and also funded the restoration of the city’s synagogue building, which now serves as the local JCC.

The situation in Penza is typical of the Russian cities where the JDC operates.

The Jewish community center is controlled by a council of local Jewish activists and funded by the JDC, which houses and supports all Jewish activities in the city.

The more than 100 community centers supported by the JDC serve some 150,000 Jews across the former Soviet Union, according to Sarah Bogen, head of the JCC-development department of the JDC’s Jerusalem office.

The work of the JDC points to the ongoing need for international Jewish groups in the region.

During the waning days of the Soviet Union, local bodies hoped to revitalize a Jewish community forced underground by Communist oppression.

Despite the efforts of Jewish organizations to create a self-supporting community system, it soon became evident that external help was needed.

“There are Jewish businessmen in town. But they don’t want to identify themselves with the Jewish community. The only real help is coming from the Joint,” says Maya Kazakevitch, a Jewish activist from Bobruisk, Belarus.

The JDC’s most recent programs represent at least the fourth shift in organization policy toward the region in the past 80 years.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the JDC spent millions of dollars organizing Jewish agricultural communities. But by 1938, at the height of Stalinism, the organization left the Soviet Union.

Some 50 years later, the JDC returned with a series of charity projects that grew into a system helping hundreds of thousands of elderly Jews.

As the Soviet system collapsed, the JDC changed again.

When Ralph Goldman, now JDC’s honorary vice president, first came to Russia as a JDC official in 1988, he wanted to reach the Jewish community in this country “through music and through books.”

He founded a synagogue choir, sponsored concerts of cantor music and started sending hundreds of Jewish literature collections to Russia. However, he quickly realized that each community needed a center to crystallize its efforts, he says.

Goldman insists that the philosophy of JDC is always “only to support local initiatives and grass-roots efforts,” but Russian Jewish activists say that many local communities have been created only because of the JDC’s efforts.

Chabad, the other major sponsor of JCCs, has a different philosophy: The Chabad model, according to Berel Lazar, the group’s chief rabbi in Russia, is to place the synagogue at the center of community life.

Other groups that operate community centers are the Russian Jewish Congress – an umbrella group supported by local businessmen – and the more Zionist-minded Jewish Agency for Israel and Israeli cultural centers, which often take the place of JCCs in more isolated cities.

These groups often criticize the JDC, which walks a tightrope by trying to support all Jewish efforts.

Last year, for example, Reform leaders reprimanded the JDC for its “excessive” help to Chabad in Ukraine, at the expense of the Reform movement.

The head of the JDC’s Moscow office, Joel Golovensky – who was stung by the attack after trying to avoid “Jewish politics” – dismisses the accusations, saying the “JDC is helping not the movements, but the projects.”

Golovensky also stresses that the JDC’s goal is “to enter, do what we can and to pull out.”

Given the extent of community-building work still needed in the former Soviet Union, however, it appears that his office is going to stay in Moscow for years to come.

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