MOSCOW, July 18 (JTA) Since the fall of communism here in 1991, a difficult question has lingered: Is there a future for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union?
Judging from the renaissance of Jewish education here, some people answer this question with a definitive yes.
“The future of the community hangs on what is happening in the Jewish schools and higher education institutions and they are thriving. I see here creativity and dynamism,” says Jerry Hochbaum, executive vice president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. “Here in Russia, the schools are building the society.”
Hochbaum, whose group has invested heavily in Jewish life here, spoke to JTA at a meeting of the group’s Executive Committee in Moscow earlier this month.
While some might disagree arguing that the roughly 1.5 to 2 million Jews remaining in the former Soviet Union would be better off living in Israel or elsewhere Hochbaum’s group gathered ample evidence to support his claim as they met with the region’s Jewish leaders, scholars and teachers.
Foundation leaders watched a graduation ceremony for students receiving degrees in Jewish studies from Project Judaica, a joint venture of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Moscow-based Russian State University for the Humanities.
The scene, which marked the 10th anniversary and fourth graduating class of Project Judaica showed the existence of a thriving Jewish academic institution, one that would have been impossible only a few years ago. The project is partially funded by the Memorial Foundation.
When David Fishman came to Moscow in August 1991 to negotiate the plan for Project Judaica, it was the time of the coup against then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Representatives of the Russian State University for the Humanities were concerned they might soon be arrested.
“Nobody could have imagined those days that we would have a developed Jewish university institution here,” said Fishman, the project’s founder.
Since the founding of Project Judaica the dean of Moscow’s university-level Jewish institutions nearly 50 students have graduated from the program, including many non-Jews.
Ironically, many of them now live in the United States, including at least half of the project’s first graduating class, says Lev Krichevsky, a member of that class who now lives in Philadelphia.
Many of the graduates outside the former Soviet Union still maintain ties to Jewish life in their homeland. Krichevsky, who previously served as JTA Moscow’s correspondent, still travels back and forth for the Anti- Defamation League’s Moscow office.
Project Judaica has provided a “great service” by training a “whole generation of people who have received Jewish knowledge,” he says.
Hana Shchepetova, a Project Judaica graduate who just received a Memorial Foundation grant to pursue rabbincal studies at JTS, hopes eventually to return to Russia to teach Jewish studies and help build the Conservative movement in Moscow.
In addition to Project Judaica, several universities now offer university-level Jewish studies programs.
The annual Russian university students’ conference in Judaic studies, sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, recently took place here.
“When you see 150 papers presented and the estimated number of presentations for the next year is 300, it makes you optimistic,” says Mikhail Krutikov, a Russian-born professor of Yiddish at Oxford University.
(JTA Staff Writer Peter Ephross contributed to this report.)