President Bush closed his eyes, listening intently as Rabbi Itzhak Kogan recited the ancient priestly blessing.
Then Bush shook Kogan’s hand and said, “God bless you.”
The symbolism was heavy at Sunday’s event at St. Petersburg’s Choral Synagogue, a place once monitored closely by the KGB.
Not only was it believed to be the first time a U.S. president visited a Russian synagogue, but Bush even traded blessings with a former refusenik and Lubavitch activist who was allowed to emigrate to Israel, in part because of U.S. pressure.
Rabbi Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, called this visit “the closing of a circle.”
“The present freedom of the Russian Jews is due to the efforts of U.S.
Jewry and the United States as a whole,” Lazar told JTA. “Moreover, acting on behalf of the Jews, America helped the Russians to understand that it’s possible to change Russia and make it a free country.”
For the past several decades, the situation of Jews in Russia has been something of a litmus test for Russian- American relations.
In 1974, the United States passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked U.S.-Soviet trade relations to the loosening of restrictions on Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.
As a result, during the last decade or so of the Cold War, Russian Jews became an ethnicity friendly to the United States in a country that was an American enemy.
U.S. officials used to stress their support for Soviet Jewry by inviting hundreds of underground Jewish activists to a Passover seder at Spasso House, the Moscow residence of the American ambassador to the Soviet Union.
It was considered a must for visiting U.S. officials and legislators to meet with Jewish underground activists, provoking the wrath of the KGB.
Some of the activists paid for such meetings with years in prison or exile.
For many others, however, contacts with high-ranking U.S. officials meant protection — and sometimes an emigration visa.
In fact, ordinary Soviet Jews often felt like they were under America’s protective wing. Some of this ethnic perspective still lingers.
A Public Opinion Foundation survey from last week found that nearly 58 percent of Russians view the United States as an unfriendly nation, while
25 percent regard it as a friend.
The numbers weren’t broken down according to ethnicity, but it’s clear to observers that Russian Jews are still overwhelmingly pro-American.
It therefore was expected that Bush would do something to demonstrate this “special relationship” with the Russian Jewish community.
The question was how — and the way it was done on Sunday spoke volumes about the maturation of the Russian Jewish community.
Lazar suggested that Bush visit the St. Petersburg synagogue. The offer was accepted — on condition that all factions of the Russian Jewish community be represented.
“Even if the event had only a symbolic significance, it’s very good to the Jewish community as a whole” to see support from the American administration, Rabbi Grigory Kotlyar, a leader of Reform Jews in Russia, told JTA.
During their talks with Bush, Russian Jewish leaders discussed the issue of anti-Semitism in Russia, as well as the situation in the Middle East.
“It is very good that the meeting took place and that the Jewish representation was pluralistic,” Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the umbrella Russian Jewish Congress, told JTA.
Satanovsky also stressed that the president demonstrated a sincere personal interest not only in the well-being of the Russian Jewish community and in Russian democracy, but in pushing for democratization in the Middle East.
That Bush could meet with Russian Jewish representatives of all stripes in the synagogue — and with human rights leaders, including Jewish leaders, earlier at Spasso House — is a good sign, agreed Mark Levin, the executive director of the NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.
“It demonstrates the maturation of the community, that roots are taking hold,” Levin said from Washington.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.