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Across the Former Soviet Union in Russian Land of Composer and Guns, Jews Thrive but Need Some More

December 9, 2002
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To find the Jewish community center in this eastern Russian city is a challenge — even if you have the address.

The reason: The center is located inside a cramped and busy shopping mall, past the kiosks selling consumer goods.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When a local businessman bought a Soviet-era hotel a few years ago, the plan was to turn it into prime office space. The building stands on one of the town’s central squares, across from the main Russian Orthodox cathedral.

The Jewish community jumped at the opportunity.

“We were the first tenants here,” says Mark Goldin, the Jewish community leader.

But turning the building into a shopping center turned out to be more profitable, and now the Jewish community’s sign in Hebrew, Russian and English hangs next to a stall where women’s fur hats are hawked.

The Jewish center that services the region’s estimated 1,000 Jews is home to many of the same Jewish communal activities that can be found these days throughout the Soviet Union.

In addition to community offices, the four rooms — all in less than 500 square feet — house the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-funded Hesed welfare organization, the local religious congregation, Hillel, a library, a computer class, a Jewish Agency for Israel office, and others.

The small Jewish center doesn’t seem to bother the mall’s employees or shoppers, though security guards at the mall’s entrance didn’t look overly happy when letting Jewish visitors into the empty building on a Friday night after the mall was closed.

Izhevsk, a city of 650,000 people, is the capital of Udmurtia, an autonomous Russian republic about the size of the state of Vermont. The indigenous population is now a minority, and most of the republic’s 1.6 million residents speak Russian.

For many Russians the names of two famous men come to mind when Izhevsk or Udmurtia are mentioned.

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, one of Russia’s greatest composers, was born and raised in Votkins, a town 40 miles north of Izhevsk.

Udmurtia’s most famous living citizen is Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of the world’s most popular automatic rifles. Kalashnikov, 80, still lives in Izhevsk, whose economy is largely based on an armaments industry that was able to withstand a decade of dramatic economic changes in Russia.

Izhevsk was built around its ironworks, which dates back to the 18th century. But it was not until the 1920s that the large industrial settlement, located 700 miles east of Moscow, became a city.

Almost everything the city is known for today — from Kalashnikov rifles to motorcycles and cars — is manufactured at Izhmash, the city’s major employer.

Archival records show that the first Jews settled in Izhevsk in the early 20th century. The number of Jews grew during World War II due to the influx of evacuees and refugees from other parts of the USSR.

In Soviet times, many Jews worked as engineers and managers at the Izhmash plant.

“These people’s children and grandchildren make up the Jewish community,”

Goldin, the community leader.

Boris Fisher, like his father before him, is a member of the Communist Party and an engineer whose professional life was connected with the Kalashnikov rifle.

He says that for most of his life, he had neither Jewish knowledge nor a desire to explore his Judaism. But after the fall of communism, Fisher’s friend Goldin asked him to lead the congregation — and Fisher agreed.

Today the congregation called Aliyah holds weekly services in a room that on different days is used by other Jewish interest groups.

With the nearest rabbi hundreds of miles away, the congregation and its leader have mostly relied on themselves in rebuilding Jewish religious life in the city.

“We started with collective readings of weekly Torah portions. After two years, I realized” that we needed to run it more like a regular service, Fisher, 64, says.

On a recent Saturday morning, a dozen men and women, most in their 60s and 70s, gathered for prayer in their improvised synagogue.

Facing Jerusalem — in this case the window with a table and a refrigerator next to it — people were silently reading from the Russian translations of the prayers that the leader was telling them to read. The community doesn’t have a Torah scroll, and none of the congregation’s members can read Hebrew fluently.

“We will now be reciting the Shema,” Fisher addressed his congregants.

“Please do it in Hebrew, just a few words.”

Earlier this year, the community held a Bat Mitzvah and brit milah ceremonies, the first Jewish religious ceremonies in Izhevsk in decades.

Fisher says these public events marked a breakthrough for the entire Jewish community.

“People saw that everything is possible now. The old fears die hard and some still prefer to remain quiet about their Jewishness through sheer inertia,” he says.

“As Jews, we are still like small children,” said Yakov Erusalimsky, a 71-year old retired railroad manager. “Perhaps we don’t know much yet, but I think we sincerely want to learn.”

Like Jewish communities elsewhere in Russia, Izhevsk’s Jews are overwhelmingly elderly. Each year about 50 Jews, mainly younger ones, leave for Israel and other countries.

But Mikhail Zbar, 26 and until recently the leader of Izhevsk Hillel, says many younger Jews who can find good jobs locally are not planning to emigrate.

As with their parents, a good job for the younger generation is very likely to be connected with Izhmash. Zbar works as sales manager at the plant’s car manufacturing sector.

Ten years passed since Goldin, the pioneer of Jewish rebirth in Izhevsk, started a society of Jewish culture that has gradually become a full-fledged community.

Since then, Jewish life has become substantial enough in Izhevsk that this small community has not been spared from the ongoing controversy between the two major umbrella groups of Russian Jewry; a community that often doesn’t have the 10 Jewish men for a single minyan has two separate congregations, both of them Orthodox.

While there is little internal squabbling in Izhevsk, Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar’s Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia runs a minyan that congregates in a different location. Another chief rabbi, Adolph Shayevich, and his Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations provide guidance for the Aliyah congregation that gathers at the Jewish community center.

The few rooms that the Jewish center rents are not enough for the growing number of community programs. Goldin says he dreams of the day when the Jewish community will move into a building of its own.

He has found only one local Jewish donor so far, and a first donation of $3,000 has recently settled into the community’s special account.

“We could have done so much more if we had a proper space,” Goldin says.

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