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Across the Former Soviet Union in Stalin’s Former Jewish Haven, Locals Say Ground is Ripe for Reviva

September 21, 2004
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Valery Gurevich, the deputy governor of the Jewish Autonomous Region here, slams down the phone and turns to his assistant. “We need to find a helicopter for Berel Lazar,” he shouts, referring to Chabad’s chief rabbi of Russia, who is expected the next day to dedicate Birobidzhan’s new synagogue. “He needs to get back to Moscow before Shabbat, and says he can’t stay for the meeting with the governor.”

Gurevich is particularly incensed because the government had already switched all the official celebrations of the autonomous region’s 70th anniversary from Saturday, Sept. 11, to Friday — at Lazar’s request.

That level of concern for, and knowledge of traditional Jewish observance might be expected among government officials in New York. But it’s rare in Russia — except in Birobidzhan, the capital city of the Jewish Autonomous Region — where Jewish sensibilities are deeply engrained.

And although Gurevich wants ! Lazar at the governor’s meeting for political reasons, it’s also personally important to him that the country’s most powerful Jewish religious leader give the hechsher, or seal of approval, to the city’s new synagogue. And that’s not just because the regional government contributed $112,000 toward building costs.

Gurevich, like many of the region’s elected officials, is Jewish. Unlike some of his colleagues, though, he’s truly interested in developing the region’s Jewish identity from a carefully preserved memorial to a bygone era into a living Jewish community.

In 1934, Stalin established the autonomous region in Russia’s Far East as a secular Jewish homeland to divert Soviet Jews from Palestine.

In the early years, Yiddish culture flourished here, attracting more than 40,000 Jews from all over the world.

In 1936, Stalin’s initial purges shrank the region’s Jewish leadership. In 1948-49 — two decades later than in the rest of the USSR — the Yiddish schools w! ere closed, the theater was shut down and many actors executed, and th e state library’s extensive Judaica section was burned.

Today, locals believe, there’s a real chance that a thriving Jewish community could be established in Birobidzhan. Although the city’s Jewish population — depleted by the large aliyah wave of the 1990s — hovers somewhere between 2,000-6,000 out of a total population of 80,000, the region’s economic prosperity, combined with its Yiddish heritage, help create rich soil for a Jewish future.

Not a great one, perhaps, but one that may survive.

There’s still great confusion, however, between Birobidzhan’s Yiddish heritage, which is linguistic and cultural, and the Jewish practice that rabbis and foreign Jewish organizations are trying to encourage.

“We call this a Jewish religious community, even though it’s not really religious,” says Elena Belyaeva, a 30-year-old teacher of Yiddish and Hebrew who, although not Jewish herself, is a leading light in the city’s Jewish revival.

That label is in part for tax p! urposes, she points out, as religious organizations in Russia are beneficiaries of tax breaks. But it’s also a conscious effort to remind local Jews that what holds them together above all is their religion, she adds.

In post-Soviet Russia, the turning point from Jewish cultural community to Jewish religious community usually comes when a synagogue is built or returned to the local Jewish population, and a rabbi — most often a Chabad rabbi — shows up to lead services.

That’s what happened two years ago in Birobidzhan, with the arrival from Israel of Chabad emissaries Rabbi Mordechai and Esther Scheiner.

Scheiner says he and his wife didn’t choose Birobidzhan because of its Yiddish heritage. Instead, he says, “We go where we’re needed.”

Now they’re here for good, bringing up their five children in a small apartment a few blocks from the synagogue and Jewish center. And while they’re ecstatic about the newly opened shul, a beautiful building which attracted a ! big crowd to its first Friday night services, the Scheiners say they f ace political pressure from the leadership of the local Jewish community.

Scheiner has acquired a three-story building for a Jewish day school, and has signed up 108 families, but did not receive official permission to open this fall. He used to get a crowd for services at his home, but people stopped coming.

“There was pressure somehow,” he says. “They told me, when there’s a synagogue we’ll come, but not to your house.”

The leader of Birobidzhan’s Jewish community declined an interview with JTA.

The synagogue, Scheiner points out, belongs to the entire community, not just to him — perhaps that’s why the local Jewish communal leadership prefers to have religious life concentrated there.

Scheiner’s troubles with the local Jewish communal leadership are greater than those reported by other Chabad rabbis in eastern Russia, perhaps because of the region’s Jewish past.

“The Jewish population in Birobidzhan is different than elsewhere in Siberia,” explains B! elyaeva, the Yiddish and Hebrew teacher.

She spent most of the summer researching an exhibit on Birobidzhan’s early history in honor of a delegation from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that visited Sept. 7, the day the exhibit opened, to inaugurate the city’s first kosher soup kitchen.

“In Siberia, they were sent there forcibly. The Jewish communities of Irkutsk, of Novosibirsk, developed around one or two prominent Jewish families with rich Jewish backgrounds. They became religious communities.

“But Birobidzhan was built by artisans and craftspeople, who arrived in a mass, voluntary migration.”

One might compare it to early Jewish immigration to New York, she suggests.

Jewish practice was never emphasized by Birobidzhan’s Jews, Belyaeva continues. But even after the last synagogue burned down in the 1950s, years after the Yiddish schools and cultural institutions were closed in 1948, Jews in the region continued to mark Jewish holidays,! and the older people remembered their Yiddish.

Jewish cultural lif e was revived in Birobidzhan much earlier than elsewhere in the Soviet Union, with the opening of Yiddish theaters in the 1970s. Yiddish and Jewish traditions have been required components in all public schools for almost 15 years, taught not as Jewish exotica but as part of the region’s national heritage.

Ritual life was something different, however. During the last 40 years of the Soviet era it was limited to a handful of older Jews who met twice a year — at Passover and during the High Holidays.

Dov Kofman, 55, joined them in 1983, moving with them in 1986 to their current synagogue — a small wooden hut on the outskirts of town. For 10 years they shared their building with half a dozen females, who follow a kind of Seventh-day Adventist religion that considers Saturday the day of rest.

Kofman’s group, supported by Russia’s former chief rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, and by the JDC, has been overshadowed by the much larger, officially recognized Jewish community.

! “This is the first time Birobidzhan has had a prosperous Jewish community,” the autonomous region’s governor, Nikolai Volkov, told the JDC delegation. “And if Rabbi Scheiner ever needs a minyan, I’ll be the 10th man.”

Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi, is less enthusiastic about Birobidzhan’s Yiddish heritage. He draws a distinction between that history and authentic Judaism, which he believes is not represented by weekly Yiddish sections in newspapers.

As he heads to the unveiling of the city’s new Sholem Aleichem statue on Sept. 10, Lazar remarks that he considers the synagogue opening scheduled later that day to be much more significant.

“Sholem Aleichem is going back 70 years, to the idea of creating a ‘Jewish’ Autonomous Region without mentioning who Jews are and where we come from,” he says. “The synagogue opening shows that Jews without a synagogue are rootless. Jews survive because of the synagogue.”

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