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Across the Former Soviet Union Small-town Russian Businessman Presents Local Jcc with a New Home

January 17, 2006
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In this small Russian port city near the Arctic Circle, a local businessman is planning to fund and build a JCC for a Jewish community of fewer than 2,000 people. The current JCC building is located on the edge of town — one floor above a blood transfusion clinic. It is tiny and in disrepair; building materials and a few wheelchairs dusty from neglect clutter a hallway connecting its five small rooms. This space houses a library that doubles as a kitchen, two offices and a meeting room.

Anatoly Obermeister, a local Jewish businessman, decided to improve the situation. “We need something that we can call our own and a place where we know we will always be able to stay,” he told JTA.

“Plus with all these myths about the Jews and vampirism, it’s not good to have the Jewish center located right above a blood transfusion clinic,” he added, making an apparent reference to the myth that Jews used Christian blood to make Passover matzahs.

Obermeister, president of a construction and development firm ASTRA, plans to offer the ground floor — or about 6,000 square feet — of a new housing project in the center of town for use as a Jewish community center.

A question remains of how to maintain the space and pay expenses. One idea is to organize the community center as a self-sustaining, nonprofit business with a restaurant, clinic, school and other social services.

There is also the possibility of outside funding. However, “if no outside organization will offer funds for this space, ASTRA will retain ownership. But there will be no draconian prices or regulations,” Obermeister said, and his firm will rent the space to the Jewish community at below-market prices.

Obermeister prefers that the community should not have to rely on outside sources to support itself — something that rarely happens in Jewish communities anywhere in Russia, where Jewish life still largely relies on the generosity of foreign donors.

In recent years, the Arkhangelsk Jewish community has seen an involvement of international Jewish organizations. Like almost everywhere across the region, Chabad, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel have all taken a role in this remote Russian Jewish community.

This involvement means an increase in Jewish social support and cultural life for Arkhangelsk’s Jews. However, the increase in Jewish identification has led many local Jews to emigrate.

Since the Jewish Agency first opened a center here in 1998, the community has seen a heavy flow of Jews moving to Israel, said Lilya Martinova, coordinator for the St. Petersburg department of the Jewish Agency, which handles communities in northwestern Russia.

“Ten to 15 people make aliyah to Israel every year from the Arkhangelsk area,” Igor Prober, director of the local Hesed Avraham welfare center, told JTA.

For a community the size of Arkhangelsk, that is a considerable number.

The Arkhangelsk Jewish community is a branch of the Federation of Jewish Communities — a Chabad-sponsored organization. It, along with the JDC and local donors, helps fund various educational and social programs, including a tiny Sunday school of about 15 participants and a youth club.

Although the JDC-operated Hesed Avraham is thriving in its work of assisting the elderly, local Jewish leaders don’t think the future of the small Jewish community has much of a chance.

“It is very hard to continue a full Jewish line for Jewish families in this region. There are literally two or three families that are fully Jewish,” said Vladimir Bovykin, chairman of the Arkhangelsk Jewish community and Prober’s son-in-law.

The Jews here are a hodgepodge, descended from exiled Soviet Jews, military families and engineers spilling over from the neighboring town of Severodvinsk — a once-secret Soviet naval base and nuclear submarine construction site still in operation today.

Today, nothing is left of the two synagogues that were built after the arrival of Jewish merchants and soldiers in the army during the 19th century. The wooden buildings fell into ruin and were scrapped after their closures during Communist times.

By all accounts Jewish activity in the area should be declining. In fact, it may just be starting to gain momentum. Many Jews are leaving, but many are also coming out of the woodwork. Those with some Jewish heritage are finding their way to the evolving community and are becoming active participants.

“When they become interested in their identity, the half- and quarter-Jews become very active in Jewish cultural life — usually much more active than the full-blooded Jews,” said Prober.

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