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Across the Former Soviet Union St. Petersburg Jews Happy for Now, but Some Worry About Jewish Future

August 10, 2004
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Fifteen years ago, Eugenia Lvova and a group of friends gathered closely around her kitchen table and made a decision: it was time to pass on something positive about being Jewish to their children. But where to start?

For their generation and the generation of their parents, being Jewish meant having to study harder than anyone else in order to have a shot at getting into university. It meant discrimination, and only the barest knowledge of their own heritage.

“We wanted to know what it meant to be Jewish besides long lines at the passport office, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust,” she said, adding, “We wanted to know something positive about being Jewish.”

Today, Lvova, a straight-talking 46-year-old former computer programmer, runs Adayin Lo, a Jewish community center that symbolizes the grass-roots rebuilding of Jewish life in St. Petersburg after 70 years of Communist rule.

More than 2,000 people flock ! to its 10 locations around the city for classes ranging from Hebrew to Israeli dance to Jewish tradition. The center also runs a network of kindergartens and youth and basketball clubs, in addition to a choir and the only center in the city for special-needs children and adults.

This “is the real evidence of our renewal,” Lvova tells a group of visiting North American Jews on a recent United Jewish Communities leadership mission to the city. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish federations of Cleveland and Palm Beach have played a major role in helping support this and other Jewish organizations in the city.

But with little sense of Jewish identity and an intermarriage rate of more than 70 percent, some wonder out loud if there is a Jewish future for the approximately 100,000 Jews in the city.

Felix Fainberg, a retired 75-year-old geologist who helped establish the city’s main Hebrew ulpan, spent years teaching Hebrew illegally in the! Jewish underground movement. He says the situation is bleak.

“The re is no future for the Jewish community in St. Petersburg. We need to take care of the elderly Jews, but when they die, with them will die the community,” he said.

Fainberg said the tide of assimilation is too great for the community to withstand — and that those Jews wishing to remain Jewish should immigrate to Israel or the West to maintain their identity.

However, most immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union are not Jews from large cities like St. Petersburg, but those from smaller, more remote and economically deprived areas.

The Jews who live in St. Petersburg feel fiercely attached to the city, with its rich history, meandering canals and dazzling skyline of pastel palaces and onion-domed churches.

The identities of many of the Jews were seared to St. Petersburg after living through the Nazi’s 900-day siege of the city during World War II, where hundreds of thousands of civilians and an equal number of soldiers died defending the city.

T! oday, the city hosts dozens of Jewish organizations including welfare centers, kindergartens, day schools, a Hillel for university students, a Jewish newspaper and a restored synagogue.

Many of the projects are funded by philanthropy from Diaspora organizations such as the Jewish Agency for Israel and the JDC, but are run and often initiated by the local Jewish community.

“We think synergy of the community together” with philanthropy is the way to go, said Jonathan Porath, the JDC’s director for western Russia.

Speaking of the destruction of cultural and religious identity wrought by Soviet rule, Porath shakes his head and adds, “It’s nothing short of a miracle that Jews have chosen to remain Jewish.”

But some who live here say it feels less like a community than a loose network of Jewish groups — and like elsewhere in Russia, many Jews come from mixed families.

Some surveys estimate that about 90 percent of Jewish children come from mixed parentage, an! d even those who come from families with two Jewish parents usually gr ew up with little Jewish knowledge.

Natalia Dozorets, 39, the deputy director of the JDC’s office in St. Petersburg, gives her teenage son Jewish experiences year-round: He attends a Jewish school during the school year and in the summers goes to a Jewish camp on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

“The community has a future,” she says, pointing to her own life. Her son, she says, “can expect to get a good education, get a good job and live a normal life here.”

And she sees no other home for herself, “I grew up in St Petersburg and I love this city,” she said. “I cannot live my life without the Hermitage, the theater, all my relatives and friends. We are a free society and community. Those who want to have a Jewish education and community can have one.”

Dozorets, who helps run a JDC Hesed welfare program in the city that provides elderly Jews with home care and packages of food and medicine, acknowledges that the prevalence of intermarriage does affect what Jewish! life means and will continue to mean here.

“This is the main question: What does it mean to be a Jew? Is it a religion? Is it humor? Culture?” she asks.

Julia Balakina, 26, is among the counselors working for the Jewish Agency at summer camps and family retreats, teaching others about Jewish identity.

Like many of her contemporaries, she only discovered she was Jewish at a late age.

Balakina was 17 when her parents, who are both Jewish, finally told her she was not Bukharan, as indicated on her identity card, but Jewish. They were wary of telling her, believing it was “dangerous to be Jewish.”

She now wears a small Star of David around her neck and says that although she has visited Israel, St. Petersburg is where she sees her future, continuing to work in the Jewish community while still feeling very much a part of Russian culture.

St. Petersburg has five Jewish schools; two are secular, the others are religious.

One of the secular schools is the! cavernous School 550. With its wide hallways and worn marble stairs, it is also known as the Shorashim School, Hebrew for Roots. Built in 1887, the school now has Israeli and Russian flags strung across its high ceilings.

Of 460 students, 300 are Jewish — and are studying in a special Jewish education program which includes eight hours of Hebrew classes each week for the higher grades. The school features a full Russian curriculum in addition to Jewish studies.

Shorashim is run by the Russian education ministry in conjunction with World ORT, the Israeli Education Ministry and the Jewish Agency.

Boris Notkin, 59, has been principal of the school for most of the past decade. He says he knew little about his own Judaism until he took over as principal of the school, which is known as one of the top 10 schools in the city.

“Seventy years of Soviet rule led to assimilation. Our approach is not concerned with whether or not people make aliyah or not, but to give people background in Jewish roots and history so they know where they! come from,” Notkin said in a recent interview in his airy office.

Sitting in one of the classrooms where preparations are underway for a performance of a play in Hebrew is Boris Maftsir, the general director of the Jewish Agency in Russia, Belarus and the Baltics.

A member of the Jewish underground before immigrating to Israel, Maftsir spent a year in a Soviet prison.

“I came here to close the circle,” he said. “I felt an obligation to give back.”

What he has seen in Russia, he says, is a renewal of Jewish activity but not a promise of continued sustainable Jewish life.

“I really, really believe that in the world of assimilation, there is no future to the Jewish community,” said Maftsir. “It’s not hard to study or pray,” he says.

But as for the future, he wonders, “What will remain here in two generations?”

JTA correspondent Dina Kraft recently visited Russia on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

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