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Across the Former Soviet Union Stalin Has Long Been Dead, but His Jewish Region Lives on

September 13, 2004
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The odd story of Stalin’s Russian homeland for the Jews has taken another strange twist. The ribbon-cutting ceremony at the two-story Moorish-style synagogue in Birobidzhan last Friday was the highlight of a weeklong celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Jewish Autonomous Region, an area in Russia’s Far East that Stalin declared a secular Jewish homeland in 1934 to divert Soviet Jews from Palestine.

The festivities in Birobidzhan were punctuated by Yiddish and Russian singing and dancing performances.

The synagogue opening, one of three such openings in Russia’s Far East last week, followed the unveiling of a bronze statue of Sholem Aleichem on the city’s main boulevard, Sholem Aleichem Street.

And what’s particularly noteworthy about these projects are the unusual funding arrangements. Rival Jewish groups combined forces, as did regional Russian governments.

In addition to local donors, funding came fro! m the Rohr Family Foundation — a major donor to Chabad activities in the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, the synagogue in Birobidzhan, as well the two others that also opened last week, put Chabad’s stamp on the Russian Far East, solidifying the movement’s position as the leading Jewish religious organization in the former Soviet Union.

Chabad’s chief rabbi in Russia, Berel Lazar, flew in from Moscow on a private plane specially chartered for the occasion, hopping from city to city across the region, cutting ribbons and delivering speeches at each shul opening.

The three ceremonies mark, he said, “an even greater achievement,” referring to what he called the “victory over the darkness of communism.”

On Sept. 8, a 100-year-old synagogue building in Vladivostok, used for many years as a chocolate factory, was formally returned by the government to the local Jewish community, headed by Chabad Rabbi Menachem Raskin.

The next day in Khabarovsk, an elegant $3 milli! on synagogue building was opened, and the day after that, Birobidzhan’ s shul opened its doors. Additional funding for the projects came from a group often at odds with Chabad in the former Soviet Union, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which sent a delegation to the region in advance of the synagogue openings.

Money for the Birobidzhan and Khabarovsk projects also came from regional governments, unheard of elsewhere in Russia.

The Khabarovsk regional government underwrote half the building costs for that city’s new shul, and Birobidzhan’s regional government contributed 10 percent of construction costs for the $715,000 synagogue.

The deputy chairman of the Jewish Autonomous Region, or JAR, Valery Gurevich, was careful to point out that his government’s contribution, which came through the Ministry of Culture, was technically given to the building’s community center rather than the synagogue, and should be seen as cultural rather than religious support.

The synagogue opening in Birobidzhan was attended by a star-s! tudded roster of the region’s political leadership, many of whom, including the city’s mayor, are themselves Jewish.

“Today we’re opening the region’s first kosher synagogue,” said Gov. Nikolai Volkov, as he greeted 200 spectators outside the just-painted synagogue building last Friday. “That says a lot. The JAR is a national region, and now the Jews can develop their own culture.”

Volkov chose his words carefully. On the surface, Birobidzhan, population 80,000, is laden with Jewish trappings.

Yiddish is everywhere: on store signs, on every official government document, in the local newspaper — even at the train station, Yiddish writing is the first thing visitors see when they arrive in the city.

But the linguistic clues are remnants of a deliberate attempt by the Soviet State in the 1930s to subvert Zionism and Jewish religious life by, on one hand, pouring money and political support into this tiny “Jewish national homeland” 5,000 miles and seven times zon! es east of Moscow, while on the other hand ruthlessly stamping out Heb rew and discouraging Jewish ritual observance.

In the early years of the region’s existence, Yiddish theater, music, dance and literature flourished here.

More than 40,000 Jews from all over the world, including Argentina, the United States and even Palestine, answered Stalin’s call to escape urban squalor and create a “New Socialist Jew,” working the land in collectivist fraternity.

Propaganda posters from the 1930s and early 1940s are remarkably similar to Zionist posters from the same era, exhorting Diaspora Jewry to help build “Palestine” — but in Russia.

Unlike Palestine, however, Birobidzhan’s experiment in making farmers out of ghetto Jews failed. Just a handful of collective farms survived more than a year or two before the newly arrived Jewish population migrated to the growing capital city of Birobidzhan.

In 1936 Stalin’s purges thinned the ranks of the region’s Jewish leadership.

In 1948-1949 the Yiddish schools were closed, the theater was ! shut down and many actors executed, and the state library’s extensive Judaica section was burned.

The last functioning synagogue was destroyed in a mysterious fire in the 1950s. But Yiddish was too deeply embedded in the popular consciousness to disappear entirely.

Although by 1970 Jews represented 6 percent of the population, their influence greatly outstripped their number.

After Stalin died, Jewish life grew more public as the decades passed.

But once the doors of the Soviet Union opened in 1989, 10,000 of Birobidzhan’s estimated 12,000 Jews immigrated to Israel, the highest aliyah rate in the country.

Aliyah continues today, says Jewish Agency for Israel representative Alona Goldenberg, with about 100 Jews expected to leave for Israel this year.

But in a phenomenon noted throughout the former Soviet Union, the Jewish population of the region grows even as more Jews leave.

Jewish Agency figures place the current number at 2,000, although local J! ewish community officials insist it is closer to 6,000.

The leading local newspaper, the Birobidzhaner Shtern, resumed publishing a Yiddish section more than a decade ago.

Yiddish and Jewish culture and traditions are taught as part of the curriculum in one of the city’s public schools, which any child may attend.

The local Jewish community, part of the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, sponsors the usual offering of classes and clubs in Hebrew, Jewish and Israeli subjects, and religious life received a boost two years ago with the arrival of Chabad emissaries Rabbi Mordechai Sheiner and his wife, Esther.

Sheiner serves as the rabbi of the city’s official Jewish community — the synagogue project was undertaken on his initiative — although a small group of mostly elderly Jews connected with one of Russia’s two chief rabbis Adolf Shayevich, continues to pray in a small wooden building on the outskirts of town.

Locals say they see nothing unusual about non-Jewish children’s dance troupes performing ! the hora to Israeli music in the city square, and they don’t consider it a particularly Jewish activity.

“Dancing and singing has always been a part of our life here,” says 30-year-old Yelena Belyaeva, a non-Jewish woman who teaches Yiddish and Hebrew in the local teacher’s college and for the Jewish Agency.

The difference is, she notes, that Israeli and Hebrew culture have been added into the mix. “The Hebrew songs and dances we’ve only had since perestroika. Before that, it was just Yiddish.”

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