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Around the Jewish World As New Moscow Center Opens, Rifts Surface in Jewish Community

November 21, 2001
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The dedication of a new Jewish cultural center here late last week was more than just another triumph in the post-Communist Jewish renaissance.

The opening of the center in a $3.5 million mansion also was concrete evidence of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s new strategy in the former Soviet Union.

But the center’s opening also brought rifts in the Russian Jewish community to the surface.

When the JDC first returned to the region in 1991, it focused its efforts — and the lion’s share of its $60 million — on basic needs and basic community revival efforts.

Now it seems that most of those problems have been solved, particularly in Russia.

Hundreds of thousands of elderly and needy Jews across the region have been fed through the system of JDC-run Chesed welfare centers, and the 160 JDC-supported Jewish community centers have helped revive Jewish communal life in many cities and towns.

The main problem today, JDC leaders say, is reaching the majority of Jews.

“Apart from the 25,000 elderly people supported by our Chesed centers, we — together with the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israeli cultural centers and other Jewish organizations combined — are reaching only thousands of the roughly 250,000-strong Moscow Jewish population,” said Joel Golovensky, the head of the JDC’s Moscow office.

The goal, according to JDC officials, is to reach out to the Jewish professional classes, which are estimated to make up more than 40 percent of Moscow’s Jewish community.

“The particular needs of this group have remained unaddressed by Jewish organizations. The new center will fill this gap,” said Mikhail Kunin, the center’s director.

According to organizers, the new center will become a gathering place for artists, writers and scientists, as well as film, theater and dance enthusiasts — and will serve as a venue for their creations.

“It is in fact a pioneering and unexpected project, showing that the JDC is amazingly flexible in its ability to adapt to a new situation in the Jewish community,” Leonid Nevzlin, head of the umbrella Russian Jewish Congress, said at the ceremony.

The new center is part of a two-center project in Russia’s capital — both of which are being supported by the JDC.

The second, larger center will be built in the next several years near Russia’s Choral Synagogue and will provide sports facilities and educational programs not possible in the smaller building.

Combined, the projects will cost $10 million to $20 million, said Michael Schneider, the JDC’s executive vice president.

But the buildings are not making everyone happy.

The leadership of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia apparently is displeased with the lack of financial support the JDC gives to the Marina Roscha Jewish center — a mammoth religious and cultural center that only recently was finished — and other federation-supported projects.

The discontent was expressed at last weekend’s meeting between leaders of the federation — Russia’s largest umbrella Jewish group, with a strong Chabad Lubavitch representation — and a JDC delegation.

And at an annual meeting of the federation Monday, Valery Engel, the CEO of the federation, called the JDC “a foreign organization, which doesn’t take into account real interests of the Russian Jewish community,” and which in many places actually undermines Jewish communities that belong to the federation.

Engel demanded that any JDC project costing more than $50,000 be coordinated with his group.

After returning to New York, a JDC official said he is puzzled by the federation’s reaction — saying there is enough room for both centers.

Moscow is one of the few cities of its size that “doesn’t have adequate Jewish community centers to attract Jewish life and to enable Jews to meet,” Schneider said.

Schneider added that the JDC and the federation work together on many projects in the Soviet Union and around the world.

The dispute is the latest in the nearly 18-month struggle for primacy within the Russian Jewish community, which until now has played out primarily between the federation and the RJC.

But for many Russian Jews, the dispute is less important than the Jewish activities planned for the new center.

“I am not against Chabad and of course not against Judaism, but their place is too religious for me,” said Alexander Kirson, a middle-aged surgeon and a Jewish activist. “We need to create a prestigious and secular Jewish place. We have to try.”

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