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Around the Jewish World Israeli Day Celebration in Moscow Sign of ‘Normalization’ of Community

May 19, 2004
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For many decades, Isaak has lived on an apartment block next to the Choral Synagogue in Arkhipova Street here, just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin.

But he never went inside the synagogue, nor did he join the crowds that in Soviet times gathered in front of the building on weekend nights and on Jewish holidays to celebrate their Jewish identity.

"You have to understand me: I was a Communist, I had a good job — why would I need all this?" said Isaak, 78, a retired engineer who used to work for the City of Moscow and who asked that his last name not be used.

But Isaak, who later moved to the outskirts of the Russian capital, took a trip to the downtown synagogue Sunday to take part in celebrations for Israel’s 56th Independence Day.

"I wanted to see how many Jews are left in Moscow," he said half-jokingly.

There are quite a few, actually: Moscow is home to anywhere between 100,000 and 250,000 people with Jewish heritage, but most of them are not involved in community affairs. Still the celebration showed just how far the community has come since the collapse of Communism, when many Jews were afraid to acknowledge their heritage.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which organized the event together with the Russian Jewish Congress and Moscow’s Jewish community, printed some 10,000 invitations.

Some 5,000 to 7,000 attended, and few of those who came seemed to be concerned about security.

Sergei Zeidman, a 30-something Web designer from a town near Moscow, came with his wife and 6-month-old daughter.

"I didn’t hesitate for a moment whether we should go," he said as his wife attached a small Israeli flag and a bunch of blue-and-white balloons to their daughter’s stroller. "I was sure the organizers would take security seriously."

He was right. There was a heavy police presence at the street festival, and many more patrolled nearby streets that were closed for traffic during the seven-hour event.

According to a Russian Jewish Congress official, some 350 police, including members of elite special forces, were on duty along with some 150 private security guards.

Organizers said they chose the venue for the festival because it had a significant historic meaning for Israeli-Russian relations.

In the fall of 1948, a visit by Golda Meir, Israel’s first ambassador to Moscow, to what was then Moscow’s only synagogue sparked a spontaneous pro-Israeli demonstration of some 40,000 Soviet Jews.

In the 1970s and 1980s, this street was the center of Jewish life in Moscow. It was the only place where thousands of Soviet Jews — under the surveillance of KGB agents, of course — could openly express their Jewish identity and their desire to immigrate to Israel.

But Jewish life certainly has changed since Soviet times.

Vladimir is a Moscow-born doctor who also asked to be identified only by his first name. His story of aliyah began on the same street back in the late 1980s when, as a medical student, he decided to leave Moscow.

He returned to Russia five years ago to start his own medical practice.

"When this country was different we thought Israel was the only place to be," he said. "But look around. People can wave Israeli flags as if this is New York or Jerusalem. It’s good that today the younger generation doesn’t have to make these tough choices we faced. You can live here, or go to Israel and always come back."

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