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Around the Jewish World Once in the Russian Shadows, Hillel Emerges As a Major Attraction

February 5, 2002
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As recently as 1995, Russian Jewish parents scolded me for representing a “shady” Jewish group that could jeopardize their children’s university education, says Zhenya Mikhalyova, the leader of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in Russia.

Now, says Mikhalyova, a high school teacher turned Jewish activist, Jewish parents are bringing their kids to Hillel and asking the group to accept their children — and, perhaps, find them a husband or wife.

“Something has changed. There is really a feeling of a community being formed,” she says.

Hillel, of course, is not the only organization in the former Soviet Union wooing young Jews. Focusing attention on the young has become a mantra for Jewish organizations in the region.

Both the Reform movement and the Jewish Agency for Israel invest considerable effort in organizing activities for younger Jews.

Programs run by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Liaison Bureau, as well as free trips to Israel sponsored by Lubavitch and other groups, also attract thousands of Jewish youngsters, especially from smaller, more provincial communities.

But there’s little doubt that Hillel has been one of the more successful groups with college-aged Jews.

The Russian branch of Hillel, which started in 1994 in a Moscow apartment rented by Mikhalyova, currently operates 28 centers throughout the FSU with roughly 10,000 regular participants, according to Yossie Goldman, a Jerusalem-based rabbi who helped launched Hillel activity in the former Soviet Union.

“There is now a growing demand for Hillel’s kind of activity in the former Soviet Union. Our further expansion is hindered only by funding limitations,” he says.

The funding for Hillel in the FSU, which is $1.6 million for 2002, is provided mainly by the Schusterman family foundation, and partly by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Despite the success of Hillel and other groups, they still only reach some 15 percent to 25 percent of the young Jewish population.

Many of the Jews who join Christian missionary groups are young Jews seeking roots who have not been reached by Jewish organizations, says Alexander Lakshin, who is coordinating the anti-missionary fighting in the region.

“The ‘messianic’ success reflects in part our failure,” says Joel Golovensky, head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Moscow office.

But Hillel still reaches large numbers of young Jews, as evidenced by a congress last week at which more than 300 Jewish students from across the former Soviet Union met near Moscow for five days of lectures, workshops and shmoozing.

A speech at the opening ceremony was interrupted by cheering several times, as Hillel students from far-flung locales were introduced.

Jay Rubin, Hillel’s executive vice president, who flew in for the congress, told JTA that Latin America and the former Soviet Union are the regions of greatest growth for Hillel.

One reason for Hillel’s ascent in the former Soviet Union is the growing desire among many young Jews for communal solidarity and for building a Jewish life.

“Until recently, doing Jewish things meant going to synagogue prayers or to Jewish Agency for Israel Hebrew classes to prepare for aliyah,” Vyacheslav Leshtchiner, the director of a Moscow Jewish high school, told JTA. “Now there is a critical mass of young people with this or that degree of Jewish education and identification, who understand they are living here and have to create some communal structures of their own for their own interests and not only for the elders.”

Hillel is offering clubs and classes, out-of-town seminars on Jewish tradition and culture, trips to Israel and volunteer trips to small distant communities to lead Jewish celebrations there — but above all, a low-key approach.

“We also have a club for young people run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, but it is basically for those who are going to emigrate,” said Vera Kofman, a Hillel activist from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. “Events for the young are also organized at the city’s synagogue, but there are problems” with Jewish children of intermarried families, “whereas Hillel is really for all.”

Katya Broitman, an observant Jew who is majoring in Jewish studies at a Moscow university, said she appreciates Hillel’s high-quality classes on Jewish tradition — as well as its low-pressure environment.

“There is also a kind of free atmosphere here, which I love,” she said.

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