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Around the Jewish World: Steinsaltz Teaches and Learns During Visit with Siberian Jews

August 19, 1996
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In 1881, Abram Shalyt was exiled to Siberia from the town of Senno in what was then Byelorussia for making an attempt on the life of the local mayor.

More than a century later, his grandson, Semyon, came to the synagogue in his native Krasnoyarsk to see Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who has served as the spiritual leader of Russian Jewry since 1995.

Shalyt, a 78-year-old retired doctor, looked excited. He had not seen a rabbi since childhood.

“Once a day, and two times on the Sabbath, I would take my grandfather to the synagogue,” Shalyt recalled. “My grandfather lost his vision at hard labor, so I would go with him.”

For Steinsaltz, his trip to Krasnoyarsk, located in central Siberia, was a first.

The trip, which took him to several Jewish communities in Siberia and the Russian Far East, was part of an ongoing effort to visit Jewish communities outside of Moscow.

But until now, he had never had the chance to visit such remote places as Yekaterinburg, located in the Ural Mountains, Omsk and Krasnoyarsk, located in Siberia, or Khabarovsk, in the Far East.

“I wanted to visit these remote communities,” which, Steinsaltz said, “are neither very much alive nor dead.”

He said he was surprised by the numbers of Jews in each of the communities he visited earlier this month.

“I didn’t know that in a place like Khabarovsk there are an estimated 10,000 to 14,000 Jews,” he said.

The three other towns Steinsaltz visited each have a Jewish population of from 6,000 to 15,000.

Organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the tour was made possible with the help of Ambassador Ronald Lauder, who has advanced Jewish communal projects in Eastern and Central Europe through the foundation that bears his name.

Lauder provided a plane for the trip to the far-flung Jewish communities.

“The towns we visited had been chosen because of the level of activities in these communities and because those were the places where the plane could land,” said Ralph Goldman, an honorary executive vice president with the JDC who, along with a small group of American Jewish leaders, accompanied Steinsaltz on the trip.

Wherever Steinsaltz went, his audiences deluged him with questions.

What does Judaism say about mixed marriages? Can a Jewish woman wear seductive clothes? What does the Jewish religion say about the Holocaust? Does the creating of the State of Israel mean that the Messiah will soon come?

Steinsaltz gave his lectures in Hebrew.

In Khabarovsk, a grandfather and a grandson who were in the audience listened attentively, quietly repeating words the rabbi spoke.

Because of his early training in the Talmud and his native Yiddish, the grandfather could understand snatches of the rabbi’s lecture without benefit of a Russian translation.

His 11-year-old grandson explained that he understood parts of the lecture because he had just finished studying the first part of a Hebrew textbook.

Steinsaltz’s name became familiar to Russian Jews in the late 1980s, when 70 years of state-sponsored religious persecution ended and Judaism was allowed to be studied openly.

Russian translations of books by Steinsaltz were among the first works on Judaism that appeared in the country in the new period of openness instituted by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Steinsaltz said he hoped his visit would contribute toward a revival of the sense of Jewish community.

“The community here has lost its collective identity,” Steinsaltz said, adding that it was his mission to help restore it.

The history of the Jews in Siberia and the Russian Far East is very different from that in other parts of Russia.

Most of the Siberian Jewish families could trace their roots to someone who had been sent into exile during the Czarist regime or as a result of the Stalinist purges that were first carried out in the 1930s.

Siberian Jews are “exiles from the exile,” said Yechiel Poupko, a rabbi from Chicago who made the trip with Steinsaltz.

The grandparents of Isaak Kaufman were exiled to Siberia from Ukraine and Byelorussia in 1905.

“My grandfather and grandmother were both activists with the Bund, the Jewish socialist party. Here they met each other,” said Kaufman, 60, who serves as chairman of the Society of Jewish Culture in Krasnoyarsk.

“Our ancestors’ fate left its mark upon us, the Jews of Siberia,” Kaufman said. “I think we are more open, more straightforward than other Russian Jews.”

A member of the Steinsaltz family had also been exiled to Siberia at the turn of the century.

“He spent 20 years in Siberia, and I imagine he didn’t have to pay for his ticket,” Steinsaltz said.

Most members of the Jewish community in Khabarovsk, the biggest in the Russian Far East, moved there earlier this century after the failure of a Soviet plan to create a Jewish autonomous area in Birobidzhan, which is located 130 miles from Khabarovsk.

“We all are immigrants here,” said Mark Miller, president of the Jewish Cultural Center in Khabarovsk.

For the Jews of Siberia, Steinsaltz believed there was at least one advantage in living some four to seven time zones east of Moscow.

“It seems that Siberia was more tolerant to Jews,” he said. “Jews had better chances in Siberia. I can see here and there that people hold positions or have a power that goes beyond what they have in other places” in Russia.

Wherever he visited, Steinsaltz was received by local governmental officials.

“It was very important to us to see how the rabbi was received. The authorities, the general public and the press were taking our spiritual leader as the ambassador of the entire Jewish people,” said Mark Arshinsky, a Jewish communal leader in Khabarovsk.

In every town he traveled to, local authorities provided police escorts for the rabbi; dozens of reporters and cameramen were also on hand, attempting to capture his stay in the provinces.

“After all, very few guests from abroad, not to mention Jewish leaders, visit our provincial town,” said Alexey Karlin, an 18-year-old art student in Khabarovsk.

“I heard many people saying that Steinsaltz was the first rabbi they have ever seen in their life,” said Arshinsky of Khabarovsk.

“Now they know that there are Jews who want to help us find our nearly lost Jewish identity.”

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