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Around the Jewish World: with Help of Local Authorities, Siberian Jews Reassert Identity

August 26, 1996
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Far from the Russian capital of Moscow, some 6,000 Jews live in Krasnoyarsk, a Siberian city on the banks of the Yenisey, the world’s fifth longest river.

For much of its 200-year history, Krasnoyarsk was a destination for thousands of people exiled by Russian czars and by Stalin, and the local Jewish community can trace its own origins to some of those exiles.

The city’s greatest expansion — the population today numbers 1 million – – occurred during the past 50 years. This area boasts a wealth of resources, including gold and other metals, and cheap electric power.

Dozens of Jews were among the many Russians who came here after World War II, looking for job opportunities in this rapidly developing region.

“Our family legend has it that one of my ancestors was exiled to Siberia over 150 years ago after he saddled a donkey on the first day of Passover and tried to ride into a synagogue somewhere in Ukraine,” said an elderly man visiting his wife’s grave at the local Jewish cemetery.

The organized Jewish community in Krasnoyarsk was re-established seven years ago. In 1994, authorities granted the community a building that was turned into an Orthodox synagogue that can accommodate up to 60 worshipers.

Like elsewhere in Russia, religion does not play a significant role in the Krasnoyarsk Jewish community. Most Jews here see the synagogue as a community center where they can celebrate Jewish festivals or just see friends several times a year.

Yuriy Shavrin, a 23-year-old graduate of a medical school in Krasnoyarsk, said he comes to the synagogue on various occasions, but not to pray because he does not know how.

Krasnoyarsk has no rabbi or other religious leader who can reach out to the local community.

The synagogue is open only on the Sabbath and often there are fewer than the 10 men required for a minyan.

Still, the thirst for Jewish knowledge is evident among those who attend events frequently organized by the Society of Jewish Culture, the Hebrew Sunday school for children or the Jewish youth club.

A section at the Krasnoyarsk Central Public Library that holds a collection of books about Jews and Judaism is “one of the most frequented departments of our library that attract both Jewish and non-Jewish readers,” said Leonid Berdnikov, the library’s director.

The collection includes books donated a few years ago by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Elsewhere in the city, a conscious effort has been made by local authorities to tell the history of Jews and other minorities who suffered persecution for generations.

The Society of Jewish Culture is one of 24 minority groups that share the premises of the Krasnoyarsk Minorities’ Cultural Center, the former Vladimir Lenin Memorial Museum.

A few years ago, the Lenin exhibition was squeezed into a couple rooms to make space for Jewish, Polish, German, Finnish, Korean, Greek, Estonian and other minorities’ societies.

In contrast to these public institutions, local authorities have been reluctant to counteract the activities of several ultranationalist organizations, including Pamyat and Russian National Unity, whose local offices have, since the late 1980s, propagated anti-Semitism.

One recent exception, however, was the city administration’s official warning in May to Krasnoyarskaya Gazeta, a local newspaper that regularly published anti-Jewish articles.

“These groups have never hindered our communal activities directly,” said Isaak Kaufman, chairman of the Society of Jewish Culture.

But local anti-Semitism has been a factor sparking emigration.

Extremists usually express their anti-Semitic views in the local media, Kaufman said, adding that sometimes, “this propaganda spurs our Jews to emigrate.”

According to the Jewish Agency for Israel’s office here, about 100 Krasnoyarsk Jews leave for Israel each year. Many of them are teen-agers that go to study in the Jewish state.

Kaufman, whose 19-year-old son left Siberia a year ago, said he would leave for Israel by the end of this year.

This summer, dozens of Siberian Jewish teen-agers attended a youth camp organized by the Jewish Agency in Tomsk.

For Sasha Churakova, 12, it was her first trip outside of Krasnoyarsk. Now she knows some basic words in Hebrew and hopes to visit Israel. She says she can hardly believe that there are places with snowless winters.

Not all Jews in this remote Russian city wish to leave.

“Many Jews will never emigrate because of various reasons,” said a 40-year-old woman who works with a local telephone company. “Some don’t want to lose their jobs. Others prefer not to leave their aged relatives who wouldn’t want to go. All my relatives are in Israel but I don’t know whether I’ll ever go there.”

For those who stay, Russia’s transformation to a market economy is producing new challenges.

Jews in this area traditionally became doctors, university teachers, scientists and engineers.

But today, the business community is proving more attractive financially.

Kaufman, who was a mining engineer, opened his own bakery a few years ago. He bought equipment from Israel and today produces Middle Eastern-style pita, a type of bread unusual for Siberia.

“Many Jewish businessmen are interested in doing business with Israel,” Kaufman said. As a result, one can buy Israeli chocolate or instant coffee in a grocery store in the heart of Siberia.

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