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Behind the Headlines with Russian Census Taking Place, a True Jewish Count Seems Unlikely

October 14, 2002
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How many Jews are there in Russia?With current estimates ranging from 250,000 to more than 3 million people, one might hope that Russia’s census, taking place this month, could help answer the question.

But experts and Jewish leaders here warn that Russia’s first national head count since the demise of the Soviet Union will likely understate the size of Russian Jewry. And some Russian Jewish leaders are worried that census numbers could lead some to the conclusion that Russian Jewry is disappearing — which could result in less funding from overseas for Russian Jewish activities.

Results of the census are expected in 2003, but the debate is already on in the Jewish community whether to accept the tally of Russian Jews at face value.

Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad, a Russian Jewish umbrella organization, admits that any number in the lower range — he expects the number to be around 300,000 — may prove “catastrophic” for many in the community.

“Jewish leaders, especially in the provinces, are already horrified by the result the census will bring,” Chlenov said.

The census will count what Jewish demographers term as “core Jews,” or those who identify themselves as Jews in interviews.

“What the census will give us is a number of people who are not hesitant to identify themselves as Jews,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress.

But the actual or “potential” community is several times bigger, most Jewish leaders say.

Russia’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar and Adolph Shayevich, said this number could exceed 1 million people.

Satanovsky puts the number even higher — at 3 million.

“This is the number of those who are feeling Jewish or may become Jewish if community outreach is successful,” he said.

He pointed out that a survey commissioned this year by his organization revealed that there are 232,000 households in Moscow alone registered under Jewish-sounding names.

Census takers will not ask a question about religion. In Russia, Judaism is generally considered an ethnic characteristic.

The most recent census, conducted in 1989 when the Soviet Union still existed, counted 551,000 Jews within the borders of what two years later became the independent Russian Federation. The entire Jewish population of the USSR stood in 1989 at 1.45 million.

If the estimates given by various experts are to be trusted, Russian Jewry shrunk by about one-half in the past 13 years. Hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews left for Israel, the United States and Germany since the breakup of the USSR, and they are continuing to leave Russia at the rate of about 20,000 people a year.

If the results of the population surveys in Russia and other former Soviet states are to be taken as a true statistical picture, with such a rate of emigration there would now be no Jews at all left in this part of the world.

When the results of this year’s census are received, Jewish demographers, sociologists and community leaders will face the difficult task of defining the size of what experts call the “extended Jewish population.”

Extended Jewry includes all those who may not identify as Jews in the census but have some Jewish background or attachment to the Jewish community. Some experts believe this population may also include non-Jewish marriage partners of Jews, or even members of households that have Jewish members.

The size of the extended Jewish community, according to most Jewish leaders, stands somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million.

Although most Jewish leaders believe the census will undercount the Jewish population, they are nonetheless doing their best to make sure the total is as accurate as possible.

Since the count depends on how many people will declare themselves as Jews, some Jewish leaders were busy in recent weeks calling on their constituencies to do just this.

Lev Toitman, a community leader in the former Jewish autonomous republic of Birobidzhan, recently went on the airwaves of a local radio station to call on Jews to register themselves as such.

“In the past, Jews could have registered as non-Jews during the census because of official anti-Semitism,” he said. “There is no reason for Jews to hide their identity anymore.”

A similar call came from Alexander Sakov, a community leader in the Siberian city of Omsk.

“The size of the Jewish population depends on our participation in the census,” Sakov wrote in a front-page article in the September edition of Shalom, a magazine he edits.

Meanwhile, representatives of major foreign Jewish agencies working in Russia say the census will have a minimal effect on their policies.

“The numbers that the census will get will be under-reported,” said Asher Ostrin, the Jerusalem-based director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s activities in the former Soviet Union.

“We operate on intuition and on a lot of anecdotal evidence because we have not seen any methodology that was compelling enough” to trust the numbers, he said.

Karol Ungar, director of the Russia office of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said his organization believes there are 550,000 Russians who have the right to make aliyah to Israel according to the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to any Jew with at least one Jewish grandparent.

“If the number the census will get us will differ from the ones we use, we will certainly bring some corrections to our work” in Russia, he said.

But Jewish Agency officials here say they are aware that many of those who can make aliyah will not identify as Jews in the census.

Ostrin said the census can give a clearer demographic picture of the community, including such things as age distribution.

Complicating the picture is the fact that the census is not very popular among Russians, Jewish or not.

Many Russians are not likely to give any information to census takers, and as many as 40 percent are likely not to give truthful answers to all census questions.

A number of recent polls have shown that a significant percentage of the population is wary of letting strangers in because of the fear of burglary.

Others are reluctant to answer questions out for fear the authorities could use it to track down their incomes, the polls showed.

Census officials are trying to alleviate these fears, saying no personal data will be shared with law enforcement officials, tax authorities or any other government agency.

But Jewish leaders say these fears could prompt some Jews not to give any information at all.

“Some Jews will decide not to participate in the census,” Satanovsky said. “These are typical middle-class Russian citizens who have no trust in the state, who fear both criminals and tax authorities.”

Some Russians, non-Jews and Jews alike, say they will not participate in the census as a protest.

Valery Shapiro, a 63-year-old retired pharmacist in Moscow, is one of them.

“I will not participate in the census to protest the very low pension I am getting from the state.”

But Shapiro said that if he had to give his information he would not identify himself as a Jew because of deep- seated fears.

“I don’t believe the officials when they say all the information will be protected,” he said.

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