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From Minsk to Pinsk Belarus Jews Take Part in Jewish Life but Don’t Know Much About Judaism

March 18, 2004
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It’s not your ordinary Friday night gathering at the Campus, the hub of Jewish life here in the Belarussian capital.

The first night of Chanukah is coupled with the much-anticipated induction of young Rabbi Grisha Abramovich as the new spiritual head of Belarus’ Reform movement.

In the brightly lit multipurpose room at the Campus Jewish community center, nearly 200 mostly elderly Jews are decked out in their Friday night finery: Many women look as if they’ve had their hair freshly styled, and several men have pinned their war medals and other honorary insignia onto their jacket lapels.

As the Minsk-born Abramovich is sworn in from the stage with a prayer by a senior Reform rabbi from Israel, there is a pause for the audience to respond “Amen.”

But the room falls silent; only two or three appear to mumble the affirmation.

The ceremony and this awkward moment speak volumes about the state of Jewish life in Belarus: enthusiastic renaissance of Jewish culture and society, but painstakingly difficult reconstruction of Jewish religion.

“It is easier to train people to provide social welfare services than it is to teach them values and traditions,” says Marina Fromer, the local representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which underwrites much of Jewish cultural, social and welfare services in Belarus.

That’s one main reason that all Campus activities are free — it brings Jews through the door. And they come back for more: The JDC claims a 90 percent rate of return visits.

Jewish culture — at once providing a form of entertainment and sense of belonging — is an easier lure than religiosity or spirituality, which must strike a deeper chord emotionally and demands commitment, says Sender Uritsky, the chief rabbi of Belarus.

After 70 years of Soviet-imposed atheism, persuading Jews to observe Jewish law and ritual “is like trying to change an introvert into an extrovert,” Uritsky says.

Belarussian Jews describe themselves as living in a Jewish void. Belarus borders two major Jewish communities, Russia and Ukraine, which get much of the attention from Diaspora Jews interested in the former Soviet Union.

Belarus, meanwhile, is on the edge of Europe, both geographically and politically. And given the dictatorial rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, there’s no immediate prospect of integrating with continental institutions like the European Union.

So the community feels a sense of isolation that seems to grow unimpeded.

According to a 1989 Soviet census, in which citizens were classified by paternal nationality, 112,000 Jews were counted in Belarus, their passports stamped “Yevre.”

In a 1999 census conducted by the Belarussian authorities, Jews were free to choose how to identify themselves. The total: 28,000 Jews.

But the numbers don’t add up, says Jewish leader Yakov Basin.

Basin estimates that over the last 10 or 12 years, some 75,000 Jews have made aliyah to Israel and another 75,000 emigrated to the United States or Germany.

Today, Basin estimates there are some 65,000 to 70,000 Jews in the country if they are counted by the same standard as Israel’s Law of Return — a single Jewish grandparent is enough.

Hesed, the JDC’s welfare arm in the former Soviet Union, itself has 18,000 elderly recipients on its rolls.

Which leads to the local joke: “The more Jews move, the more Jews remain.”

The answer to the riddle, Basin says, is that many Jews concealed their identities — some were never even told they were Jewish.

While some remain fearful today, others are emboldened to emerge from the woodwork, compelled by a need for JDC support or the draw of opportunities for immigration.

Roughly half of the country’s Jews are involved with Jewish life in some way. There is Uritsky’s synagogue and yeshiva, and Chabad-Lubavitch has its own synagogue and yeshiva.

Like elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Chabad also is a force in Belarus through the Federation of Jewish Communities.

The federation operates in 20 Belarussian cities, with Rabbi Yosef Gruzman based in Minsk and a handful of Chabad rabbis spread around the country. Some of the communities are very small, but others run synagogues, Hebrew schools, kosher kitchens, community and cultural centers, youth clubs and summer camps.

For example, the federation affiliate in Brest — with some 1,000 Jews in town — recently leased a building in which they’ll house a synagogue, Hebrew school and kosher kitchen.

There’s a day school in Pinsk, and a yeshiva, mikvah and soup kitchen in Minsk.

The federation also hosts community-wide musical events and holiday celebrations. A recent federation Purim event in Minsk reportedly drew a crowd of 500, and Jewish youth spread the cheer to the sick, elderly and underprivileged kids.

At the same time, new milestones have been reached.

In late January, the federation flew in a certified mohel from Moscow to perform a slew of circumcisions. The first to experience a brit milah ceremony were the chairmen of the Jewish communities of Grodno and Rechitza.

“We wanted to set an example and inspire other Jews who are hesitant or afraid to undergo this basic Jewish ritual,” one chairman was quoted as saying.

A few days later, the first circumcisions done in Grodno in 72 years were performed on two boys, who were then given Jewish names.

Despite the Chabad presence, for many Belarussian Jews, Jewish life means the Campus.

Opened in April 2002, the Campus brings together Jewish groups and activists of all stripes under one roof as a one-stop shop that aims to make all Jews feel at home, Fromer says.

Abramovich works here, and even Uritsky and Gruzman teach a Judaism class at the Campus, although neither attended Abramovich’s induction.

Architecturally, the Campus is a modern-day fortress, a gleaming white structure with one entrance — manned by security. Only insiders know it’s a Jewish institution; for security reasons, the lone markings on its exterior are a modest sign that includes the Campus emblem — a combination of an aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and a menorah.

It’s unusually new and clean by Minsk standards, where a cash-poor regime focuses restoration efforts on but a few monumental, landmark buildings.

Within the gated compound, two main buildings are connected by a combination courtyard/parking lot.

On one afternoon last December, a steady stream of communal staff and activists crisscrossed the slush-covered courtyard, hustling between the two buildings.

Inside, walls were covered in artwork by the elderly and children alongside framed prints of Belarus Jews’ favorite son, the painter Marc Chagall.

The place was humming with activity.

There was something for everyone: Jewish cooking, dancing, singing and storytelling; aerobics and ballroom dancing; arts and crafts; chess, checkers and card games; poetry writing and readings; Internet access; physical therapy, a fitness center, support groups and psychologists; Jewish publications; a 38-member choir and theater troupes.

If members have difficulty walking to the Campus, one of a fleet of JDC vehicles picks them up.

On a recent day, in a small upstairs dance studio, a 50-something male choreographer led a half dozen older women in an aerobic, whirling, dervish-like dance around the room.

Down the hall, a man taught beginner’s Hebrew to another group of older women. Several struggled mightily with the exercises, laughing as they kept trying.

The idea of the Campus, says Sofia Abramova, the Hesed director, is to extend and enrich the Jews’ quality of life, bring them back into the Jewish fold — and hopefully their children and grandchildren will follow.

“When they get older, retire or lose their job, lose their spouses and close friends, it’s important to find themselves new social situations,” Abramova says. “We want them to feel a connectedness with the community, so he or she feels that they are not alone.”

The activities generally are replicated, on a far smaller scale, in the 18 other Jewish communities around Belarus.

But young Jews in Belarus may not be sticking around. Many seek to emigrate, and it is easier for them to find work abroad and acclimate to a new country than their elders.

At a Chanukah event at the Campus, all the young people seem to have considered immigration, though only a few have departed over the past few years.

Israel is the most common destination, but it frightens some young Belarussians. Several compatriots have been killed during the intifada. Germany, Canada, and the United States are also desirable, but sometimes tough to get visas for. For whatever reason, these young folks stay put — for now.

Difficulty in obtaining visas is one reason, but more common reasons are to be close to family and friends, to finish school, because of general instability in the world or simply because this is their home.

Alexey Starodynov, 22, is a fencer who says he won’t rule out anything regarding the future. He first wants his degree in physical education, in order to become a fencing coach, and a girlfriend with whom to share the immigration experience.

Until then, staying in a hometown he loves, Minsk, is a fine fallback option. Starodynov also echoes a view heard widely across the Campus.

“First we came to Hillel because we were curious, then we came because it was interesting,” he says. “Now we come because it’s our family.”

More than the entertainment, Jews here say the Campus represents something of a safe haven. The facility is warm and welcoming, as opposed to the cold, grim streets of wintertime Minsk, with its heavy police presence and grumpy store clerks.

Though anti-Semitism isn’t virulent here, Jews say they’ve had enough first-hand negative experiences to make them leery.

In the Campus, says one older woman speaking on the condition of anonymity, “You’re free to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish traditions, to speak about anything — Jews, Jewish concerns, Jewish history. We don’t have a high level of anti-Semitism here, but after 70 years, there’s some feeling of being afraid that somebody will say, ‘You, you Jew!’ “

That’s why so many Jews here express gratitude to the Campus and its benefactor, the JDC.

One Jewish leader, though, has some criticism.

As opposed to Russia and Ukraine, which each has a handful of super-wealthy Jewish tycoons who finance a portion of Jewish life, Belarus and its Third-World, strictly controlled economy has produced no “oligarchs,” Jewish or otherwise.

As a result, the JDC is the main game in town for Belarussian Jewry.

Leonid Levin, chairman of the Union of Belarussian Jewish Public Associations and Communities, a secular umbrella group, says this state of affairs has fostered “dependency” across the board — from the elderly who rely on JDC food parcels and medical assistance, to the Jewish political, cultural and social groups that need JDC money to stay afloat.

Levin likened it to “parent-child relations,” where the child eventually chafes.

“We are grateful to the Joint that they exist and have helped us,” Levin says. “But years have passed, and we’re no longer just a small Jewish people where the parcels of food and clothing are the most important thing. We’re at the stage where we need to build our own community.”

“He who pays, calls the shots,” he charges, though he refuses to cite any specific instances where the JDC may have encroached on communal autonomy.

Fromer, the JDC’s representative, says some resentment early on was expected, but it’s now a minority view. Reliance on JDC money is unavoidable here.

“No one can assist the community but us,” says Fromer, a native of St. Petersburg who made aliyah in 1978 and returned to Belarus in April 2003. “We have to help prevent Jews from dying of starvation, to make them healthier and to not lose them from the Jewish world. Nobody can assist them but us. We are the front people of American Jewry and accountable for how their money is spent.”

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