Sunday, June 3, 2007

The hidden tragedy: the Jews of the CIS (former Soviet Union)

An article in Ha'aretz draws attention to an all but forgotten corner and neglected tragedy of Jewish history. It is history that is happening right now, history that we can change. It is, in my opinion, as a largely ignorant bystander, a failure of the Zionist movement, the Israeli government, and the Jews of the United States and Western Europe.
The Jewish community of Greater Russia, which became the USSR and is now the C.I.S. (Confederation of (not-very) Independent States) was once the heart of the Jewish world, and the original mainspring of Zionism. At one time, it numbered over 5 million. Its people were the engine of the Zionist revival. Achad Ha'am, Ben-Gurion, Bialik, A.D. Gordon, Jabotinsky, Pinsker, Weizmann... the list is endless. This is the world that my grandparents and my great grand-parents, and those of many other Israelis left behind to come to "Eretz Yisroel" as it was known before 1917. These were the people who clamored most insistently for a Jewish National Home, and who were most insistent that that home had to be the land of Israel. Unlike the Jews of Germany or France, they had few illusions about a rosy future for Jews in the Diaspora, except for the communists among them. Confined to the pale of settlement, living in abject poverty, they knew that time was running out for them. Large numbers emigrated to the United States and a smaller number to Palestine, but most of the Jews of Russia were trapped inside the Soviet Union soon after 1917.
Constant persecution, successively under Tsarism and Communism, with a big assist from Nazism, reduced the numbers of the Jewish community. By the eve of World War II, there were about 3.5 million Jews left in the Soviet Union, and about 2.6 million remained after World War II (See here ). By 1959, the Jewish community there numbered only about 2,300,000 and by 1989, there were supposedly less than 1.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union, apparently counting only "Halachic" Jews, whose mothers were Jewish. Of these about a million emigrated. Actually, about  1.5 million Jews emigrated, including those who were not halachically Jewish. 1.5 million minus 1.5 million should be zero, yet there are still Jews in Greater Russia, because the statistics always under-estimate the actual number of Jews. That is perhaps the most hopeful sign. Scattered communities remain throughout the former Soviet Union.  In Tadjikistan there are 900 Jews ,12,000 aged Jews in the Stalinist fiasco Birobidjan Jewish republic, 112,000 to 500,000 in the Ukraine, 25,000 to 50,000 in Belarus, 16,000 in the three Baltic states, 275,000 to 650,000 in Russia (figures are from here  and here). . The larger estimates count those who hide their nationality and those who have only a Jewish father and are not halachically Jewish, and there may be even more counting those who remember that a great grandfather was Jewish. Former Soviet Union is just part of the story. In Hungary for example, there are about 100,000 Jews or maybe as many as 500,000. In Poland, there are perhaps 10,000 Jews.  
The article in Haaretz describes a Chabad movement teachers' training college in Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine, one of many such efforts that sends its female students all across Russia. The school, supported by the Jewish agency and the State of Israel, accepts students who are not formally Jewish. The once great Russian Jewish community, almost destroyed by Nazism and Communism, is flickering to life, but what we see may just be embers. The school itself is a tiny effort. It was founded in 1995. In the twelve years of its existence, three hundred students in all have completed the course of studies. A drop in the bucket. But it is one of the more successful efforts.  
Rabbi Stambler, who heads the school, explains:
... "The Zionists argued that all the Jews should be taken to Israel. However, we understand that the Jews will remain in the Diaspora until the Messiah comes, and hence it is necessary to invest in infrastructures here, to see to the existing community and to nurture it, for example though schools and the teachers college." Even if it remains unofficial, some of the Jewish Agency people have now adopted this outlook as well. "In recent years we have had a paradigm change in policy," says the Jewish Agency education emissary in the city, Haim Levitzky, "a transition from educational activities for purposes of immigration to Israel, to education for its own sake. We are supporting local development and the community does not relate to us as though we are 'stealing' the children."
Until the Messiah does come (don't hold your breath) along with "Yiddishkeit" of course, the Chabad school is also teaching Chabadism.  Chabad is not a Zionist movement, and has some strange beliefs. Among other things, at least some of its members believe that their late Rabbi was the Messiah, and the Rabbi himself believed that the Holocaust was a just punishment of the Jews. If God did it, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, He knew what He was doing.  
But Chabad nonetheless does excellent practical work, and, at least, Chabad is doing something and so are some others. They have produced a bit of hope for Jewish life in the FSU.  The revival is usually described in somewhat hyperbolic terms. For example:
Jewish life is, once again, on the upswing. Since 1993, the Jewish population has expanded its organizational numbers to roughly 250 organizations, located in more than 80 cities. Some of these organizations include the Ukrainian Jewish Congress, the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, the Jewish Council of Ukraine, and the Chabad Lubavitch movement. The state now recognizes Jewish cultural and religious institutions, including 14 Jewish day schools, 10 Yeshivot, and 70 Hebrew and Sunday schools.
And from here:
 These FSU countries have seen an enormous influx of manpower and financial resources in the attempt to rebuild Russian Jewry. An astonishing number of Jewish organizations, religious and secular, have participated in this effort and continue to do so.   Some organizations, like Chabad (Feori) and Keroor (the umbrella body for non-Chabad communities), have engaged in local community building, while others, like Migdal Ohr, have until recently engaged in interesting Russians in their Judaism and then getting them to schools and yeshivas elsewhere as quickly as possible. As of 2001, Keroor, the umbrella of communities related to REK (the Russian Jewish Congress), registered 71 communities, while FJC (FEOR of Chabad) registered 73 communities. The Reform registered 30 communities. (However, some of these communities are registered more than once). In Moscow alone, there are 2 Jewish universities, 3 yeshivas, 2 girls seminaries and 2 kollelim. Besides Moscow and St Petersburg, there are several cities which, together with their satellite towns, number Jewish populations between 5 and 20 thousand. Amongst these are Yekaternburg, Saratov, Samara, Novosibirsk, Rostov and Tchelabinsk.
      The Hillel organization has, for the past four years, trained hundreds of Jewish students in the FSU to lead Pesach seders in far-flung communities, often in partnership with visiting Hillel students from North America and Israel. The Conservative movement has virtually no presence in Russia.
      The Reform movement has a training program to train para-professional leaders to work in Reform congregations throughout the FSU, as does Migdal Ohr, an Orthodox organization together with the Joint... 
It sounds impressive, but is it really enough? Look closely. "Hundreds" trained to lead Pesach seders in four years, schools that may graduate 25 students a year like the Chabad college, do not seem to me so much, compared to the huge work that is needed to save the remnants of these communities.
The article in Ha'aretz describes one exceptional young lady at the Chabad college, whose great grand-parent was Jewish, and who opted to study in the college, to convert and to become orthodox. The article tells us:
Moreover, at the college, they prefer to downplay the fact, perhaps for fear of how it would be greeted in Israel, that under rabbinical law, some of the students are not Jewish at all. According to some of the teachers, the extent of this phenomenon amounts to about 20 percent.  
 How, indeed is it greeted with Israel? With horror, to be sure, but not for the reasons that Chabad may fear. Statistically, most of the Russian Jews may not be halachically Jewish by now. Yet this school, and others like it, may reach only a small percent of them.
In fifty years, there may be nothing left at all of Russian Jewry. If that was because all the Jews of the former Soviet Union emigrated to Israel or found new lives in the United States, it would not be a cause for sorrow. But what if they are all lost because of our negligence?  Our children and grandchildren will be wondering, "What were they thinking? How did Zionism fail the Jews of Greater Russia? How did American Judaism fail them?
The effort should be reaching out not only to those who are Jewish, and to those who "know" they are Jewish, but to those who hardly know, those who are afraid to know, and those who do not want to know. Somehow, the Zionist movement in Israel, and the Jews of the United States, Zionist and otherwise, have to understand the magnitude of the tragedy that befell the Jews of the FSU as a community. Because it was so very hard, almost impossible, to be Jewish for so long, it must now be made easy to be Jewish and easy to become Jewish again.
With all due respect to the work of Chabad and of the reform movement, we have to understand that many of the Jews of Russia may see themselves as members of the Jewish people, but do not necessarily identify with the Jewish religion. Many come to Israel, only to find that they are ostracized because they are Jewish only because of their father. "In Russia I was Jewish, here I am Russian," one complained to me. One complained, many others are silent, and many leave in frustration.  We must give the forgotten Jews of the C.I.S. a road back to secular Judaism. Are we going to abandon all of these Jews because most of them, like Ben-Gurion, Berdichevsky and Borochov before them, have little or no use for religion?
Ami Isseroff

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


  • People with a non-Jewish mother are not Jewish.
    There is notjing there to save except for halachic jews. Germany probably has a great number of people with jewish acestry. So what?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At June 4, 2007 at 6:26 AM  

  • Dear "anonymous:"

    Your narrow, mean-spirited comment is not appropriate to Israel.

    Our country is home to many Jews who do not meet the halachic requirement. This does not prevent them from living as citizens of Israel, paying taxes, serving in the army and sometimes dying to defend the country.

    -- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

    By Blogger Joseph M. Hochstein, At June 5, 2007 at 4:49 PM  

  • Absolutely true. When they battle for IDF, they are Israelis... after that they are gentiles. Hyprocrisy.. Double standards...

    By Blogger Anand Nair, At October 20, 2007 at 9:55 AM  

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