I know that I am not alone in our congregation in vividly remembering the struggle to free the Soviet Jews, our “brothers and sisters” trapped behind the Iron Curtain, unable to freely practice their religion or emigrate. I have memories of going to Free Soviet Jewry rallies with my parents, in New York City and on that frigid day on the National Mall in Washington D.C. I recall shipping packages of matza to Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky, care of the Soviet Embassy in Washington; they were all discarded. And, I had a “Bar Mitzvah Twin” – we placed a chair on the bimah on the day of my Bar Mitzvah as a gesture of solidarity with a young boy, my age, who could not become Bar Mitzvah under the Soviet regime. Indeed, the struggle for Soviet Jewry was a major theme of my childhood; I know that many of us were involved in various ways in working to free our brethren in the U.S.S.R.
And then suddenly – quite suddenly you will recall – the Berlin Wall fell, the Iron Curtain crumbled and Soviet Jews were free to move to Israel, to the USA or to remain in what came to be known as the Former Soviet Union (F.S.U.) to practice their Judaism openly and without harassment. Now, here we are, twenty-five years later. What remains of the Russian Jewish community? Has a vibrant Jewish life emerged in the aftermath of Communism?
I was fortunate to be invited by UJA Federation of New York to join them on a Rabbinic Mission to Moscow in late March to answer these questions. Together with about a dozen New York-area Rabbis, we would have a chance to assess first-hand the status of Russian Jewry. What an experience it was! A few highlights – and I look forward to sharing more in the coming months:
- The Jewish Institutions – Each one we visited was grander than the last. From the new $50 million Moscow Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, to the gleaming JCC whose nursery school facilities rival our own, to the array of delicious kosher restaurants, Jewish facilities in Russia are impressive on every level. Recalling my sending Matza to Sharansky ~30 years ago, I bought Matza on the street outside the Jewish museum and brought it back home to use at my own Seder.
- Young Leadership – It seemed that nearly all of the Jewish institutions were led by what we here call “emerging leaders,” young people in their 20s and 30s. The Jewish Agency overnight camp, open during the Spring break week at a Moscow hotel, was led by dynamic and exciting young counselors; some of the campers learned that they were Jewish the week before their parents sent them to camp! The UJA-funded “grassroots projects” grant programs were all fascinating – from the young man who founded an International Jewish Arts Festival to the woman who is rediscovering Yiddish song to the I.T. guy, helping the elderly Jewish population learn to use computers – each was, in its own way, ground-breaking and inspirational.
- Religious Possibilities – at present, most Jewish life in Russia is under the aegis of Chabad. And yet, Chabad reaches less than 30% of the Jewish community. We met the nascent leadership of the Reform Movement in Moscow; there is a small Conservative (Masorti) congregation as well. Our group left convinced that with the right resources the diverse array of Jewish life that we enjoy in the U.S.A. will, one day, bloom in Russia.
- Safety – We felt completely secure wearing our Kippot in public. What a contrast to my Spring 2015 visit to Paris, for example.
- Russia, in general – I was fortunate to have an opportunity to visit Moscow once before, in 1993 with United Synagogue Youth, our Conservative teen youth group. What a difference! The city was cleaner and things ran dramatically better. One anecdote that, perhaps, sums up the new Russian economy – as we sat in traffic on the way from the airport, I noticed my taxi driver consulting his tablet computer. What was he looking up? The daily price of a barrel of Brent Crude. Clearly, his livelihood is closely tied into the world economy.
One counselor at the Jewish Agency camp said, “My parents didn’t teach me; I am teaching them. In my family, Jewish identity begins with me.” An opportunity to visit another Jewish community – and especially a burgeoning Jewish community – serves as a reminder not to take for granted our gift of access to Jewish tradition in our lives. What a gift we have to be able to live the Jewish lives we do and what an equally important gift, to share in the nearly miraculous rebirth of Jewish life in Russia.
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehechehyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.