Rabbis Ari Edelkopf, with black beard, and Berel Lazar, right, listen to a speech at a reception of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 9. Photo courtesy of Federation of Jewish Communities

Rabbi’s expulsion rattles Russian Jews fearful of Kremlin crackdown


Three years ago, Rabbi Ari Edelkopf and his wife, Chana, worked around the clock for weeks to show off their community and city to the many foreigners in town for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The Chabad emissaries from the United States came to the city on Russia’s Black Sea coast in 2002. By the time the Olympics opened, they could offer three synagogues, five information centers and 24/7 kosher catering to thousands of people in the city, which has only 3,000 Jews.

The Edelkopfs were celebrated in the local media for these considerable efforts, which the Kremlin marketed as proof that Russia welcomes minorities — including by inviting a Russian chief rabbi to speak at the opening.

This month, the couple is in the news again but for a different reason: They and their seven children have been ordered to leave Russia after authorities flagged Ari Edelkopf as a threat to national security — a precedent in post-communist Russia that community leaders call false and worrisome, but are unable to prevent.

Occurring amid a broader crackdown on foreign and human rights groups under President Vladimir Putin, the de facto deportation order against the Edelkopfs is to many Russian Jews a sign that despite the Kremlin’s generally favorable attitude to their community, they are not immune to the effects of living in an increasingly authoritarian state. And it is doubly alarming in a country where many Jews have bitter memories of how the communists repressed religious and community life.

The Edelkopfs’ deportation order drew an unusually harsh reaction from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a Chabad-affiliated group that has maintained friendly and mutually beneficial ties with Putin.

The order, which included no explanation or concrete accusation, “raises serious concerns for the future of the Jewish communities in the country,” Rabbi Boruch Gorin, a federation spokesman, told the L’chaim Jewish weekly last week. Gorin is a senior aide to Beral Lazar, the chief rabbi who spoke at the Sochi opening ceremony.

Gorin also called the order “an attempt to establish control” on religious communities in Russia, including the Jewish one, which he said is serviced by some 70 Chabad rabbis, half of whom are foreign.

Many Sochi Jews consider Edelkopf, a Los Angeles native, a popular and beloved spiritual leader with an impeccable record and a close relationship with Lazar. They reacted with dismay and outrage to the deportation order.

“This is absurd,” Rosa Khalilov wrote in one of the hundreds of Facebook messages posted to Edelkopf’s profile, in which he offered updates from his failed legal fight to stay in Russia. “Deportation without proof and thus without proper defense for the accused. I am utterly disappointed.”

Typical of such discussions, comments by Russian speakers abroad tended to be more outspoken than the ones authored domestically.

“Somewhere along the way our country changed without our noticing,” wrote Petr Shersher, a 69-year-old Jewish man from Khabarovsk who lives in the United States. “We’re suddenly not among friends and compatriots but in another brutal and indifferent atmosphere.”

Since the fall of communism in 1991, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia — essentially Chabad’s Russia branch, and by far the country’s largest Jewish group — only on a very rare occasion had publicly questioned the viability of Jewish life in the country or the authorities’ tolerance of religious freedoms.

The strong reactions to the Edelkopf edict seem to be less connected to the actual expulsion – at least seven rabbis have been sent packing over the past decade over visa and residence issues — than to the assertion that Edelkopf endangers Russia, a claim the rabbi denies.

“This serious allegation is a negative precedent that we had never seen directed at a rabbi before in Russia, and it is a very, very big problem for us,” Gorin told JTA. “What are they saying? Is he a spy? We can remember very well the times when Jews were last accused of endangering state security,” he added in reference to anti-Semitic persecution under communism.

Behind the expulsion of Edelkopf and the other rabbis, Gorin added, is an attempt by the state to limit the number of foreign clerics living in Russia – an effort that has led to expulsions not only of rabbis but also of imams and Protestant priests.

“It’s not targeting the Jews,” he said.

Alexander Boroda, the president of Gorin’s federation, told Interfax that he was “dismayed” by the expulsion and suggested it was the work of an overzealous official eager “to check off the box” after being ordered to curb immigration.

Boroda also told Interfax that the deportation was not anti-Semitic. He recalled how Putin’s government has facilitated a Jewish revival in Russia — including by returning dozens of buildings; educating to tolerance; adding Jewish holidays to the national calendar, and offering subsidies to Jewish groups. Lazar, who was born in Italy, often contrasts the scarcity of anti-Semitic violence in Russia with its prevalence in France and Great Britain.

The government has also tolerated criticism by the Chabad-led community. Under Lazar and Boroda, the Federation has largely ignored xenophobia against non-Jews but consistently condemned any expression of anti-Semitism — including from within Putin’s party and government.

The federation even spoke out against Russia’s vote in favor of a UNESCO resolution last year that ignores Judaism’s attachment to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Still, the Edelkopf deportation is part of a string of recent incidents in which Jews have suffered the effects of growing authoritarianism in Russia – a country where opposition figures are routinely prosecuted and convicted. Since 2012 the country has slipped in international rankings of free speech and human rights; Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Internet” index slipped recently from “partly free” to “not free.”

Under legislation from 2012, a Jewish charitable group from Ryazan near Moscow was flagged in 2015 by the justice ministry as a “foreign agent” over its funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and its reproduction in a newsletter of political op-eds that appeared in the L’chaim Jewish weekly.

Ari Edelkopf and wife Chana in 2009 in Sochi, Russia. Photo courtesy of Federation of Jewish Communities

Last year, a court in Sverdlovsk convicted a teacher, Semen Tykman, of inciting hatred among pupils at his Chabad school against Germans and propagating the idea of Jewish superiority. Authorities raided his school and another one in 2015, confiscating textbooks, which some Russian Jews suggested was to create a semblance of equivalence with Russia’s crackdown on radical Islam.

Before that affair, a Russian court in 2013 convicted Ilya Farber, a Jewish village teacher, of corruption in a trial that some Jewish groups dismissed as flawed, in part because the prosecution displayed some anti-Semitic undertones in arguing it.

While the incidents differ in their local contexts in the multiethnic behemoth that is Russia, seen together they demonstrate that the Jewish minority not only thrived under Putin but is feeling the “collateral damage as the government drastically tightens its grip on all areas of life,” according to Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli lawmaker from Ukraine and a staunch critic of Putin.

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, recently named the anti-democratic measures of Putin’s government — along with the halving of the Russian ruble against the dollar amid sanctions and dropping oil prices — as a major catalyst for an increase in immigration to Israel by Russian Jews.

Last year, Russia was Israel’s largest provider of immigrants with some 7,000 newcomers to the Jewish state, or olim – a 10-year high that saw Russia’s Jewish population of roughly 250,000 people lose  2 1/2 percent of its members to Israel.

But to Lazar, Russia’s Chabad-affiliated chief rabbi, the numbers tell a different story, he told JTA last week at the Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference in London.

“I don’t know if Jews are leaving because of these steps,” he said, referring to limitations on freedom of speech and other liberties in Russia. “But I think it’s a testament to the revival of the community, which has instilled Jewish identity to provide many olim, whereas 15 years ago this phenomenon just didn’t exist.”

Russian Jews built this city on rock and roll (and klezmer)


When the six members of the Simcha klezmer band hauled their instruments into a dilapidated rehearsal space, no one suspected they were about to hijack a government building in this large, clean city some 450 miles east of Moscow.

But that’s exactly what happened in 1995 when this popular ensemble — founded in 1989 by Jewish musicians during the Soviet Union’s twilight years — entered the Teacher’s House, a government-controlled building that had once been a synagogue. For three years, city officials had pledged to return the structure to the Jewish community.

But the band’s members had had enough of empty promises. Determined to hold the mayor to his word, the players remained barricaded inside for three days as police prepared to storm in.

The standoff ended with the city giving up the synagogue, which it signed over to its 8,000-member Jewish community the following year.

In this part of Russia, near the Ural Mountains that divide Europe from Asia, Simcha has been the linchpin of the Jewish community’s growth and strength and a symbol of the Jews’ determination to maintain their religious and cultural identity amid persecution.

“Many Russian Jewish communities grew to include klezmer bands,” Eduard Tumansky, the band’s current leader, told JTA after a performance in September celebrating the synagogue’s centennial. “But I know of no other klezmer bands besides ours that grew into a Jewish community.”

Violinist Leonid Sonts, who founded Simcha, “used musical activities as a vehicle for building a Jewish community long before open worship became tolerated again in Kazan,” said the city’s Chabad rabbi, Yitzhak Gorelick.

Sonts, who opened a Jewish cultural center, Menorah, in 1987, “used the band to turn musical events into cultural-religious events,” Tumansky recalled. “We performed during the holidays. Before [Kazan’s] Jewish people had a synagogue, they got together at Simcha concerts. Simcha became the engine for Jewish life.

“Simcha was the Jewish community’s main lobbying platform and face,” he said. “So when the Soviet Union collapsed, we already had strong partnerships. Everybody in Kazan knew Simcha.”

Later the community hired a rabbi for its synagogue and built a Jewish school – institutions that took over the task of serving as an axis for Jewish life here. Sonts became the president of Kazan’s Jewish community – a role he maintained until his passing in 2001.

After returning the Teacher’s House, authorities in Kazan have done more than give the Jews a synagogue: They turned it and the community into tourist attractions.

Since 2012, the city has held an annual Jewish music festival around Rosh Hashanah. And last year, the city held a series of Jewish-themed events outside the synagogue, including Kazan’s first Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference and a gathering by Chabad rabbis from across the former Soviet Union.

The events attracted an unlikely mix of secular and religious Jews, who flooded the spacious, red-cobble pedestrian streets of Kazan’s old city, with its mosques and gold-spired Russian Orthodox churches.

Local Jews say they feel safe among the Sunni Muslim majority in the Russian state of Tatarstan, of which Kazan is the capital.

“I regularly put my tefillin on while waiting for the subway in the morning,” said Gershon Ilianski, 16, a student at the Jewish high school here. “I know they have problems with Muslims in Western Europe, but I never worried anyone would bother me here.”

Thirty years ago, however, when Russia was still communist, Jews, Muslims and Christians all needed a non-religious alibi to worship.

“Simcha performed at Purim and Hanukkah parties while camouflaging the religious and communal nature of these events,” Tumansky said. “To the community, the concerts were [seen] as a Jewish event. To authorities, just a musical one.”

Even so, such musical gatherings were not allowed elsewhere in the Soviet Union, where Communist government sought to blur ethnic identities. This policy was less strictly enforced in Kazan, as its population was deeply attached to Islam and its heritage.

“Moscow realized it couldn’t restrict the locals too much on religion and tradition, because there’d be too much alienation,” said Chaim Chesler, founder of the Limmud FSU organization. “The result is an inspiring example of coexistence.”

This atmosphere of relative tolerance in Kazan during the Soviet era attracted hundreds of Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union. At a time when some universities nearer to Moscow barred Jews, they were accepted without problem at Kazan’s institutions of higher education, the Ukraine-born Sonts said in an interview he gave to local media before his death.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kazan already had a functioning Jewish community — something that would take years to grow in other Russian cities.

This head start has meant that Jewish lay leaders have been able to have a more hands-on approach to developing their community. For example, unlike most other Jewish Russian communities, Kazan employs its Chabad rabbi, Gorelick, full time. Elsewhere in Russia, rabbis often work independently of the community, sometimes competing with its lay leaders for donations from local philanthropists.

Last September, the community celebrated its strength alongside its synagogue’s centennial by rededicating the shul following renovations. Tumansky, wearing his trademark black hat, performed with Simcha’s other five musicians before a crowd of several thousand outside the synagogue.

“It’s true that we are now the sideshow of the community we used to run,” he said of the band. “But then again, that was exactly what we fought for: to have a normal community.”

The concert was unorthodox; while Simcha primarily played klezmer, there were notable electric guitar and country music influences. After each solo, the crowd, a mix of Jews and non-Jews, waved blue and white balloons emblazoned with a Star of David, enthusiastically reacting with whistles and yelps.

“Tell me,” Tumansky told a reporter after the show. “Have you ever seen a Jewish community built on rock and roll?”

In an ultra-wealthy Moscow suburb, a luxurious JCC opens its doors


On the only road connecting this affluent village on Moscow’s western outskirts, Russian secret service agents are blocking all inbound traffic. Drivers bound for Zhukovka pull over and step out to smoke while chatting with other motorists as a line of luxury cars grows on the shoulder of a two-lane road.

The closures are a frequent occurrence because Zhukovka and the adjacent riverside village of Barvikha are home to some of Russia’s richest and most powerful people. Among the combined 5,500 residents living in the villages are Ukraine’s ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, who has a $52 million mansion in the area, and the Russian Jewish construction magnates Boris and Arkady Rotenberg. All three are associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Ordinary” millionaires who live here must wait patiently as VIPs travel in motorcades to and from Moscow, or receive visits by senior officials. So do the tourists who come here to catch a glimpse of the village’s sprawling villas, with their private tennis courts and hedge mazes.

But this month Muscovites, and Jews especially, received a more accessible attraction in Zhukovka: A $20 million Jewish community center and synagogue opened here on Dec. 6 amid fanfare and in the presence of 400 guests, including Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, David Lau. And while the new JCC is seen as a demonstration of this community’s robustness, it nonetheless comes amid growing Jewish emigration that is widely attributed to the financial crisis in Russia and concern over its government’s nationalist agenda.

From the international design firm Gensler, the Zhukovka JCC is a doughnut-shaped structure with a granite facade, 54,000 square feet of floor space, a small cinema and 24 luxury guest rooms that are intended to be used free of charge by Shabbat overnighters.

At the heart of the building is a synagogue with a capacity of 400 worshippers and modular tables made of Swedish wood. The basement has still-unfinished, warm-water mikvah ritual baths. The building is under the watchful eye of 24/7 security guards, who operate airport-grade body and luggage scanners. The basement of the center, which was built with money donated by wealthy Jews (and some non-Jews), has a gourmet kosher restaurant. Its kitchen is overseen by two Italian chefs, including the renowned restaurateur Uilliam Lamberti.

Rabbi Alexander Boroda speaking at the opening of the Zhukovka Jewish Community Center, Dec. 6, 2015. (Courtesy of The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia)Rabbi Alexander Boroda speaking at the opening of the Zhukovka JCC, Dec. 6, 2015. Photo courtesy of The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia

Among the first-time visitors to the center last week was Oleg Babinski, a retired army officer and business owner in his 50s who worships with the Zhukovka Jewish community, though he does not live in the village.

“I am not a rich man, but it still fills me with pride to see that our community can achieve something like this,” Babinski said.

Such a building would stand out almost anywhere else in Russia, where the average monthly salary among city dwellers is less than $600. But it’s par for the course in Zhukovka, where the shopping malls have Gucci and Prada stores, and there are a host of luxury car dealerships

At one mini-mall this year, local Jews placed a large menorah opposite a Bentley dealership.

No one knows exactly how many Jews live in and around Zhukovka. But it’s doubtful there are enough to fill the synagogue.

“Granted, this place is a little big for the community’s needs right now, but it’s with an eye to the future needs of a growing community,” said Velvel Krichevsky, a Chabad rabbi from Israel who will be working at Zhukovka.

The head rabbi at Zhukovka is Alexander Boroda, the president of the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, a vast network whose rabbis have formed a main engine for the renewal of Jewish life in Russia after the fall of communism. Among those rabbis is Berel Lazar, one of two chief rabbis in Russia. Lazar is known for his close ties to Putin — the two men lit Hanukkah candles together at the Kremlin on Dec. 9.

Federation ties with Russian politicians have been instrumental in obtaining land and some funding for opening dozens of Jewish institutions across Russia, though the Zhukovka center became a reality without such aid. The decision to build a Jewish center in Zhukovka came at the request of wealthy area Jews, according to Boroda.

“My friends asked for a synagogue near their home, and I wanted to open a Chabad house somewhere, so that’s why it happened there,” said Boroda, a former Red Army soldier who began exploring his Jewish identity after his discharge from the military in the 1980s.

Still, there is symbolism in the center’s opening in Zhukovka. The village, after all, used to be the resort destination of Russian Communist government leaders — the Soviet statesman Vyacheslav Molotov and Joseph Stalin’s daughter used to live here — who persecuted Russian Jewry and effectively drove it underground.

“This is going to be really great in summer,” said Rosa Skvortsov, 10, of Zhukovka, who attends the Reshit Chochma Litvak religious school in Moscow. Rosa visited the center last week with her father, Vasily, a film director, and a friend.

But the new center’s future is by no means certain. Built with funds collected over years, it opened at the height of a financial crisis that since August 2014 has halved the ruble’s value against the dollar amid dropping oil prices and Western sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.

Although many Jews are assured by Putin’s pro-Jewish policies, others are jittery over his overt nationalism and expansionism, as well as his government’s xenophobia toward gays and Muslims. The combination has already generated a 31 percent year-over-year increase in Jewish immigration to Israel, or aliyah, from Russia, which is home to about 260,000 Jews. In 2014, some 5,921 Russian Jews made aliyah, compared to 4,094 the previous year.

According to Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which facilitates aliyah, there’s been a rise in the number of Jews moving to Israel from Moscow and St. Petersburg, where Russian Jewry’s intellectual and financial elites tend to live, and where Jews used to be more resistant to leaving than their coreligionists in poorer areas.

These developments already are affecting the fundraising ability of Jewish groups. In Zhukovka, the congregants who asked Boroda to build the center “have all left, some to Europe, others elsewhere,” the Zhukovka rabbi said.

Still, Boroda insists that others have replaced those who have departed and his community will continue to raise enough money to maintain its infrastructure, including the high-maintenance center in Zhukovka.

“You don’t build a synagogue according to this year’s balance sheet,” he said.

And while emigration may be on the rise, Boroda added that “Russian Jews as a whole are never going to let go of what we have achieved just because of a few rough years.”

Cnaan Liphshiz traveled to Russia to receive a journalism award from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. The federation did not pay for his trip and had no role in the editing or writing of this article.

Flagging of Jewish group adding to Russian community’s insecurity


A senior Russian rabbi condemned the government’s listing of a Jewish welfare group as a foreign agent, calling it part of a policy which is making Jews insecure of their future in Russia.

Boruch Gorin, a Chabad rabbi who acts as a senior aide to Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar and as editor-in-chief of the highbrow “L’chaim” Jewish weekly in Moscow, leveled this criticism during an interview last week with JTA over the Russian justice ministry’s flagging this month of the Hesed-Tshuva group, which is based in the city of Ryazan located 120 miles south of Moscow.

Hesed-Tshuva is part of the Hesed welfare network, which is funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC. Gorin said the justice ministry defined Hesed-Tshuva as “involved in politics” because it shared some articles by L’Chaim on the Ukrainian-Russian conflict on its website, among other reasons.

While the move “does not target Jews specifically,” Gorin said, “it targets all civil society groups by scaring off donors, basically creating a reality where only government-sponsored entities can operate freely.” This, he said, “is scary to Russian Jews, who have memories of when their community organs were flagged as fifth columns by the authorities.”

Gorin is a vocal critic of the 2012 legislation that defines any nongovernmental organization receiving foreign funding as a foreign agent. He is also a high-placed member of the Russian branch of the Chabad network, which, under the auspices of President Vladimir Putin, has risen to become the most influential and powerful Jewish group in Russia and in other countries of the former Soviet Union.

Gorin concurred with the analysis of Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who told JTA that rising nationalism under Putin is responsible for an increase in the number of Russian Jews who take up Israeli residence and nationality.

In the first six months of 2015, a total of 2,958 Russian Jews – mostly from affluent cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg – made aliyah, compared to 1,944 in the corresponding period last year.

But Gorin said this “does not mean an increase in aliyah,” the Hebrew word for immigration by Jews to Israel. “A lot of these newcomers are taking up Israeli nationality without necessarily relocating their lives,” Gorin said.

Ancient Russian synagogues rededicated


Two ancient synagogues that Soviet authorities confiscated in rural Russia were rededicated as Jewish houses of worship.

One rededication occurred this week in Voronezh, in southern Russia, at a 110-year-old synagogue that was nationalized and turned into a textile factory. The renovation cost $2.5 million, which came mostly from the Russian-Jewish billionaire German Khan.

Last week, a rededication took place in the Black Sea city of Krasnodar at a ceremony led by Rabbi Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia, and Rabbi Avraam Ilyaguyev, who is in charge of religious services for Mountain Jews at the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia.

In Krasnodar, the local Jewish community began renovating the synagogue seven years ago, but bureaucratic and budget problems meant that “the place remained as it had been when Russian authorities returned it – an empty shell with nothing but bare concrete inside,” Boruch Gorin, a senior aide to Lazar and editor of the Russian Jewish L’chaim newspaper, told JTA on Tuesday.

The building, which cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars to reconstruct with funds raised locally, now has a prayer hall for 500 as well as a day-care center and Sunday school.

The rededication of the Voronezh synagogue, which was returned to the community 26 years ago, drew hundreds of guests, including the chief rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas Goldschmidt, and Yuri Kanner, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress.

“The vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is being realized before our eyes in these ancient communities,” said Goldschmidt, who is also the president of the Conference of European Rabbis. “The demand for Jewish education and Torah classes is only increasing.”

 

A taste of summer camp for young Jewish Russians


Several agencies are coming together in the hope that Russian-speaking children will begin their journey of Jewish self-discovery at Camp Gesher, a new overnight camp that caters to what it perceives to be a unique community.

Gesher — an initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles (JBBBSLA) and Genesis Philanthropy Group, a grant-making organization that aims to develop Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide — advertises itself as the “only overnight camp on the West Coast designed specially for kids ages 9 to 14 who come from Russian-speaking Jewish families.”

Time is running out to apply, though. As of press time, more than half of the 60 available openings in the camp had been filled, with additional applications being processed, according to Jenny Gitkis-Vainstein, a regional representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The camp’s inaugural — and only — session this summer will take place July 30 through Aug. 10 at JBBBSLA’s Camp Max Straus in Verdugo Hills. 

The cost of attending Camp Gesher (jbbbsla.org/campmax/campgesher) is $690. 

Gitkis-Vainstein, who develops programming for Russian Jews, told the Journal that the camp faces a number of challenges in balancing Judaism and this audience.

Rooted in the former Soviet Union, where religion was distrusted and persecuted, Russian Jews tend to be averse to programs that emphasize religious observance. So, despite offering Jewish content, the camp’s practices will be decidedly non-religious, Gitkis-Vainstein explained.

“Russian-Jewish families usually doesn’t send kids to Jewish camp … usually they are afraid of religious propaganda and brain-washing. For them, in America, Judaism is less about religion and more of a cultural experience and an understanding or a philosophy, so they don’t feel safe sending their kids to a regular Jewish camp, and they also don’t see value in it,” she said. “When they [the parents] were young, they didn’t have a Jewish camp, so for them the whole value is not exactly clear.”

Camp Gesher (“bridge” in Hebrew) aims to change that mentality.

Camp Max Straus assistant director Eric Nicastro said in an interview that part of the camp’s mission is bringing Russian kids closer to the Jewish community. The session will run simultaneously with the general overnight camp, Kibbutz Max Straus, and some activities will bring campers from both camps together. This mission inspired the name of the camp, Nicastro said.

“The goal is that [the Russian campers] will matriculate to [non-specific] Jewish summer camps,” Nicastro said. “Every report talks about Jewish engagement in the community and how Jewish summer camp is still a heavy-hitter that keeps them engaged. This is that bridge for the community.” 

Gitkis-Vainstein said that Camp Gesher is essentially a program of Kibbutz Max Straus. She described it as “a camp within a camp.”

Meanwhile, helping to keep the cost of camp affordable, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has provided approximately $30,000 in subsidies for Camp Gesher camperships as part of a larger grant that it provides to Kibbutz Max Straus.

Andrew Cushnir, executive vice president of Federation, expressed excitement about a summer camp that builds Jewish identity in the Russian community.

“We’re thrilled that this new opportunity is coming for Russian Jews in L.A….This is our sweet spot because it’s two things [engaging Russian Jews and summer camp] that we care deeply about,” Cushnir said.

Gitkis-Vainstein said reaction so far has been very positive and parents from all over California are signing their kids up for the new camp.

“What is good about this, a West Coast camp, is that there will be kids from L.A., Silicon Valley, San Francisco, San Diego and Orange County,” she said. “We hope to have kids from all over the West Coast.”

Russian Jews urge Netanyahu to ignore U.S. Jews’ call for ceding land


One hundred Russian Jewish notables urged Benjamin Netanyahu to ignore recent pleas by American Jews calling on the Israeli prime minister to cede land for peace.

In an open letter from Russia published Tuesday, the Russian Jews wrote that their message was a reaction to the April 3 letter initiated by the dovish Israel Policy Forum by 100 American Jews, including philanthropists Charles Bronfman, Danny Abraham, Lester Crown and Stanley Gold, and former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim.

Among the signers of the Russian letter were the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Yuri Kanner, and businessman Mikhail Fridman, one of the organization’s founders. Others included Pinchas Goldschmidt, a chief rabbi of Moscow and president of the Conference of European Rabbis.

“We, the Russian Jews, are committed to the secure and stable future of Israel no less than our American coreligionists,” the response letter from Moscow read.

“It is therefore that we believe that the decisions of the Head of the Government of Israel on critical issues should be taken for the sake of people of Israel only, based exclusively on Israel’s assessment of the situation. Decisions on national security issues must not be made under external pressure, regardless of its origins: world public opinion, U.S. leaders or even influential American Jews.”

In the wake of President Obama’s visit to Israel last month, the American Jews in their letter asked Netanyahu to take steps to represent Israel’s “readiness to make painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.” They said they wrote the letter “as Americans deeply committed to Israel’s security.”

Israeli volunteers head to N.Y. to help in Sandy relief efforts


A delegation of Israeli volunteers is on its way to the New York area to assist the Jewish community in the wake of superstorm Sandy.

The volunteers, young adult Russian speakers, will be in New York for 10 days to assist the Jewish community, with a focus on Russian speakers, according to the Jewish Agency.  They will help distribute food and other essential items to the elderly and provide social visits, as well as clean communal buildings and synagogues that suffered heavy damage in the storm.

The delegation includes volunteers from pre-army programs and other programs run by the Israeli Scouts, as well as former camp counselors at Jewish Agency summer camps in the former Soviet Union.

Some 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews reside in the northeastern United States in areas badly damaged by the storm. Many of the elderly Russian-speaking Jews live in multi-story buildings in the New York area, some of which are still without electricity or phone service. The storm also damaged Jewish communal buildings, causing the cancellation of many community and social services.

After Russian exodus, Jews rebuild communities


While Saddam Hussein’s forces shelled Israel during the Gulf War, 12-year-old Alex Kalmikov arrived at Ben Gurion Airport from Soviet Georgia. “Three days later we had our first gas mask alarm,” he recalled.

In what is considered by many to be the second major Jewish exodus (following the story of Passover), about 2 million Jews left the Soviet Union just before and after its collapse, settling primarily in the United States, Germany and Israel.

Moving earlier was Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet prisoner and refusenik who made aliyah in 1986 and is now chairman of the executive at the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Sharansky said in an interview with JointMedia News Service that for emigrants, leaving the Soviet Union was about the survival of “our Jewishness.” Specifically, the Russian aliyah to Israel brought “additional energy” to the country, he said.

Of course, there were also those who chose to stay in what is now the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Today about 1 million Jews live there, according to Asher Ostrin, director of the FSU department of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

In the days leading up to the March 4, 2012 presidential re-election of Vladimir Putin, some young Russian Jews joined fellow activists of varied social groups and ethnicities in protesting what many deem to be a corrupt election system. Unlike their older predecessors, young Russian Jews have begun to display not only a religious revival, but also unprecedented political engagement.

Twenty years after their Russian exodus, the lives of Jews who live in the U.S., Israel, and Germany—and those who stayed in the FSU—differ markedly. Here are the stories of those who left and those who remain.

United States

The Lautenberg Amendment first invited Soviet Jews to America as refugees. Nearly 750,000 Russian Jews currently live in the U.S, according to research by Sam Kliger, the director of Russian Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Typically, Russian Jews living in the States and other countries emigrated to escape political oppression or anti-Semitism.

Inna Yalovetskaya, 25, from Glendale, Ariz., came to the U.S. in 1992. Even in America, Yalovetskaya was often told by her parents “you do not say who you are no matter who is talking to you.”

For many, economic reasons also factored in. “I didn’t feel that I was needed professionally,” said Galina Goncharov, a computer programmer who came to Chicago, Ill., with her husband and teenage son in 1995 from Chelyabinsk, Russia. Due to their high level of education, by 2004 about 23 percent of immigrants were already earning more than $60,000. “I did have some language problems,” Goncharov said, and she lacked American work experience, but these were challenges she overcame.

While overall Russian Jews integrated smoothly into American society, one source of tension did remain. American Jews expected Russian Jews to become religiously active once they were free. But as Russian Jews tend to define themselves more as an ethnic group, many found it hard to relate to the religiously organized nature of America’s Jewish community. Kliger’s research shows that the majority of Russian Jewish Americans feel that religion is either “not important” or has “no meaning at all.” That, however, is beginning to change.

“Today I see myself more as a Jew than I did when I lived in Russia. In Russia I never knew anything about the Jewish holidays except Passover because Matzo always appeared in our home from some unknown location… Here I know everything,” Goncharov said.

Unlike adults, children of immigrants were often attracted to America’s structured Jewish community. Jewish Sunday schools and community centers made Yalovetskaya’s husband, Alexander Polatsky, 27, become part of Jewish-American culture. Today, “I don’t identify as a Russian in any way other than the fact that I was born in Russia,” he said.

Israel

According to Lily Galili, an Israeli journalist who completed a book on the subject, more than one million Russian Jews came to Israel between 1990 and 1996. A 2011 report in the Guardian stated that more than 15 percent of Israel’s total population today is immigrants from the former USSR.

Yosef Yoshpa from Ashdod moved to Israel in 1990 with his wife and two children. It was not “like moving from England to France,” he said. From an economic standpoint, in such a small country the new immigrants had to compete with Arabs and lower-class Sephardic Jews over menial jobs. Soon an image of Russian professors sweeping the streets of Tel Aviv evolved. Thousands of Russian engineers came, but “what can Israel do with an expert on Siberian trains? We hardly have trains,” Galili said.

Russian Jews have always tended to keep to themselves. Today they work in Israeli society, serve in the army, speak Hebrew, but after hours they prefer to stick together within their own unique culture. “I feel Israeli, but Russian-Israeli. It is a somewhat different animal,” said Yoshpa’s son, Benny, 32.

Members of the Russian community in Israel are predominantly secular and not always considered halakhically Jewish by the government. Israel’s Law of Return allowed the immigration of non-Jewish spouses, and those with only one Jewish parent or grandparent. “They’re Jews in Russia but they’re Russians in Israel,” Galili said. There were efforts by the army to convert them but most already see themselves as Jewish, she added.

Yosef Yoshpa’s second son, Michael, 26, felt completely Israeli in the army, where “everyone came together from a different background for the purpose of defending our country,” he said. Alex Kalmikov’s family, which lives in Holon, came to Israel out of Zionist beliefs. Even so, as a Russian, he “was beaten and spit on” in school. For Michael Yoshpa, that’s not unique. “Kids always pick on each other,” he said. But even by the time Kalmikov entered service in an elite army program, one woman still called him a “stinky Russian.” 

The June 1, 2001 Palestinian terrorist attack on the Dolphinarium night club in Tel Aviv was a turning point. Twenty mostly Russian teenagers were killed, and Russian immigrants joined Israeli society by sharing in the loss caused by Palestinian terrorism. Since then Russian immigrants have become staunch supporters of the Jewish state. The Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party, founded by current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, generally represents Soviet immigrants in Israel.

By now more than 20 percent of Israel’s high-tech employees come from the USSR, Director-General of Association of Entrepreneurs in Israel Irena Valdberg told Yedioth Ahronot in 2010. Israeli television offers a Russian channel and Russian subtitles often appear even in the Hebrew programming. “They never gave up. These are not people who give up,” Galili said.

JAFI’s Sharansky told JointMedia News Service that Russian aliyah “brought a lot of knowledge and a lot of ambition to Israeli society, opened it to new competition, made it much more dynamic, removed many barriers which existed inside Israeli society, and made Israel much stronger.”

Germany

Germany’s Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust, but as of 1991 the country has offered Russian Jews massive social benefits. More than 220,000 Soviet Jews immigrated to Germany in the past two decades, resulting in a major Jewish revival in the country. Around ninety percent of today’s German Jewish population comes from the former USSR.

According to Paul Harris, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama who co-authored a book about Soviet immigrants in the past 20 years, many chose Germany because they felt that Israel was an unstable place. Many couldn’t get into the U.S., and some were elderly people who struggled economically and needed German welfare.

Among Russian-Jewish immigrants in Germany, “the older generations had huge problems…They were just too old to learn the language, to find jobs,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a Berlin-based attorney and a Jewish immigrant from Russia.

Igor Mitchnik, 21, was five months old when his parents moved to Germany from St. Petersburg. Back then his mother’s Russian degree was not accepted and she had to return to school. Mitchnik’s grandfather still works as a taxi driver. “If you talk to taxi drivers in Berlin, you see really intelligent people who had the same fate like my grandfather.”

The children of Russian-Jewish immigrants are now becoming more visible in German society by opening Jewish restaurants, schools and synagogues in cities such as Berlin and Munich, Reuters recently reported. About 20,000 Israelis who live in Berlin also spur this German Jewish revival. An Orthodox Jewish community is also steadily growing.

But a recent parliament-appointed commission study showed that 20 percent of Germans are still anti-Semitic. Mitchnik feels great in Berlin, but in some regions even some ordinary people “don’t really know how to deal with Jews because they are not taught to realize that there are still Jews left in Germany.”

Former Soviet Union (FSU)

The JDC’s Ostrin said many Jews stayed in Russia for economic reasons.

“There is no middle class…If you’re poor you immigrate, and if you’re rich you stay,” Kliger added.

Sergey Stern, 38, from Moscow, said back then his father had a high position that gave access to special supplies. As scientists, his grandparents also had decent pensions. In addition, it was simply too frightening “to drop everything and begin anew,” added his father Vladimir Stern.

Stern and his family recently joined an enormous crowd on the streets of Moscow to protest against the Russian government, which is “full of people who are used to getting what they have only by bribes, stealing or kickbacks. These guys can’t do anything else—they simply don’t know how,” he said. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently regained the presidency in the March 4 election, and there were allegations of vote rigging at a recent parliamentary poll. The protest crowd included everyone from “liberals, nationalists, and communists to girls from glamour magazines, all in one place shouting “Russia without Putin.” The protest also included many Jews.

Sharansky said that Putin’s attitude for Russian Jews has been “very consistent” in making sure that there is no official policy of government anti-Semitism, and that those Jews who want to both develop their own communities and connect with Jews in Israel and elsewhere abroad can “freely do it.” However, that doesn’t mean the state of Israel—with a citizenship that values freedom and democracy—doesn’t have other points of “deep disappointments or disagreements with the policy of Putin” in general, he said.

Interestingly, many children of those who stayed “aren’t ashamed to be Jewish. They want to be identified as a Jew, and wear a Magen David,” Ostrin said, especially in the big cities. Initiatives sponsored by the JDC, Chabad, the Jewish Agency and others are bringing Jews back into the community fold. “I am definitely first Jewish then Russian,” said Anna Kaller, 25, missions and project coordinator for JDC in Moscow.

The Jewish community in Russia today still needs to develop organized leadership, Ostrin said, but it’s evolving. Twenty years ago people were used to getting everything for free, but now people want to get involved in the Jewish community, “not only to get but also to give,” Kaller added.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to the country, and we don’t know what’s going to happen to local Jews,” said Katya Potapova, 26, deputy head for community development for JDC-St. Petersburg, “but it’s interesting that people chose to stay and still be Jewish.”

With reporting by Jacob Kamaras and Masha Rifkin

In Putin’s return, Russian Jews see stability


Was Vladimir Putin’s carefully choreographed plan to return to Russia’s presidency in 2012 a big blow to democracy or a victory for stability?

It all depends on who you ask.

Most Russian Jews, it seems, say that Putin’s return after a four-year stint as prime minister is good news for stability, and that’s good for the country’s Jewish community. Critics, however, say it’s a sign of Russia’s stagnation.

Echoing traditional Jewish sensibilities, Yevgeniy Satanovsky, head of the Institute for Israel and Near Eastern Studies, a think tank in Moscow, says that Jews do not have to worry about Putin.

“Putin is neither an anti-Semite nor anti-Israel,” Satanovsky said.

For Russia’s Jews, whose estimated numbers range from 500,000 to 1 million, Putin marked a departure from the anti-Semitism of past Communist elites and of the once all-powerful KGB, which he served for nearly two decades.

Putin was the first Russian leader to visit Israel, where he attended an official reception. He also visited a Moscow synagogue, participated in candle-lighting ceremonies on Chanukah and reportedly had an open door for one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Berel Lazar.

While human rights groups reported surges in xenophobic attacks at various times during Putin’s presidency, Jews rarely were the targets.

Lazar said Putin should be credited for driving anti-Semitism out of Russian political discourse.

Politicians in today’s Russia “would not risk taking anti-Semitic or a so-called anti-Zionist stand,” Lazar said. “Any impartial observer should acknowledge Putin’s big role in this.”

As president and prime minister, Lazar said, Putin “paid great attention to the needs of our community and related to us with a deep respect.”

But the Putin regime also earned a reputation for intimidating political opponents and journalists, and rolling back democratic reforms. As evidence, critics say one need look no further than the way he has orchestrated his return to power.

The announcement about the next stage of Putin’s rule over Russia came Sept. 24, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s handpicked successor to the post, said he would not run in next year’s presidential election. Medvedev then backed Putin’s return to the Kremlin. In return, Putin offered Medvedev the prime minister’s chair in 2012.

Putin, the president from 2000 to 2008, was constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive four-year term. The 2008 arrangement that made Putin the prime minister for four years was widely seen as a sign that Putin would retain control over the reins of power, and his intention to return to the presidency confirms that thinking. With presidential terms extended to six years by Medvedev—presumably with Putin in mind—Putin, who turns 59 this week, could serve as Russia’s president until 2024.

His public approval rating is high and he isn’t expected to meet any formidable political challenges.

Putin’s popularity is explained largely by Russians’ yearning for order and a strong hand skillfully wielded by the Kremlin’s political advisers. Over the years of his rule, Putin effectively sidetracked any real opposition, put the brakes on political dissent on national airwaves and turned Russia’s Parliament—dominated by his United Russia party—into a virtual arm of his regime.

Liberals find his plan to return to the presidency deeply disturbing.

“I’m honestly shaken by the impudence with which this was all done,” Yevgeniya Albats, a prominent Russian Jewish journalist, told Echo Moskvy radio, one of Russia’s few remaining liberal media outlets.

“We have witnessed how all institutions of the Russian Federation were torn down—the constitution, the elections,” said Albats, the editor in chief of The New Times weekly magazine in Moscow.

Critics blame Putin for dismantling many of the democratic achievements of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin; for failing to implement many substantial economic and social reforms; for nurturing widespread corruption; and for creating a system in which only those with ties to his clan can prosper.

Others argue that Putin’s return, no matter how it was orchestrated, is a fair reflection of realities in today’s Russia.

“It may not be happening all nicely, but democracy is not built overnight,” Satanovsky said. “Putin is coming back to power as a real leader of a large political and economic clan. Can it change soon? I don’t see how.”

The early years of Putin’s presidency were marked by Kremlin pressure against Russia’s oligarchs—the once politically influential Russian business tycoons, many of whom were Jews. But in recent years, most leading business figures in Russia have withdrawn from political life, marking a victory for the Kremlin.

Despite the fact that many of those oligarchs were Jewish, Satanovsky notes that Putin never let his political, business and even personal battles “translate into anything anti-Jewish.”

While the Putin era has not been good for democracy in Russia, Jewish life in the country has continued to thrive. Thousands of parents send their children to Jewish schools and camps, and new synagogues and community centers are being added every year. There even are new museums opening in Moscow.

Despite these gains under Putin and his loyal successor Medevedev, a sense of unease left over from the olden days persists among many Jewish community leaders, who declined speak on the record with JTA about the perils of Putin’s cavalier approach toward democracy.

“There is a certain frustration in the society,” said one Jewish leader who asked that his name not to be used. “But the revolution is nowhere near. There is no democracy, and life goes on.”

Kissinger: Gassing Jews would not be a U.S. problem


Henry Kissinger is heard saying on newly released Nixon tapes that the genocide of Soviet Jews would not be an American concern.

The tapes chronicle President Richard Nixon’s obsession with disparaging Jews and other minorities.

Kissinger’s remarks come after a meeting he and Nixon had with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on March 1, 1973 in which Meir pleads for the United States to put pressure on the Soviet Union to release its Jews. Nixon and Kissinger, then the secretary of state, dismiss the plea after Meir leaves.

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” The New York Times on Saturday quotes Kissinger, as saying on the tapes. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

Nixon replies, “I know. We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

Six months later, during the Yom Kippur War, Nixon rejected Kissinger’s advice to delay an arms airlift to Israel as a means of setting the stage for an Egypt confident enough to pursue peace. Nixon, among other reasons, cited Israel’s urgent need.

The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants in a statement called for an apology from Kissinger, who is still consulted by Democratic and Republican administrations and by Congress on matters of state.

“Henry Kissinger’s comments are morally grotesque and represent a disgraceful perversion of American values,” said the statement. “He owes an apology to all victims of the Nazi Holocaust.”

Nixon secretly recorded his White House conversations. After this was revealed during congressional investigations, the tapes became government property and have been released over the years in intervals.

Elsewhere on the batch of tapes recently released by the Nixon Library, the late president repeats many of the ethnic and racial slurs that had appeared on earlier such releases: Irish are “mean” drunks, he says; Italians “don’t have their heads screwed on tight”; Jews are “aggressive, abrasive and obnoxious”; and it would take blacks “500 years” to catch up with whites.

Briefs: Rudy and Hillary lead, Jews for Putin, Russia needs Jews


Clinton, Giuliani Lead Among Jews

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Rudy Giuliani come in first and second in approval ratings in a poll of American Jews.

Clinton, the front-runner among Democrats, scored 53 percent in this year’s American Jewish Committee poll. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and a front-runner among Republicans, received a 41 percent favorable rating. Giuliani was ahead — albeit within the margin of error of 3 percentage points — of two other Democratic front-runners, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who tied at 38 percent.

Such a staunch showing for a Republican is unusual in a community that trends strongly Democratic. Respondents broke down into 58 percent Democrat, 26 percent independent and 15 percent Republican, diverging from the third-third-third breakdown that is the norm in general population polls.

The phone survey of 1,000 Jewish Americans was conducted Nov. 6-25.

Germany Frees Iranian ‘Bargaining Chips’

Germany released two jailed Iranian agents whom Israel had wanted swapped for missing airman Ron Arad. German authorities announced this week they had granted an early release to Kazem Darabi and Abbas Rhayel, who had been serving life sentences for the 1992 assassination of four Iranian opposition leaders in Berlin. Both men were deported.

The releases came over protests lodged by representatives of Arad, an Israeli air force navigator who is believed to have disappeared into Iranian captivity after bailing out over Lebanon in 1986. Germany has long tried to help Israel obtain word on Arad’s fate, but did not agree to keeping the two detainees as “bargaining chips” for his return.

“It is very disappointing, as our best chips are being given away,” Eliad Shraga, a lawyer for the Arad family, told Israel’s Army Radio on Tuesday.

Former Publisher Black Sentenced to Prison

Former Jerusalem Post publisher Conrad Black was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison. Black, 63, was convicted July 13 on three counts of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice for bilking millions of dollars from shareholders of his Hollinger International newspaper publishing conglomerate. The Canadian-born member of the British House of Lords was ordered to report to prison in 12 weeks; he remains free on $21 million bond.

Black will serve his time in an American prison, not a Canadian prison as his lawyer requested. Black was ordered to pay restitution of $6.1 million and was fined $125,000.

Prosecutors have calculated the total loss to shareholders to be about $32 million.

Hollinger International controlled 60 percent of Canadian newspapers as well as hundreds of daily newspapers worldwide, including the Jerusalem Post, the Chicago Sun Times, the Montreal Gazette and Britain’s Daily Telegraph, through the mid-1990s. Black resigned in 2004 as chairman and chief executive officer of Hollinger after an internal investigation sparked by shareholders’ complaints that he was stealing company funds.

Settlers Unmoved by Relocation Offer

Most Israeli settlers living east of the West Bank security fence do not want to relocate, a poll found.

Left-wing Israeli lawmakers this week tabled legislation that would offer residents of 18 settlements located east of the fence compensation if they moved voluntarily, but a Ma’ariv survey indicated there is little interest in the initiative. Eighty-four percent of settlers said they would not relocate in exchange for compensation equivalent to the value of their homes, while 11 percent said they would and 5 percent were undecided. Money appears to be a secondary concern for the settlers, many of whom are religious and ideologically driven. Asked if they would move in exchange for compensation equivalent to double the value of their homes, 76 percent said no, 17 percent said yes and 7 percent were undecided. The survey, published Friday, had 400 respondents and a 4.9 percent margin of error. Israeli officials have hinted that the West Bank security fence could be the border of a future Palestine, meaning that settlers east of the barrier would have to go as part of a diplomatic accord. Many rightist Israelis are distrustful of such thinking, especially given the complaints by many of the settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005 that they have been neglected by the government.

Jewish Support for Putin for PM

A chief rabbi of Russia came out in support of Vladimir Putin as prime minister, calling the possibility a “great present.” Anointed presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev went on state television Tuesday to ask Putin to head his government following elections in March.

Rabbi Berel Lazar, of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, spoke enthusiastically about the idea in an interview with the Interfax news service. “When president, Vladimir Putin has showed that he is equal to any task,” Lazar told Interfax. “If Putin considers the scenario offered by Dmitry Medvedev realistic, it will surely be a great present, if the government is headed by the most efficient statesmen in Russia.”

These remarks stand in contrast to recent statements made by Lazar about the role of religion in politics. Following an endorsement of Medvedev by Putin that virtually guaranteed him the presidency, Lazar told Interfax that it is not “the matter of religious figures to agitate for any candidate.”

Russia Wants Its Jews Back

Russia reportedly is trying to lure back Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel. Israeli intelligence believes that a cultural center recently opened by the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv is designed to promote the repatriation of Jews who emigrated from Russia.

During last week’s parliamentary elections in Moscow, the cultural center sent emissaries throughout Israel to encourage ex-Russians to vote. According to Ha’aretz, the cultural center is headed by a former KGB spy whose appointment Israel briefly tried to block. The Russian Embassy was not available for comment on the report.

There are more than 1 million Israelis from the former Soviet Union.

Impact of Soviet Jewry drive still resonates in U.S. today


When Jacob Birnbaum began knocking on dormitory doors at Yeshiva University in the spring of 1964, he only half-believed anyone would answer.

The young British activist had come to New York to mobilize a grass-roots campaign to draw attention to the plight of 3 million Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain — a cause that was being largely ignored by the world Jewish community.

He turned first to the Modern Orthodox campus with its high concentration of Jewishly committed students.

“New York City is the largest center of Jewish life in the world, and from New York we could generate pressure on Washington,” explained the now-80-year-old Birnbaum, who still lives in New York and was honored recently by Congress for his key role in the Soviet Jewry campaign.

“The goal was always Washington — first to convert the Jewish community and then convert Washington,” he said.

His door knocking launched a national student movement, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), whose first public effort was a May 1, 1964, demonstration outside the Soviet mission to the United Nations. More than 1,000 students from Yeshiva, Columbia, Stern College and other campuses marched, demanding freedom for Soviet Jews.

The protest became a movement, and the movement swelled into a worldwide outcry that 25 years later not only ripped open the Iron Curtain, leading to the largest Jewish exodus in history, but also contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, cemented the role of human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy and heralded the emergence of a strong, independent American Jewry able and willing to speak out for its oppressed brethren around the world.

“It was probably American Jewry’s finest hour,” said historian Henry Feingold, author of a newly published work, “Silent No More: Saving the Jews of Russia, the American Jewish Effort 1967-1989.”

While debate continues as to the role the Soviet Jewry campaign played in bringing the Soviet Union to its knees, virtually no one disputes the impact it had on the American Jewish community.

The movement galvanized American Jewry, producing many of today’s top Jewish leaders and a public relations-savvy Jewish voice in Washington.

Haunted by the memories of American Jewish inaction during the Holocaust and emboldened by Israel’s triumph in the Six-Day War, the activists vowed never again to ignore Jews in danger.

“This was something we talked about, that we’re not going to stand by and let this happen the way we did in the Holocaust,” recalled Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, who was a young Orthodox rabbi in 1964, when he became involved with the SSSJ.

While many of the initial activists came from Modern Orthodox circles, they were joined by other young Jews, excited by the civil rights and anti-war struggles, who now applied the energy of those movements to a Jewish cause, many for the first time. That synthesis set the tone for many of the Jewish and Israel-oriented organizations of the 1970s and ’80s.

Many of today’s communal and religious leaders cut their teeth in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was a student at UC Berkeley in 1969, when he attended his first Soviet Jewry rally. It was “transformational,” he said, leading to his active involvement and later decision to become a Reform rabbi.

“My formative years coexisted with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War,” he said. “My activism was motivated by my sense of Jewish values, but I didn’t feel confident in my own grounding in Judaism, so I entered rabbinical school.”

Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College Rabbinical School, was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the early ’60s, active in civil rights and the anti-war struggle. He said the Soviet Jewry campaign helped him connect those two parts of his identity, “the caring for people and their release from oppression and the Jewish issue — this was something that affected Jews in a very personal way.”

In 1973, he and his wife visited “refuseniks” in Ukraine, one of many American Jews who over the course of the movement secretly carried names, phone numbers and packages to Jews denied permission to leave the Soviet Union.

“It was a formative experience for us,” he said, echoing Kahn’s words.

Birnbaum’s notion of a public, ongoing grass-roots campaign to free Soviet Jewry did not immediately catch fire with the American Jewish establishment. Through the 1960s, the SSSJ labored in virtual isolation on the American scene, holding rallies and demonstrations in New York, Boston and a few other cities organized by a handful of core activists. The Jewish mainstream favored quiet diplomacy over public protest, and the ultra-Orthodox feared the campaign would jeopardize their underground religious activities behind the Iron Curtain.

Israel, of course, had been conducting its own secret operation on behalf of Jews within the Soviet Union for years through Lishkat, the Israeli government’s Liaison Bureau. And the Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism was created in 1963, although it remained fairly quiet until it was later renamed the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and went on to play a strong role in pushing Washington to back the Soviet Jewry campaign.

It was Israel’s stunning victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War that really catalyzed the movement, lighting a fire under young Jews both in America and in the Soviet Union who previously had not expressed their Jewish identity.

For the first time, large numbers of Soviet Jews began applying for exit visas — they were refused — and large numbers of American Jews began clamoring on their behalf.

“The campaign was already by that time quite visible and active,” said Mark Levin, who was a young teenager when he joined his first demonstration in Lafayette Park across from the White House in 1969.

“The difference is, after the Six-Day War, you didn’t find as many Jews hiding their Jewish identity,” said Levin, the longtime director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. “The Six-Day War and the struggle for Soviet Jewry together redefined the type and level of activism in the American Jewish community.”

How Jewish is ‘Too Jewish’?


 

Eugene Yelchin painted his “Section Five” series using his fingers instead of brushes. In the earthy, orangy-brown tones and thick, rounded strokes of paint, the faces he painted emerge blurred somewhat with the background, as if the artist didn’t want them to be seen clearly.

Yelchin, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1983, says the series refers to the Section Five part of his passport, where his ethnicity was written. On Yelchin’s passport, it read “Yevrei” — Jew, branding him as a “presumed traitor or security risk.”

“As a result, Section Five burned like a suddenly revealed secret,” Yelchin writes on the artist’s statement accompanying his paintings. “It caused shame and fear. It branded one for life. [The] paintings are infused with those emotions — fear of exposure, shame, anger and sadness. The paintings’ diminutive size recalls passport photos, while the faces are the faces of Jews whose self-identities are formed not by pride but by anti-Semitism.”


“6 TOO JEWISH,” by Elena Mary Siff

Four of Yelchin’s “Section Five” series are on display at the Bell Gallery at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Building in a new exhibit called, “Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough.” The exhibit explores the myriad ways that Jewish identity is manifested, as well as the emergence of that identity from people who might not feel as connected to their Judaism.

The exhibit is a West Coast answer, so to speak, to “Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities,” an exhibit originally shown at the Jewish Museum New York in 1996. That exhibit focused mainly on stereotypical media representations of Jews.

In “Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough,” stereotypes give way to far more personal representations of Jewish identity in the 21st century, and it also explores the ephemeral nature of Jewish identity for some.

The exhibit is the first public offering from the Jewish Artists Initiative (JAI), a project of the Jewish Community Foundation in partnership with the USC Casden Institute and the USC School of Fine Arts. JAI was conceived as a way to identify Jewish artists in Los Angeles and to give the community a chance to support them and their work, both monetarily and in their artistic development. JAI also aims to increase the level of visual arts activity in the Jewish community and to make sure that artists are connected with the community.

“There has never been an [organized] community of Jewish artists in Los Angeles,” said Elizabeth Bloom, who contributed to the exhibition “Lamentation,” six painted panels that make a global statement about war, hatred and bigotry. “There have been attempts made in L.A., but there might have been one or two meetings and things never came to fruition. The ability to apply for funding from The Jewish Federation has given this group a special impetus.”

“In our professional lives there is so much emphasis on the practical matters of getting through financially that the more spiritual dimensions end up getting neglected,” said Deborah Lefkowitz, another artist in the group, who contributed the silver gelatin print, “Untitled,” from the “Light Chambers Suite,” which is a meditation on the sense of the ineffable in our everyday life. “The group provides the forum to really grapple with these and other dimensions and a whole set of issues that we hunger to be in conversation about.”

The current JAI members were chosen by a committee of Jewish curators, such as Victor Raphael, who was curator at the University of Judaism, and Barbara Gilbert from the Skirball Cultural Center. The curators chose a group of 30 communally active Jewish artists from a list of 150, making sure to including emerging, midcareer and established artists from Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Mizrachic backgrounds. Later the group will open itself up to other Jewish artists in Los Angeles, but for the time being, organizers said it was easier to work with 30 people rather than 150.

For the past nine months, the 30 artists have been meeting once a month, critiquing each other’s work and dialoguing about what it means to be a Jewish artist and how Jewish artists can impact cultural life in Los Angeles. They each were invited to contribute a work and write an accompanying artist’s statement to the “Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough” exhibit; 26 contributed.

Ruth Weisberg, one of the founders of JAI and dean of the USC School of Fine Arts, said the exhibition had twofold purpose.

“It was meant to some extent to answer the “Too Jewish?” exhibition, in the sense that it was going to show a variety of different attitudes and conceptual bents,” Weisberg said. “It was also meant to show the level of activity of [Jewish] artists in Los Angeles.”

The representations of Jewish identity in the “Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough” exhibit vastly range in conception and medium. There is Eitan Mendelowitz’s “The Ineffable,” which is a computer screen with animated Hebrew letters that move around the screen to attempt to reconstruct the 72-part unspeakable name of God, that if pronounced correctly can animate a golem.

In “Globalization No. 3,” Karen Koblitz created an Islamic ceramic-looking urn decorated with the floral curlicues and pictures of Pokemon. She chose this rather unusual juxtaposition of details to reference the way Pokemon was banned in Arab countries, because of a rumor that “Pokemon” meant “I am Jewish” in Japanese.

“I, the artist, am a Jew, and I make art that includes Pokemon images on work that pays homage to Islamic ceramics,” she wrote in her statement.

Some of the artists, like Elena Mary Siff, and Bloom, paid homage to their dual Jewish-Christian heritage in their work. Siff’s work, “6 (TOO Jewish), 5 (not jewishenough),” a mixed-media collage of two stars, one the six-pointed Star of David, the other the five-pointed Christian star. Siff, whose mother came from the Greek Orthodox religion and whose father was Jewish, said the art represented the fact that she came from neither culture, because she had no religious upbringing at all, yet both cultures can be identified by a simple star shape.

In Bloom’s work, a diptych of six images — a Palestinian woman and Israeli man, a black woman next to a white woman, a Buddhist nun next to a screaming child, all in various stages of grief — is “an unconscious representation of the two sides that formed me” — her Jewish mother and her Irish Catholic father.

For some of the artists, the group and the exhibition was the first time that they thought about the way their Jewish identity impacts their art; others saw the group as a way to bolster the role that the artist plays in Jewish life.

“I didn’t dare explore my Jewish identity in Russia,” Yelchin said. “For me, being asked to join this group was a huge deal, because I come from a place that didn’t encourage that kind of context, so in a way, I was craving it.”

“Too Jewish-Not Jewish Enough” can be seen at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Bell Family Art Gallery, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Free. 9 a.m-5 p.m. (Mon.-Thurs.), 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. (Friday) The exhibition runs through Dec. 31. For more information, call (323) 761-8200.

The new face of Russian Jewry


When Tatyana Sharfman applied to immigrate to the United States, she was not yet sure that she wanted to leave her native country of Russia. Her aunt, who had left Russia in 1992 and now lives in the San Fernando Valley, was determined to bring over the rest of the family, and so Sharfman began to fill out the necessary documents.

“She kept asking us, ‘What are you doing over there?'” Sharfman recalled. “We didn’t take it seriously, really, but we filled out some papers just because we had these papers.”

Sharfman knew that it was typically a long process to emigrate from Russia, and she did not really expect to be accepted. However, one day the approved documents were returned by the government, and her family faced a life-changing decision: “To come or not to come?”

Life in Russia was good. Well, maybe not exactly good, but livable. Although Sharfman was a single mother living in an apartment with her parents, she worked as a cardiologist in a local hospital in central Russia, and both she and her father had jobs, which enabled the family to live a fairly comfortable lifestyle.

The decision to leave really came down to the future of her son, Aleksandr. Although he was only 8 years old at the time, Sharfman knew that when he turned 18, he would be required to join the army, a fate she did not desire for him.

“If we were just old people, we probably would have remained there,” she explained. “But when I thought about the future of my Alek, my son, I [was] so concerned about his future in my country.”

So four years ago, Sharfman and her family decided pack their belongings and move to California. She is one of the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. She did not leave during the last great wave of Russian immigrants, which began after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and instituted his policy of glasnost. At that time, tens of thousands of Russian Jews fled their homeland and came to the United States, where they largely settled in densely populated urban areas, such as New York and Los Angeles.

According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the greatest number of Russian Jews immigrated to the United States in 1992, with 45,871 arrivals. After the peak, the number of Russian Jews entering the country declined steadily until 2001 — the last year documented by HIAS — when only 2,077 refugees resettled in the United States.

Largely due to the influx of Jewish refugees in the ’90s and the new immigrants who continue to come, the city of Los Angeles considers the Russian community the fastest-growing community in the city. Patricia Villasenor, immigration policy adviser for the city’s Human Relations Commission, said this information is based on the 2000 census, which actually measures population change from 1990.

“According to the 2000 census, one of the fastest-growing communities in Los Angeles County is the Russian and/or Eastern Bloc ethnicities, in particular Russian Jews,” Villasenor reported by e-mail. “Now, this isn’t saying it [is] the largest community but the fastest growing, the total population for Los Angeles County is less than 3.8 percent, but it has grown significantly in the last five years, a growth rate of almost 22 percent.”

Not everyone is convinced that the figures are accurate.

Despite Villasenor’s statement, it is impossible to gauge the exact number of Russian Jews immigrating to the United States, because official U.S. census information only records the number of Russian immigrants to the country. It does not break down groups according to religion.

There are a few guesses, however, and Los Angeles-based demographer Pini Herman of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research estimates that at the peak of the mid-’90s immigration wave, about 8,000 Russian Jews moved to the Los Angeles area annually.

These Jews were fleeing a Russia that offered no freedom of religion. Even the government practiced discrimination as part of its official policy.

However, Sharfman, her parents and son did not flee this earlier Russia. The immigrants who have come since 2000 left a somewhat reformed Russia. At the time they left, there was even a new synagogue built in the town were Sharfman lived.

Sharfman is typical of this fast growing immigrant group, of Russian-born Jews in Los Angeles, especially the San Fernando Valley. These newer arrivals are more savvy, educated, and able to deal with the system. They are not the “poor Russian Jews” from decades past, who needed to be the local Jewish community’s first priority, in getting them out of communist Russia and in resettling them here.

But for people like Sharfman, the new realities of the Russian community present a problem: because they are no longer a priority, sometimes they are left to flounder on their own. And the local Jewish community still needs not to forget them.

“The American Jewish community is not as interested anymore in the immigrants as they were when we were coming, and there is not as much help,” said Helen Levin, executive director of the West Hollywood Russian Community Center who came to Los Angeles in 1988 after being a rufusenik for nine years. She and her husband, Eugene Levin, publisher of the Russian-language newspaper, Panorama, have thrived in their new country, but she fears adjustment may be harder for the new immigrants.

Although it would seem that life in the United States would be easier for the new immigrants, because there are many established sources of information and already a sizable community of previous Russian immigrants, this is not always the case. “Then, there were calls coming in from employers who [specifically] wanted to hire Russian immigrants,” Levin said.

Upon arriving in the United States, Sharfman moved into a small apartment in Van Nuys with her son and parents. In her new country, the 38-year-old doctor was not licensed to practice medicine and has since returned to school in hopes of getting a nursing degree. But first, she had to learn the language.

Sitting at a Starbucks in a strip mall in the San Fernando Valley, the petite brunette, wearing a red shirt under a bright pink vest, blends in with the rest of the morning coffee crowd. It is not until she begins to speak that her broken English, still tinged with Russian inflections, reveals her immigrant status.

Sharfman was never a rufusenik. She did not lose her job when she applied to leave Russia, was not harassed by the government and was not trapped. Sharfman said that her decision to leave Russia had nothing to do with her Jewish heritage.

This is not to say that there is no anti-Semitism in Russia. Sharfman acknowledged that her sense of safety came from the fact that she did not tell anyone that she was Jewish, and she did not practice Judaism. Sharfman also thinks that she blended into the Russian population, so people did not know she was Jewish.

“I am not look like, maybe completely like, Jewish,” she said tentatively, as if searching for the right words. “Maybe that is why I didn’t feel it so hard, because people, of course, think negatively about Jewish people.”

Sharfman said at times co-workers would tell her negative things about Jews, not realizing that she was also Jewish. Although she does not claim anti-Semitism as a factor in her decision to emigrate, Sharfman is grateful for the religious freedom she found in the United States.

Many of the new immigrants do claim anti-Jewish attitudes play a role in their decision to leave Russia. For Michael B., a 29-year-old doctor who prefers to remain anonymous, it was his Jewish roots that caused him to leave his home in central Russia two and a half years ago and move to the Valley with his brother and parents.

“We had some problems there,” he said. “Well, to be sincere, I didn’t see any future there. I had just graduated from university, and I became a doctor, and I saw that I won’t be able to achieve anything else in my life — to become the head of a department or to have a good salary.”

Michael B. attributes this glass ceiling to the fact that he is Jewish. Although his hometown also had recently built its first synagogue and there seemed to be some movement toward religious tolerance, on a professional level, it is still considered detrimental to be Jewish. In Russia, he said, there are only a few prominent figures in every industry.

“If you are not Russian, this is much harder to obtain any higher position,” he said. “Especially when you are Jewish.”

Michael B.’s grandparents lived in the United States, so when the rest of the family immigrated, they settled in the San Fernando Valley, where they already had family. Although Michael B. did not speak or read much English when he arrived, he began to both learn the language and study for his U.S. medical boards.

As if the task were not arduous enough, Michael B.’s family also had to deal with the added complications of immigrating in the post-Sept. 11 world of strict border policies.

“We had some problems when we came here, because we came right after that incident in New York — Sept. 11 — so we couldn’t obtain our legal documents for a long time,” he remembered. “The INS told us that we came in the wrong time, so we are illegal here because the president ordered to close the borders.”

For many new immigrants the problem is no longer getting out of Russia, as it was in the case of the rufuseniks, it is gaining legal entry to the United States.

Michael B. and his family lived in California illegally for six months without many basic necessities, such as driver’s licenses. At first, they also were unable to rent an apartment, because they did not have Social Security numbers.

“That was a very difficult time for us,” he said.

Despite the hardships, Michael B. studied for his medical boards “day and night” and now is a doctor about to embark on a three-year residency at a Brooklyn hospital.

According to Sima Furman, director of the immigration and resettlement program for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, Sept. 11, 2001, marked a turning point in the migration of refugees to the United States.

“The number has diminished since Sept. 11. That slowed the flow to the United States dramatically,” Furman said. “Our numbers are getting smaller and smaller. For this calendar year from January to April, so far we have had only 94 arrivals — and that is from the former Soviet Union and Iran.”

Furman thinks that refugees like Sharfman and Michael B., who are coming to the United States at a relatively late date compared to the vast influx of refugees before, stayed in Russia for personal reasons, such as taking care of an older family member who did not want to leave or perhaps because they did not have enough money to leave. She is not surprised that they are coming over now, however, and cites anti-Semitism as the main reason for leaving.

Even though most people left the Soviet Union because of religious freedom, the new immigrant experience is vastly different from those who came over in the past two decades, said Si Frumkin, a self-described “real old-time Soviet Jew.” Frumkin immigrated to the United States in 1949 and created the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.

“The people coming over these days, by and large, they are middle age, they are not very poor and they are well acquainted with the system and how to get along,” Frumkin explained. “It is not like 25 years ago. [Now] they are much better informed, they are coming from a society that has become capitalist. In the past, for an immigrant to come here, it was like coming from another planet.”

Today, it is like coming from another country, Frumkin said. The new immigrants not only know about government programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, he explained, but they often speak English and even know about the subtleties of Southern California real estate. For example, he said, they know it is less expensive to live in the Valley than in the city–spreading out from their traditional West Hollywood community.

Herman, the Los Angeles-based demographer, said this is predominantly because of the reduced cost of living.

“For a condominium in the West Hollywood, you can have a house in the Valley,” Levin said.

While the American Jewish community may not be as focused on the plight of Russian Jews as it was a decade ago, the city of Los Angeles considers Russian Jews to be the fastest-growing community in the county. This fact is surprising in light of the well-documented growth of the Latino population in Los Angeles.

At about 3 million and 32 percent of the population, Latinos are the largest population. But according to Villasenor of the Human Relations Commission, the Latino population is growing at a rate of only 3 percent, while the Russian and/or Eastern Bloc population is growing at a rate of 22 percent.

While Villasenor stands behind this math, Furman of Jewish Family Service does not think this information is accurate, based on her own observations.

“I wonder about that,” Furman said of Villasenor’s statement. “In terms of newly arrived refugees from the former Soviet Union, the rate of arrivals has diminished over the years, and the number of refugees has dropped. Our experience is contrary.”

Demographer Herman, an expert on Los Angeles’ ethnic communities, also questions the data. He said that the census does not measure communities based on religion, so there is no way to determine that the 22 percent growth rate from Russia and the Eastern Bloc reflects refugees from the Jewish community.

The fact remains that while their plight is no longer in the spotlight, Russian Jews are still immigrating to the United States, and they still face the same challenges of acculturation as the rufuseniks.

“Even a penny has two sides,” Sharfman says, concerning the process of becoming an American.

She worries that her son will forget how to write in Russian, that she does not speak English very well, that she will not be granted U.S. citizenship. And Sharfman worries that she will not be able to return to Russia to see her friends.

But still, she counts herself as lucky that she now lives in a place where each individual is judged based on abilities and not religious heritage.

“[In America] it does not matter if you are Jewish or Mexican, it just matters who you are, who you are inside, what are your skills,” she said. “Everything depends from you, nothing from your relation to some nationality. It is very nice.”

A Russian Pesach


Cantor Svetlana Portnyansky, who left Russia in 1991, can relate to the celebration of freedom that the Passover holiday signifies. She remembers how difficult and dangerous it was to exercise religious freedom not so long ago.

“Practically it was impossible because it was illegal,” says Portnyansky. “There were no places for seders. Most of the time people didn’t know about it at all.”

This year, Portnyansky, along with Sy Frumkin, will lead two nights of Russian-language seders for the local Russian-Jewish community. Over the last few years, the young cantor — who sings for Temple Beth Torah in Venice — has been very involved in bringing in a younger demographic of Russian Jews to these annual services. She has seen “more interest from younger people, 25 and up, bringing their children. I see young faces more and more.”

Portnyansky herself is looking forward to performing at the services this year. She says that the important idea behind these seders is “to get together with our Russian community and to be together.”

Frumkin, who leads the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews and has been very involved in Russian-Jewish causes since 1969, told The Journal that too many Russian Jews grew up not knowing anything more about their own religion than the anti-Jewish propaganda fed to them by the government “so they’re not proud of their culture.”

The Russian-language seder has come a long way since its initial outing, over four years ago, when Frumkin had to translate a haggadah in Russian and have it published himself. The Russian-Jewish activist adds that presiding over the Pesach services every year has been “a very gratifying process because for the first one we didn’t know if anyone would even show up.”

As it turns out, the first outing was too popular — it completely sold out. Frumkin credits Portnyansky as key to its past success.

“She has a tremendous draw,” says Frumkin of the singer. “She gives a concert in Russia and Israel and she sells out instantly.”

Says Alla Feldman, émigré programs coordinator for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), the demand for Russian Passover programming has been steadily growing since she, Veronica Galterian, and Helen Levin put together the first such seder several years ago.

“One night is not enough because we could only accommodate 150 people, so we’re having it for two nights,” says Feldman, who points out that the venue for this year’s seders has moved to Congregation Etz Jacob in order to better accommodate attendees. Feldman expects to attract about 280 people on each night.

In addition to these official seders, Feldman and the BJE (a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation) have been coordinating Pesach-themed activities — most recently a “chocolate seder” for high school students and a “Jeopardy” game for young adults — to attract younger Russian Jews. But it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s hard work and takes a lot of time and energy, and we have limited resources,” she says, adding that it is essential that the local Russian Jewish community have an outlet to celebrate the holiday.

As for the first two nights of Passover, Portnyansky promises a lively evening of “bruchas, popular songs in Russian and Yiddish, and, of course, the religious songs from the haggadah. And it’s very nice that all people know these songs. We can sing it all together.”

The Russian-language seders will take place on the first two nights of Passover — Wed., April 19 and Thurs., April 20 — at Congregation Etz Jacob, 7659 Beverly Blvd. (on the corner of Stanley Ave.), Los Angeles. For ticket information, call (323) 969-0919.



Here are some other Passover-related services that The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles will help support this year:

*The SOVA Kosher Food Pantry of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles will be distributing Passover kits to approximately 600 Jewish families around the L.A. area. For more information, call (310) 828-0469.

* For the past 16 years, the Clarence Gerber Memorial Passover Program, sponsored by Jewish Family Service (JFS), has participated in a Pesach program with the help of B’nai B’rith volunteers. This year, JFS will conduct model seders for 1,500 people. These seders will offer a holiday experience for those who have no place to go. For more information on attending one of these seders, please call (323) 761-8800.

*The Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen will provide 1,000 Passover meals. They will also host Seders for Seniors on Tues., April 18 at 10:30 a.m. at nine different sites. Call (323) 937-5900 to find out more.

* The Board of Rabbis of Southern California will provide Passover services and traditional foods for Jewish prison inmates and patients who are hospitalized/ institutionalized. More than 415 individuals will benefit from this program. To learn more about this program, call (323) 761-8600.

* For children, the Board of Rabbis will provide a packet of “Kids Songs for Passover,” compiled by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Ruth Lund. To obtain a free packet, call (323) 761-8600.

‘They Should Leave as Soon as Possible’


What can be done to help Russian Jewry? Loads, according to Simon Frumkin. He should know.

The road to liberating Russian Jews has been a long and tortured process, and few people know this more than Frumkin, who has spent decades battling to facilitate Jewish flight from Russia.

Although not of Russian-Jewish ancestry, the 68-year-old Lithuanian-born Dachau survivor has long served as a prominent voice for Russian Jewry. In 1968, Frumkin founded the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, and later co-founded and led the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews — two lobbying organizations crucial to the Russian-Jewish freedom crusade.

The social activist, also instrumental in forming the Association of Holocaust Survivors from the Former U.S.S.R., continues his tireless efforts on behalf of Russian Jews, lending his talents to countless periodicals and organizations, including Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

Last week, Frumkin shared his thoughts on the challenges facing the estimated 500,000 to 2.5 million Russian Jews remaining in the former Soviet Union, where the fall of communism has helped usher in the rise of anti-Semitism.

Jewish Journal: In your essay “The Anti-Semites Are Right — Jews Should Leave Russia,” you are not very optimistic about the future of Jews living in Russia. You even deem the Communist Party the Russian equivalent of the Nazis. On what do you base your pessimism?

Simon Frumkin: I’m not optimistic…because there’s never been any reason for optimism for the future of Jews in Russia…. In czarist Russia, Jews were not permitted to come into Russia (proper)…. In spite of that, anti-Semitism was rampant. Most of the people in Russia never saw a Jew, but they hated them anyway.

As soon as the revolution began, Jewish religion was eliminated. For the first and only time in history, a language — Hebrew — was named to be an enemy of the people…. Zionists were imprisoned…. There was official anti-Semitism. There were purge trials. There were plans by Stalin to send all the Jews to concentration camps, which had already been built. Luckily, he died just in time.

JJ: What are Russian Jews living outside of Russia doing to help the Jews residing in Russia?

SF: They’re not doing anything. To begin with, they can’t, because many of them can’t even speak English. They do write letters and fiery editorials in Russian-language newsletters, which nobody reads. Other than that, they have not developed into a political force.

JJ: Is President Boris Yeltsin’s government doing enough to curb anti-Semitism and protect the Jews there?

SF: They’re not doing anything. They really can’t. Their hands are tied. Yeltsin is not functioning. He’s ever more irrelevant. It is difficult to say who is in power…. In the last thousand years of its recorded history, Russia never had 10 years when things were good. Never….

On Dec. 5, a big march took place…in the center of Moscow, where (several hundred) fascist communist kids…with swastikas and black shirts demonstrated…demanding that the government abolish the law which punishes incitement of racial and ethnic hatred, because they said it violates their freedom of speech…. It was not shown on TV; they were not interfered with. That was that….

The average Russian is racist…. My granddaughter goes to Bancroft Junior High in Hollywood…they have a lot of Russian and Ukrainian kids there — the fact is that about 30 percent of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union who come to America these days are not Jewish — but here [my daughter] is in her social studies class, and they’re discussing what is wrong in the world and how could we make things better. And a little (Ukrainian) girl…says, “Well, one way is get rid of all the Jews.” This is what she hears from her parents…. Nothing has changed…. (Russian anti-Semitism) is not worst now then it was; it’s as bad as it always was. Except now it’s popular.

JJ: What can Russian Jews living outside of Russia do to help the Jews in Russia counter the growing tide of anti-Semitism there?

SF: They can learn the name of their congressmen…. (Many Russian Jews) don’t know how the political system works…don’t trust the government…because they were taught that the government is the enemy. Most of them are not aware that anything was done for them to facilitate their immigration from the Soviet Union. They think that it just happened…. When they find out about the demonstrations and the letter-writing campaigns and the prisoners of conscience (etc.), they are amazed….

At one point, the fate of Soviet Jews was an important item on the agenda in Washington. This is no longer so because American Jews feel that the problem has been solved….

JJ: Although many Jews in Russia have already received special refugee visas from the United States to emigrate, many of them have yet to exercise their so-called “Lautenberg status.” What’s being done to encourage them to leave?

SF: There are about 30,000 or so refugee visas given out each year to the United States, of which about 20,000 go to the Jews…. There are about 10,000 to 15,000 Jews “sitting on their suitcases” with visas in hand, who have refugee status…who, in the meantime, are depriving (others) by not leaving. I think that’s a crime…. There should be a time limit, that if you don’t utilize your visa within a year, the visa should be taken away and someone else should go…. We must realize that the United States government is aware of it to the point where it’s getting more and more difficult for a Jew to get a refugee visa in Russia.

JJ: If the economic crisis in Russia continues to worsen, what will conceivably happen to the Jews living there?

SF: I think they’re going to get killed. I don’t think there is a future for Jews in Russia…. They should leave as soon as possible.

For information on Russian Jewish immigrants and related organizations and activities, call (818) 769-8862. To donate furniture or toys for newly arrived Russian Jewish immigrants, contact the Association of Soviet Jewish Émigrés at (213) 878-0995.