Russian synagogue with dark past invites Pokemon hunters to toast its revival


As the Pokemon Go phenomenon grows, some institutions connected to European Jewry’s darkest hour have taken precautions against it.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum in Poland has banned the addictive smartphone game, in which players viewing their environments through their device’s camera run in search of animated figures that the game’s application superimposes on the video feed in real time.

Citing the need to respect the memory of the dead, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., also asked visitors to refrain from playing the game, which has tens of millions of players since its release this month by the gaming giant Nintendo.

But in Russia, one Jewish institution with a troubled past is taking the opposite approach. In St. Petersburg, the city’s main synagogue and Jewish community center is doing its best to lure players to the building’s majestic interior by offering a bottle of kosher wine to anyone who catches a Pokemon there.

The first winner was Daniel Gurevich, a local Jewish man whose Pokemon hunt last week at the Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg was the second time he ever visited the place, according to a report Monday by Jewish News Petersburg. Shuttered by communists in 1930 and nearly destroyed by Nazi artillery during the vicious fight for Leningrad during World War II, it was rebuilt in the 1940s but was allowed to function only as a sham shul — a prop in the Soviet Union’s propaganda about its citizens nonexistent freedoms.

Gurevich told the news site that he came to the synagogue after its staff posted an invitation to Pokemon hunters on the synagogue’s Facebook page, which the local media quickly reported.

“I was Rollerblading nearby, I opened the news [on the smartphone] and saw that the synagogue wants me to come and look for Pokemons. Immediately I went and caught one,” he said. “It’s great that our synagogue is on the crest of fashion.”

A spokesperson for the synagogue told the news site that joining the Pokemon craze has roots in Jewish tradition.

“Any more or less knowledgeable person will tell you that the synagogue is no temple, it’s a meeting place where fun is permissible within reason and we see this in the Purim parties and children’s games,” the spokesperson said. “We very much want the youth to know the synagogue is a modern place, not a boring one.”

Unlike some synagogues, the Choral shul complex indeed functions as much as a community center as a house of worship. Completed in 1888 after eight years of construction, it is one of Europe’s largest synagogues, and has many rooms and event halls. The synagogue’s kosher cafeteria, which has a WiFi connection, has many young regulars who work on laptops or meet up at cultural events and Q&A sessions organized for members of the community.

The synagogue was closed down in 1930 for several years under orders from the communist government, which back then had a semi-official policy of anti-Semitism in addition to its restrictive approach to organized religion in general. Famously, KGB agents used to spy on the few Jews who dared go to shul during communism from a building opposite the Choral synagogue, where the KGB had a special window installed to survey the entrance door.

Jewish mayor says Trump not welcome in his Florida city


The Jewish mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, said Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was unwelcome in his city.

“I am hereby barring Donald Trump from entering St. Petersburg until we fully understand the dangerous threat posed by all Trumps,” Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, said Monday on Twitter.

Kriseman was playing on the statement earlier in the day by the real estate billionaire and reality show star. Trump is leading in polls of Republicans.

“Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine,” Trump said, alluding to last week’s massacre in San Bernardino, California, carried out by a couple apparently loyal to militant Islamists. “Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

Kriseman, who was elected in 2013, is the first Jewish mayor in 30 years in the central Florida city of about 250,000.

Jewish groups have condemned Trump’s statement.

Reaching out to Ukrainian friends during crisis


Two years ago, on a visit to Kiev, following a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, I had the privilege of spending a weekend with an amazing Jewish family in the center of what I otherwise remember as a somewhat dark, depressing city.

Although they are foreign-born, they are major supporters of Kiev’s Jewish community, regularly hosting grand Shabbat meals in their wonderful apartment, which is housed in an otherwise nondescript, Soviet-style building in the heart of the city.

In recent weeks, as Kiev went up in flames following the violent crackdown of the now-deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, I often wondered how my Kiev hosts were doing. On March 3, as fears built of a Russian invasion of the country’s mainland, I connected via Skype with the father of the family at around 9:30 p.m. Kiev time.

Out of concern for his family’s safety in what he called a “volatile and unpredictable” security atmosphere, my friend asked that I not use his name.

The family’s apartment is only a few hundred meters from Independence Square, the epicenter of the protests that brought to power the current interim government, led by interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

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Ayn Rand … Rosenbaum?


The first public cause to which Ayn Rand donated her own money was the State of Israel.

I find this little-known nugget fascinating for two reasons.

One, it contradicts the idée fixe of Rand as not really Jewish. And two, it contradicts the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Rand’s followers often obscure, or quickly pass over, her Jewishness.  The official Ayn Rand Web site, aynrand.org, doesn’t mention it. Neither does the Web site of her most popular book, atlasshrugged.org, nor the hagiographical site, facetsofaynrand.com.

But none of this is exactly a secret. In her excellent 2011 book about Rand, “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right,” Jennifer Burns tells the story. Alisa Rosenbaum was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on Feb. 2, 1905, to Zinovy Rosenbaum, a pharmacist, and Anna Rosenbaum, the high-strung daughter of a wealthy tailor, whose clients included the Russian Army.  The Rosenbaums were largely non-observant, but celebrated Passover and were by no means completely assimilated—Alisa sat out of class during religious instruction.

[Related: How Paul Ryan will motivate Jewish voters]

Intellectual, withdrawn and immersed in her fantasy worlds, Alisa yearned to leave her country behind. When she was 21, Jewish relatives in Chicago—the Portnoys, of all names—helped her arrange a visa.  Once in America, she grew tired of her relatives’ insular Jewish world, and headed for the source — you could say the fountainhead — of her fantasy: Hollywood.

In Hollywood, the aspiring screenwriter Alisa Rosenbaum became Ayn Rand. An Eastern European émigré who breaks free from the claws of tradition and family, gentrifies her name, assimilates and devotes herself to creating stories about an idealized America — if that’s not the very definition of a 20th century Jew, what is?

Rand was a classic 20th-century Jew in another way as well: she was a devout atheist. She replaced God with her philosophy, just as Freud did with psychology and Einstein with physics. She loathed religion as much as the Communists, whom she loathed, loathed religion. In a 1979 interview, Rand told talk-show host Phil Donahue that religion, “gives man permission to function irrationally, to accept something above and outside the power of their reason.”

All this matters now because Ayn Rand matters now — perhaps more than ever. Gov. Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, is a self-described Ayn Rand devotee — and not of her early screenplays.

Ryan requires all his staff members to read Rand’s seminal novels, “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” The ideas she developed in these novels, as Burns writes, have become the ideological touchstones of the modern Conservative movement.

“Rand advanced a deeply negative portrait of government action,” Burns writes. “In her work, the state is always the destroyer, acting to frustrate the natural ingenuity and drive of individuals. Her work … helped inspire a broad intellectual movement that challenged the liberal welfare state and proclaimed the desirability of free markets.”

It is hard to read Ryan’s plan for addressing the Federal deficit and not see Rand’s ideological pencil marks.

The Ryan budget, wrote David Stockman, the conservative Republican former budget director under President Ronald Reagan, “shreds the measly means-tested safety net for the vulnerable: the roughly $100 billion per year for food stamps and cash assistance for needy families and the $300 billion budget for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled.”

In other words, the Ryan budget is Ayn Rand’s philosophy made flesh. 

I understand the origins of Rand’s emphasis on initiative and ingenuity. She was an exceptional individual, an outsider who by sheer force of intellect and will forged not just a life, but a movement. 

I understand her faith in capitalism and the free market. The Bolsheviks shattered her family, and few understood better than she the failure of Communism.

I even understand her rejection of religion — in her day it was most often a force of repression and superstition.

What I don’t understand is how, given these beliefs, Rand also could urge her followers to donate money to Israel.

“Give all help possible to Israel,” said Rand, then in her late 60s, in a lecture in 1973. “Consider what is at stake.”

Rand made clear she loathed Arabs and the Soviet Union, and saw Israel as a bulwark against both — even if it was socialist.

“This is the first time I’ve contributed to a public cause,” Rand said, “helping Israel in an emergency.”

Really, how do you explain such a thing? True, she saw Arab culture as “primitive,” but she acknowledged individuals had no responsibility to help citizens of other countries. She didn’t act out of logic or rationality — she acted because she felt, in dire circumstances—part of a collective. In that time, I believe, she wasn’t The Individual, she was part of a group: The Jews.

That feeling, that impulse, may not be rational, but it is powerful. There is a very real sense, as Jews, as Americans, as people, that we are bonded to one another despite, or even because of, our essential individualism. 

Rand’s religious blind spot is also Ryan’s policy blind spot. The most successful countries on Earth do not just fund defense, police and the courts, as Rand would have it. They invest in research, education and innovation. They provide a safety net to the sick and needy. They keep defense spending in check. They protect the environment from over-exploitation. They make cuts and raise taxes, so that society’s costs and benefits are shared.

Ayn Rand couldn’t see this. I hope Paul Ryan can.

Madoff scheme deals new hit to FSU Jews


MOSCOW (JTA) — The Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernard Madoff is the latest in a string of financial blows to Jewish aid programs in the former Soviet Union, wiping out a major foundation that was the primary funder of Jewish higher education in Russia.

The Chais Family Foundation, a $178 million philanthropy forced to close after investing all its money in Madoff’s fraudulent fund, gave away more than $12 million per year to Jewish causes. About $2.5 million of that focused on the former Soviet Union, where the foundation funded at least 12 cultural and educational programs.

Even before the foundation’s collapse, several organizations — including the Jewish Agency for Israel, Chabad-Lubavitch and the American Jewish Joint Complete Madoff CoverageDistribution Committee — had announced in recent months that they would be reducing support for programming in the region, fueling doubt and fear among Russian Jewish communal leaders.

“Many of my colleagues and others think that 2009 could be the hardest year for the Jewish community of the former Soviet Union,” Mikhail Chlenov, the general secretary of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, who also sits on the board of a program that was funded by Chais, told JTA. “Education is the first sphere of work that is already suffering, but social welfare programs could be next.”

Re-creating a Jewish community in the former Soviet Union following the collapse of communism has been an intense project undertaken by the broader Jewish community, drawing hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years from the Jewish Agency, Chabad and the JDC. The Chais Foundation’s annual $2.5 million contribution was the driving force behind creating a sustainable and self-sufficient piece of infrastructure in the region — a higher education system equipped to train Jewish professionals and teachers.

Chais funded the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies in St. Petersburg, the Jewish studies department at Moscow State University and the Chais Center for Jewish Studies in Russia, which it founded. The Chais Center brings professors from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to the region to create accredited programs. Hundreds of Jewish professionals have been trained through the center.

In addition, the foundation was a major funder of the Open University of Israel, which transmits online curricula to the former Soviet Union.

Those programs are now in danger.

Arkady Kovelman, the head of the Jewish studies program at Moscow State, said his program could definitely expect to lose some opportunities for grant money.

The Moscow program relies on academics from the Chais Center at Hebrew University who conduct courses in Hebrew and Russian. Kovelman says it is too early to tell if the program will continue or what the loss of Chais money will do to his program.

“I am hoping that it will not have an immediate impact,” Kovelman said. “They are telling us that everything is more or less OK.”

Even if programs in Russia weather the loss of Chais, the foundation’s closing is only the latest in a half-year of calamity for programs in the region pinched by the downturn in the global economy.

The Heftziba system — a network of 41 state-sponsored schools that offer Jewish curricula, which is is administered by the Jewish Agency — is in peril. The system, which was set up by Russian municipalities in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Education immediately after the fall of communism, has seen its finances gutted by $40.5 million in cuts to the Jewish Agency’s overall budget.

The agency, which pays to have some 11,000 students bused to the schools, is reducing its funding for the system from $12.7 million in 2008 to just over $5 million for 2009, with the hope that local philanthropists will help pick up the slack.

Alan Hoffmann, the director of the Jewish Agency’s education department, estimates that the Heftziba budget now has a $5 million hole.

“It could really be a mortal blow” to the school system, he told JTA Sunday.

The Jewish Agency already had been forced to adjust after Russian-Israeli philanthropist Arcadi Gaydamak pledged $50 million in 2006 to help establish programming in the former Soviet Union, but then froze the gift after giving only $10 million.

The two other Jewish-run school networks in the region — the secular ORT system and the Orthodox Shma Yisrael — have suffered from cutbacks undertaken by the Jewish Agency. Shma Yisrael has lost $200,000 in funding and the ORT schools are struggling through a budget cut of $1.2 million in recent months, according to ORT officials, JTA reported in November.

In the past three months, the largest Jewish educational network in the region, Chabad’s Or Avner system, has been forced to make significant cutbacks as its main benefactor, Lev Leviev, withdrew a substantial portion of his funding in the face of the financial crisis.

On top of these cuts, the Joint Distribution Committee, which provides social services to the frail and elderly in the region, is cutting its $100 million-plus 2009 budget in the region by about $5 million.

“You put those factors together in one six-month period from June 2008 until January of 2009 and you have some serious dynamite there for some institutions,” Hoffmann said. “I think it is a serious body blow to Jewish life in the FSU.”

The survival of Jewish programming, he said, “will depend on how quickly the world economy improves and the philanthropy world improves.”

U.S. Jewish leaders and Israeli officials have long hoped that the creation of new Jewish wealth in the region would lead ultimately to the formation of a home-grown Jewish philanthropy class that one day could pick up the mantle. But that had been slow in coming, even before the financial crisis and the drop in the price of oil wiped out huge swaths of Jewish wealth in the region.

For a system still largely dependant on outside money, the disappearance of Chais could really hurt.

Outside of higher education, the foundation funneled tens of millions of dollars into several programs aimed at promoting Jewish identity among youth.

Hillel in the former Soviet Union relied on the Chais Foundation for 23 percent of its budget and the ripples of the Madoff scheme have forced its operations “to the edge,” said Hillel FSU director Osik Akselrud.

“Now I don’t know how to find the exit from this situation because we have to cut programs and reduce salaries,” he told JTA at a Hillel staff conference in Baltimore. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Akselrud, like others whose organizations received funding from Chais, received a letter last week saying that he could no longer expect any support from the now-defunct foundation. The letter, which arrived just as he was to fly to the United States, set off a frenzy of meetings to determine how Hillel FSU could stay afloat.

Akselrud is also the chairman for Limmud FSU, an increasingly popular series of educational conferences that began last year. Limmud has plans for two conferences next year, in Belarus and Ukraine, and the Chais Foundation was expected to be a major underwriter of both.

The Sefer Center, an umbrella group that holds conferences and brings together students in Jewish studies from across the region, had relied on the Chais Foundation for 50 percent of its budget, said its director, Victoria Mochalova. She also learned in a terse message last week that her organization would need to look elsewhere for support.

In the face of the bad news, Mochalova predicted that the older generation of Jewish community activists in the former Soviet Union who had built the network from scratch would find a way to get through a decrease in funding.

“We never had a great situation and we have learned how to live in a hard situation,” she said. “For the young it is a big blow to take.”

In the United States, at least one Jewish organizational leader is holding out hope.

“I am not going to predict the future, but today if you go to our JCCs or to Yesod in St. Petersburg, they are full and active and Jewish life is vibrant,” said Steven Schwager, the CEO of the JDC. “They are critical links in building a Jewish community, and some way or other they will find a solution to continue them.”

Zoning Snafus Keep New JCC Empty


Flashback to last fall, the opening ceremony of YESOD, a first-of-its-kind Jewish community center in the heart of St. Petersburg. This three-story modern stone-and-glass building — built by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) with funds raised primarily from North American federations and private donors — was pitched by the JDC as the new heart of the St. Petersburg community.

Now, four months after the impressive opening ceremony that brought together JDC leadership from New York and Israel, North American donors and local community leaders, the center is fully built — but stands empty.

The center is also the focus of criticism from some of its would-be occupants, who say that they haven’t been kept in the loop about planning the center from the beginning, that its opening has been delayed and that they are unsure about when they will be able to move in.

For its part, the JDC says that the delays are a result of bureaucratic snafus in obtaining zoning approval, and that it plans to move local Jewish organizations into the building later this month. JDC also wants to make the building economically self-sufficient; sources suggest that the project has stalled because JDC is also looking for commercial tenants to help achieve this goal.

YESOD, a bright and open space, is similar to state-of-the-art JCCs in cities across North America. It has space to house half a dozen Jewish organizations, a gym, a concert hall and a kosher cafe.

Although hailed as a landmark space uniting under one roof many Jewish organizations that have been scattered around the city, the center was received with mixed feelings by community leaders.

At the time, some criticized the JDC for organizing the center from afar and of not bringing the local bodies into the organizational process.

When the center held its ceremony, with Jewish federation guests from North America in attendance, its administration hoped that it would be ready for operation by the end of the year at the latest.

But the center is still not open.

“Everything has stalled and it is not certain when and how we are going to move,” said Leonid Kolton, director of St. Petersburg’s Hesed Avraham welfare center, which provides food and other services to Jewish elderly.

The JDC-run Hesed Avraham gave up some of its space in anticipation of the September move — space that it will need in its more active winter months. Hillel’s predicament is more serious: the student group’s lease is ending at the end of the month.

In an e-mail message, Jonathan Porath, JDC’s country director for Russia, said Hillel will move into the JCC before the end of the month.

But according to Leonid Smirnov, director of JDC in St. Petersburg, the finished building is still going through the lengthy process of receiving final approval from the zoning commission.

Local Jewish organizations should be able to move in at the end of January and “general activity” in the building should begin in the late winter or early spring, Porath said. Meanwhile, the amount that local groups will be expected to pay in rent is still unclear.

There are indications that the nonprofit tenants, St. Petersburg Jewish organizations, will need to pay rent for space in YESOD to cover its costly maintenance. Local Jewish leaders worry that the groups will be expected to pay commercial rates that some organizations cannot afford.

Smirnov says such criticisms and fears are unwarranted because most of the organizations relocating to YESOD are funded by the JDC and thus the JDC would just be paying itself.

“We are not interested in transferring money from one of our pockets to another,” he said.

Financial details are still being worked, out, JDC’s Porath said. According to Leonid Kolton, the overall situation puts a stain on JDC’s image and could even damage the structure of the Jewish community.

The JDC’s Smirnov says any large-scale operation spanning almost four years and involving the transfer of many organizations to a newly constructed building will inevitably run into difficulties and complications.

Added Joshua Berkman, a JDC spokesman: “JDC and its partners built YESOD to serve as a first-class facility where Jewish life in St. Petersburg can continue to flourish. Rest assured, we will do everything we can to make sure the organizations that are driving this historic Jewish rebirth can make YESOD their home.”