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Od Million Ehad

Boris Altshuler

"Od million Ehad"

"One million more". New incitement to self-development:

Jewish community as part of Civil society of Russia and

as a “bridge” between Russia and Israel

Report at the Seminar of Jewish Agency – Russia

18-19 August 2003

The practical ways and possibilities of making a reality the Israel Prime-Minister Ariel Sharon’s “dream” of one more million Russian Jews coming to Israel are discussed. At present, in spite of the enormous money invested, not more than 10% of Jewish population of Russia are involved in the national self-identification and de-assimilation processes. “How to reach Jewish population?” and “How to channel national Jewish self-identification to Alia?” – those are questions discussed in this Report. To find the answers is a real historical challenge and also a creative task.



1. Introduction

I am grateful to Dina Rubina who invited me to participate in this Seminar which she organized in connection with the end of her term of service in Jewish Agency as a Chief of The Culture Connec-tions Department in Russia; we all have a pleasure here to be acquainted with another well known Israel author Mark Zaichik who will take her position. And now when I see the level of participant of this Seminar and hear the most fruitful discussions I become even more grateful for the possibility to participate in this event.

I chair two human rights NGOs in the Russian Research Center for Human Rights: “Movement with-out Frontiers” and “Right of Child”. During a number of years we are working in close cooperation with Jewish community “Shalom” (town Borovichy, Novgorod Region), Edward Alexeev (Head of “Shalom”) actively participated in preparation for this Report of documentary materials on the situa-tion in small Jewish communities of Russia. More information about activities of our organizations one may read in the collection “Haverim: Russia — Israel” which we published just now purposefully to this Seminar and which every participant of the Seminar may receive. Here I just want to note that my 20 years experience of participation in human rights and Jewish movement in the Former USSR helps me very much in the human rights work in modern Russia during last 10 years. I also must tell with gratitude that during these 10 years we most fruitfully cooperate with Norwegian NGO “Help the Jews Home” and with Norwegian Committee for Jews in CIS (in USSR – before its decay).

The Collection “Haverim: Russia — Israel” which you all received is dedicated to the memory of Kris-toffer Gjotterud, Professor of nuclear physics of the Oslo University, famous Norwegian human rights activist who during many years chaired Norwegian Committee for Jew in CIS and was member of the Board of “Help the Jews Home”; Kristoffer Gjotterud passed away on December 30, 2001, his name is now written in the Golden Book of Jerusalem. In this Collection one may read the Article by Ed-ward Alexeev called “Principal of Universality” – which gives an example of effective organization of life of small Jewish community – this is just a topic of our Seminar. Another chapter describes posi-tive reaction of Jewish Agency to our, together with Ulpan “Halom” Sanct-Petersburg, Appeal ad-dressed to the world Jewish community and dedicated to the problems of teaching Hebrew in Russia – this, I believe, is also an issue of our common interest. There is also short and most interesting, how-ever very sad, information about the USA position with regards to the status of Jerusalem. And the last major chapter sums up the “Movement without Frontiers” 10 years experience of work in pro-tecting right of free exit from Russia, in particular for those who decided to Go — with many docu-mentary attachments.

2. “We do not reach Jewish population”

The question which we discuss at this Seminar: “How to organize life of Jewish community effec-tively?” is in fact comes to the difficulty which was just now quite exactly formulated by representa-tive of Lishkat-ha-Kesher who said: “We do not reach Jewish population”. It is not a secret that ac-cording to the most optimistic estimations not more than 10% of Jewish population of Moscow is in-volved in Jewish life – regardless of huge money invested for development of this life. The percentage of Jews involved in Jewish life in the whole number of Jewish population (of given city or district) is the most transparent figure characterizing effectiveness (or non-effectiveness) of the work targeted at developing of the Jewish national self-identification. This important relative figure is, as a rule, omit-ted in reports of huge or small Jewish organizations – perhaps because it is not too inspiring. The monitoring of small Jewish communities (mostly in the North-West of Russia) which we together with Edward Alexeev fulfilled one and a half year ago, and questioning done specially before this Seminar show one and the same: not more (for rare exceptions – like e.g. the town of Vyborg) than 10% of Jewish population of different towns are involved in Jewish life. Edward Alexeev asked about 50 Jews in Veliki Novgorod the question: “Why don’t you participate in the life of Jewish commu-nity?” The answer was one and the same and rather depressing: “We are normal people. We don’t need this ghetto”. Is not it evident that this situation MUST BE changed to better? This is really crea-tive task. Is not it a challenge for all of us?

It was quite instructive to listen to chiefs’ and members’ of communities’ answers to the Edward Alexeev’s question: “What do you think must be done to make community more attractive for Jews living in your town?”:

— Semen Spivak, Ufa, Republic of Bushkortostan: “More “secular” programs must be realized in Jewish community” (“secular” here means programs providing ordinary, i.e. not specifically “Jewish”, services necessary for people);

— Leonid Berkovkii, town of Rybinsk: “Sponsors must want it”;

— Alexander Modylevskii, Petrozavodsk, Republic of Karelia: “Sponsors must pattern commu-nity to fulfillment of more “open” programs, i.e. not only religious or literally Jewish ones”;

— Irina Gutkina, Nizhnyi Tagil: “Sponsors must stop engender “professional Jews” but must pay attention to the human dimension of the work. Now the paradoxical phenomenon is observed – the more there are of so called “professionalism” the less number of Jews is involved. At the same time in province it is not difficult to attract Jewish population by organization of com-puter clubs etc.; if community will provide services necessary for people then Jews will go to community”;

— Bella Litvak, Pskov: “To develop amateur clubs interesting for people of different ages, to or-ganize good education etc. – people must feel that they are capable to realize themselves in the community”.

Very informative were also comments by Svetlana Yakimenko, Director of Jewish Women NGO “Kesher” (Moscow) which organizes women groups of studying Torah in 120 towns in the countries of CIS. Svetlana said that according to their plural observations people do not go to the Jewish com-munities because very often it is extremely boring there, because there are no real active work, enthu-siastic activists capable to inspire people are rather rare phenomenon: «Good lecturer is a “National property”», — she said. Thus we come to the crucial question of quality of proposed services and to the problem of finding tools capable to ensure this quality. “At present, major Jewish umbrella organiza-tion which provide sponsorship to communities do not possess the elaborated system of criterions to estimate the quality of work fulfilled at their expenses”, — said Svetlana Yakimenko. She also noted that unfortunately in many communities mastering in technology of receiving sponsorship in practice substitute the real work. This again shows that elaboration of adequate criterions capable to estimate the real quality of work is a very urgent task.

Also there was not very optimistic information about level of education in Jewish schools which, as a rule (for rare exceptions), is essentially below the average level of education in Russian State schools. Jewish parents do not consider Jewish education as a prestigious one, and we all know that Jewish parents always try to provide their beloved children with something which is “the best of all”. How to make Jewish education prestigious? – Is not it also a challenge to find an answer to this question?

3. “One million more”

To answer these questions and in this way “to reach Jewish population” evidently demands to elabo-rate certain new approaches. But before presenting in the Item 4 some ideas and views about possible “answers” and “approaches”, I would like to discuss WHY? – why at all we are interested in de-assimilation, in development of Jewish self-identification and Jewish communities? Why we feel somehow unsatisfied when “normal” people live their “normal” life without any additional national dimensions? The answer, as I see it, is two-fold:

First reason may be called “Jewish demographic emergency” – as Sallai Meridor, Chairman of JAFI and WOZ Executive, put it in December 2002. In fact this reason is the most general and may be called the “civilizational” one. The advancing of modern civilization with its informational technolo-gies without borders, with its massive global migrations, mixing of races and ethnic groups has also a negative side-effect of cultural, behavioral and psychological uniformity, of a "melting-together" of mankind's "cultural space", thus essentially impoverishing this "cultural space". The problem of pre-serving the originality of national cultures and traditions, capable to enrich each other, is now faced practically by all the peoples of the world. Those aspirations may be only welcomed — of course if they are not accompanied by hostility to other nations, by dangerous separatism, religious or national ex-tremism. Jews as national, religious, cultural identity preserved itself during 2000 years in the most unfavorable conditions, and efforts resisting modern aggressively assimilating processes, resulting in particular in demographic crises, may be only greeted.

Second reason for the work for de-assimilation of Russian Jews and developing of Jewish self-identification in Russia may be called the “Zionist” one. The creation (the restoration) of State of Israel in 1948 ended the 2000 years of a tragic epoch in the history of Jews, marked with persecu-tion, discrimination, auto-da-fe's of The Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust, and established a new situation for all Jews in the world. Because now every Jew may Return to the Promised Land. Of course every time this is one’s absolutely personal decision, but to create conditions favorable for such a personal decisions means to work for prosperity and strengthening of Israel.

Ariel Sharon while visiting Moscow for the Russian-Israel Summit in September 2002 spoke to media about good and fruitful Russia-Israel relations and added: "The contribution of million of Russian Jews to the development of Israel is enormous. I would like to see one million more". We could see yesterday at this Seminar that this figure is not unrealistic at all. In his Talk Michael Chlenov gave preliminary figure of number of Jews in Russia given by recent general census of the population: 250 thousands. This is number of people who wrote in the census questionnaire “Jew”. But according to The Law on Return the right for repatriation to Israel is also given to near relatives, children and grandchildren of Jews, which means, according to Michael Chlenov who is a top expert in these questions, that to determine the real potential of Alia number of Jews must be multiplied by 3,5; hence we see: 250000 x 3,5 equals to Ariel Sharon’s “one million”.

Of course in practice not everybody from this figure will want to Go. On the other hand assimila-tion of Jews during 70 years of communism was so strong that no doubt there remains absolutely indefinite number of Jews who in no way identify themselves as a Jew so far and thus are omitted by the present day statistics. (In this connection Dina Rubina mentioned yesterday somebody’s quite arbitrary estimation of 4 million potential of Alia from Russia). In any case we all understand that potential is strong, not like in some countries of East Europe where it is already practically exhausted. And also we all understand that to activate properly this potential the work on devel-oping Jewish self-identification must be essentially improved.

4. What may channel national Jewish self-identification to Alia?

It is also evident that developing of Jewish self-identification by itself does not obligatory strengthen the potential of Alia. This will happen however – and this was the main idea of our Ap-peal to world Jewish community (see chapter 2 of the collection “Haverim: Russia — Israel”) – if work on Jewish self-identification is accompanied by organization of broad studying of Hebrew. Studying not only by those who ALREADY decided to create Alia, but by everybody who want it. Hebrew is language of Bible and of the ancient and modern Israel, it is one of the most important parts of Jewish heritage and culture, or as Michael Edovitski from the Education Department of JAFI in Jerusalem put it: “Hebrew is sort of genetic code of Jewish nation” . And there is no need to explain that knowledge of Hebrew essentially decreases one’s psychological barrier in making personal decision to Go.

Another essential dimension of the self-identification work which is capable to strengthen potential of Alia is “to approach Israel”, that is to incorporate into the everyday work of communities the estab-lishment of plural links with Israel. That is why I included in the title of my Report the words “Jewish community…as “bridge” between Russia and Israel”. It may become a field of very promising crea-tive work.

5. Participation in Russian Civil Society

Active participation of Jewish communities in the Civil society life of Russia is also an effective rem-edy from the “effect of ghetto”, of certain “closedness” which repels people. This is also very impor-tant to develop tolerance. One example: in April this year in town Borovichy Jewish community “Shalom” organized free of charge concert of Jewish music by its (highly professional) musical en-semble; the concert took place in the main concert-hall of town Borovichy with 600 seats. The Hall was full of public which even stood along the walls etc. The 4 hours presentation was met with great enthusiasm, the scene was full of flowers. Is not it a work for tolerance? After all this is a question of self-dignity, self-respect – to participate actively in the life of society where you live, and in particular to participate in resolving most demanding purely humane problems – e.g. to help children in disaster etc. etc. Communities’ cooperation with Israel, with Israel Civil Society in particular, in doing this work may be evidently also the effective tool of “approaching Israel”.

6. Conclusion

To improve the work of Jewish communities, “to reach” wide Jewish population and to strengthen with it the potential of Alia from Russia the following approaches supposedly may be useful:

— Community must be “friendly” to the natural human demands (in the top level education for chil-dren, in medical service, in entertainment etc.) even if these demands are not visibly connected with Jewishness, which however must be the “air” of the whole life of the community;

— To reach this goal the system of criterions of estimation of quality of work and of highly profes-sional INDEPENDENT expertise of quality of work must be created;

— Effective organization of studying Hebrew must be an essential part of work of Community;

— Jewish communities must overcome their “closed” character and must become an honorable part of the Russian Civil Society — friendly to non-Jewish population, in this way promoting the devel-opment of tolerance, of humanity etc.;

— Community must possess plural links with Israel and with Israel Civil Society, in this way pro-moting the development of friendly Russian-Israel relations and “approaching” Israel to everyday life of Russian Jews.


Boris Altshuler,

Head of the “Movement without Frontiers” and “Right of Child” NGOs of the Russian Research Center for Human Rights,

11, Novyi Arbat st., off. 19-18, 19-20; Moscow 119019, Russia

Tel. (7-095) 291-5872; tel./fax: (7-095) 291-9176


Edward Alexeev,

Head of "Shalom"

25, Sovetskaya st., Borovichy, Novgorod Region, 174400, Russia

Tel.: (7-8162) 138-024