General Information on Russian Jewish Community Organizations
The first legal Jewish organizations in the RSFSR appeared in Moscow in 1988 – the Jewish Cultural Association (EKA) and the Moscow Jewish Cultural and Educational Society (MEKPO). In 1989, the first USSR Jewish Congress took place in Moscow, creating the first umbrella coordinating organization of the USSR Jewry, the Va’ad of the USSR, nwhich existed until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its activities weren aimed at recreating Jewish communal life in the USSR, but they coincided with a period of mass exodus of Soviet Jews. Over the last decade and a half about half a million Jews have left Russia for Israel, the USA, and Germany.
According to the most recent census of 2002, the Jewish population of Russia was 233,400 people, living mostly in larger cities, about 70% of those in Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, most Jewish community representatives and experts consider this number rather understated, as some Jews still do not dare disclose their ethnicity, and some communities could have purposefully avoided the census. The Jewish population as estimated by experts is between 500 and 750 thousand (including family members and people who choose to hide their Jewish descent). In February 2008, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia announced its program of encouraging the birth rate among Jews, for which purpose a benefit was to be paid for the third child and every following one after
they reached three years of age.
Next to Ashkenazi Jews there are noticeable communities of so-called Sephardic or Eastern Jews, mostly Mountain. Although the traditional centers of Mountain Jewish settlement in northern Caucasus (Derbent, Makhachkala, Nalchik) are still preserved, many Jews belonging to this ethnic group have moved to Moscow and Pyatigorsk in the last 10-15 years. There are significant Mountain Jewish communities in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, and Irkutsk. The World Congress of Mountain Jews (established in 2003, collective member of the EAJC), and the Foundation of Jewish Cultural Development by it are based in Moscow. At the same time there is a Congress of the Mountain Jews of Russia and the FSU (created in 2001 as a branch of the World Mountain Jewish Congress, president since 2008 – Binyamin Binyaminov). The population of the “Eastern” communities is rather difficult to estimate. The numbers offered by the census of 2002: 3,000 Mountain Jews and 100 each of Georgian and Bukharian Jews – cannot be taken seriously. Probably, some of them avoided the census, some were registered simply as “Jewish”, and some named their citizenship instead of their ethnicity and were registered as Azerbaijani, Uzbek, or Georgian. There is an estimate of several tens of thousands of Georgian, Mountain, and Bukharian Jews living mostly in Moscow. Besides, Russia has about 1,000 Karaites, 150 Krymchaks, and several thousand Sabbatarians – descendants of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Among the umbrella Jewish organizations of Russia there are the oldest Jewish union “Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia – Va’ad” (the Va’ad of Russia, created in 1992, president – EAJC General Secretary Mikhail Chlenov) and the charitable foundation Russian Jewish Congress (RJC, created in 1996, president since fall 2005 – Vyacheslav Kantor).
Besides, there are unions of religious Jewish communities of three movements: traditional rabbinic orthodoxy (so-called “Lithuanian” or “mitnaged” Judaism); Reform Judaism; and Chabad Lubavitch Hassidism. The latter is currently the strongest and most influential, united into the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJC, chief rabbi – Berl Lazar, president – Alexander Boroda, over 200 religious communities). The FJC is currently working on building community centers in cities with a Jewish population of over 1,000. In 2007 this program comprised construction and reconstruction of 11 synagogues and community centers at once.
The first congregations of Reform (or Modern) Judaism appeared in Moscow in the late 1980s. They are currently part of the Union of Religious Organizations of Modern Judaism in Russia (OROSIR, chairperson – Irina Shcherban). The OROSIR and the Federation of Orthodox Jews of Russia (FOER), currently in the process of registration, which unites the orthodox communities outside the FJC, are both in the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia (KEROOR, created in 1993, chief rabbi – Abraham (Adolf) Shayevitch, chairman – Zinovy Cogan, about 100 communities, 40 of which – Modern Judaism communities). This kind of cohabitation of Orthodox and Modern Judaism within one organization is unique. In January 2004 and March 2006 the FJC attempted to annex the KEROOR as part of a project of creating a united Jewish community of Russia, but both the leadership of the organization and virtually all participating communities declined the offer, and the project gradually stalled.
After famous entrepreneur Arcady Gaidamak was elected president of the KEROOR in May 2005, it seemed that the organization was on the rise, and would perhaps present a challenge for the declining RJC, whose junior partner the KEROOR was since the moment of the former’s creation in 1996. However, currently the KEROOR is also working through some development issues.
There are two current chief rabbis of Russia in the community: according to the KEROOR, it is A. Shayevitch, elected for the position in 1993; according to the FJC, it is B. Lazar, elected seven years later. Another form of union for Russian Jews is provided by the Ethnic Cultural Autonomies (NKA), existing in accordance with a special federal law, adopted in 1996. The NKAs are ethnic secular organizations meant to provide diasporas with ethnic identities in terms of language, culture, and education. The law on NKAs stipulates the legal relations between the diasporas and the institutions of the state. There are 40 regional Jewish autonomies and several dozen local ones. The Federal Jewish Ethnic and Cultural Autonomy (FENKA) was established in 1999 (president since 2003 – Mikhail Chlenov, chairman of the trustees council since 2004 – Alexander Mashkevich).
In 2002, the Va’ad of Russia and the RJC co-founded the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and were represented in the EAJC General Council (in 2007, the RJC left the EAJC). In 2002, the FJC and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress initiated the World Congress of Russian Jewry, one of whose centers is located in Moscow (president since 2007 – Boris Spiegel). Representatives of the Va’ad of Russia and the FJC are on the Council of the WCRJ. In late July 2005, the FJC initiated the founding convention the Council of Sephardi Jews of the CIS. There are about 600 Jewish organizations in Russia altogether, including Sochnut and Joint offices. The latter supports a network of Cheseds with over 150,000 clients. The two organizations have begun shrinking the extent of their activities in 2004, due to reorientation to work with other regions. The United Israel Appeal – Keren Kayemet le-Israel – opened a branch in Russia in the beginning of 2005.
Rating second in importance is the educational direction of the Jewish community’s activities in Russia. There are 45 Jewish basic schools in the state and about 60 Sunday schools. There is also a small network of preschool institutions, religious schools – yeshivas – and teachers’ training colleges. Most school-level institutions are financed by the state budget as well as communal organizations (especially the Or Avner Foundation), the Jewish Agency in Russia, the ORT, and some international religious structures.
The Rabbi A. Steinsaltz Judaic Studies Institute in Moscow has published Russian translations of several Talmud and Aggada tractates since its establishment in 1989.
Higher education in the field of Jewish Studies has been developing steadily over the last decade and a half. Working in Moscow: the Russian-American center for Bible and Jewish Studies at the Russian State University of Humanities (established in 1991, leaders – prof. N. Basovskaya and D. Fishman, director – M. Kupovetskiy); theb Maimonides State Classical Academy (established in 1992, rector –prof. V. Irina-Cogan); the S. Dubnov School of Humanities (established in 1991, up to 2003 – the Jewish University in Moscow); the Jewish Studies department of the Institute for Asian and African Studies at Moscow State University (until 2007 – the Center for Jewish Studies and Jewish Civilization at IAAS MSU, established in 1998, director – prof. A. Kovelman); and the University of the 21st Century (established in 2003 with the aid of the FJC, rector – prof. Y. Zaytsev). In St. Petersburg there is the Petersburg Institute for Jewish Studies (former Petersburg Jewish University, established in 1992, rector – prof. D. Elyashevitch), and the Center for Bible and Jewish Studies at the Philosophy department of the St. Petersburg State University, led by prof. I. Tantlevsky, was founded in 2000 as a shared project of the PIJS and the SPbU.
Next to full-time learning institutions in Russia, there are also programs of the Open University of Israel for learning by correspondence, and so-called National Universities of Jewish Culture – lecture centers which exist in many cities with larger communities.
The Moscow Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization “Sefer” has been working since 1994 (Academic Board chairman since February 2008 – M. A. Chlenov). The Center holds annual interdisciplinary conferences which are key events in Jewish Studies in the whole FSU, as well as field schools for high school pupils, graduate and postgraduate students, and young scholars. Collections of Jewish Studies conference materials and other scholarly works are published on a regular basis. The Bulletin of the Moscow Jewish University (since 1999 – Jewish University Bulletin: History. Culture. Civilization) is being published since 1993, and is now a leading periodical on Jewish Studies in Russian. In Siberia, similar conferences are organized and Jewish Studies literature is published since 2000 by the Krasnoyarsk Institute of Social and Public Workers (ISOR), created by the Joint. One of the courses at the Birobidzhan Social-Humanitarian Academy is Yiddish. June 2005 saw the grand opening of the Hebrew and Yiddish Literature Hall at the Russian National Library’s Eastern Literature Center; among others, books from the so-called Shneerson library were moved there.
Archeological excavations within the Khazarian Project have continued in the delta of the Volga, on the Taman peninsula, since the beginning of the 21st century – in early September 2008 it was announced that the Khazarian capital Itil was discovered there. Holocaust history studies are coordinated by the Holocaust Foundation (established in 1992, president – Alla Gerber) and the scholarly and educational center of the same name (co-chairs – Alla Gerber and Ilya Altman).
With the support of the educational community, the media, and governmental institutions, the term “Holocaust” was introduced into the project of the State Standard (the official federal program of compulsory education on each subject) in history. Work has begun within the Holocaust Foundation on the project of creating in the FSU a memorial and educational complex “Genocide – Holocaust – Tolerance” and a Holocaust encyclopedia. The Foundation has also initiated school history paper contests and expeditions to Holocaust sites.
Since 2006, events of the international educational program Limmud have been held in Russia.
The Jewish communal organizations of Russia have numerous programs in more than 100 cities of the country. In many cities there are diversified community centers; various religious and secular organizations; camps for children, teenagers, and youth; numerous educational seminars and symposia; and teachers’ training and requalification systems. A number of cities have branches of the Jewish international youth organization Hillel.
Before the perestroika the Jewish press comprised only samizdat and a single officious publication – Sovietisch Heimland; now it counts over a hundred publications. There are several Russian-wide newspapers published in Moscow: the oldest Mezhdunarodnaya Yevreyskaya Gazeta (International Jewish Newspaper, published by T. Golenpolsky); the Yevreyskiye Novosti (Jewish News, published by the RJC); the Yevreyskoye Slovo (Jewish Word, published by the FJC); the JAR Bulletin (published by the Sochnut). The newspaper Ami is published in St. Petersburg by Y. Tzukerman. The largest periodical of its kind, the Lekhaim magazine, has been published since 1991 (since the end of the 1990s with the support of the FJC). The Association of National Universities of Jewish Culture, supported by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, has been publishing the Korni (Roots) magazine since 1994. The Or Avner Foundation came out with the Yunior (Junior) magazine in January 2006. A number of regional communities have their own newspapers.
There are also Jewish Internet mass media, the first of which appeared in the late 1990s. The best-known of these is the Sem40.ru portal, established by the owner of the publishing house Provincia, B. Giller. Its closest competitor is the FJC-supported Jewish.ru. February 2003 saw the arrival of the first news agency – the Jewish News Agency at the website of the same name (aen.ru), also supported by the FJC and the WCRJ. The KEROOR supports the project jjew.ru.
In Moscow, there is the Shalom Jewish theatre (established in 1987, art director – Alexander Levenbuk) and the Solomon Mikhoels cultural center (opened in 1988, general director – Mikhail Gluz). The latter has been holding annual Solomon Mikhoels arts festivals since 2000. The Klezfest Klezmer music festival has been taking place in St. Petersburg since 1995; since 2001 in Kazan there has been the Leonid Sontze International Contest of Jewish Music and Dance and the Yury Pliner International Jewish Culture Festival. In Birobidzhan, the Cohelet Jewish music and drama theatre is open, and an international Jewish culture festival has been taking place there since 1997. A Tat-Jewish theater opened in Derbent in 2005. The popular actor Yefim Shifrin uses Jewish topics in his performances, and so does the singer Yefim Alexandrov in his program “Songs of the Jewish shtetl”. Documentaries about the lives of Soviet Jewszare directed by Vladimir Dvinsky, Galina Yevtushenko, and others. Twos state Jewish theatres are currently in the works – a Jewish Culture and Lifestyle Museum in St. Petersburg and a Holocaust Museum in Moscow. The FJC is also preparing a Tolerance Museum in Moscow. The St. Petersburg Russian Museum of Ethnography (REM) opened its permanent exhibit “The History and Culture of Russian Jews” in December 2007. The international theoretical and practical conference “Mountain Jews: Historical, Cultural-Ethnical, and Religious Dimensions” took place in Moscow in February 2008, timed to the 80th anniversary of the first USSR national convention on culture-building among the Mountain Jews-Tats of the USSR.
The largest publishing house printing Russian books on Jewish topics is the Gesharim/Mosty Kultury publishing house, open in Moscow since 1990 (about 400 books have been published to this day). It was joined in the early 2000s by the Dom Yevreyskoy Knigi, the Daat/Znanie, and the Fenix publishing house in Rostov-on-Don. Since 2005 the Yevreyskoye Slovo and Text publishing houses have been printing the Chais Collection non-fiction series. The American Jewish Committee and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress supported the publishing in February 2008 of the two-volume edition Children of Abraham, describing the history of cohabitation and the roots of conflict between Jews and Muslims. The Russian Jewish Encyclopedia has been published since 1994 (authors’ collective led by Zeev Vagner) with six out of the nine proposed volumes already out. In 2002, Gesharim began publishing the bibliographic magazine Yevreiskiy Knigonosha (the Jewish Book Peddler, included into the Lekhaim since 2007), while the Dom Yevreyskoy Knigi came out with Paralleli (Parallels) magazine. The oldest bibliographic magazine in Russia is the Narod Knigi v Mire Knig (Nation of the Book in the World of Books) bulletin, published in St. Petersburg since 1995. The 15th anniversary of the legalization of the Jewish movement in Russia was celebrated in Moscow in January 2004. The KEROOR held festivities in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Moscow Choral Synagogue in October 2006.
State anti-Semitism has been a thing of the past since the collapse of the USSR. The Jewish community of Russia cooperates actively with authorities of all levels. Both Vladimir Putin (President of Russia in 2000-2008), and his successor D. Medvedev (who visited the Moscow Jewish community center on December 5, 2007) regularly emphasize the perniciousness of racism and xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular. In January 2005, during a ceremony in honor of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Soviet Army, the President even said he was ashamed that there was still anti-Semitism in the country that had defeated Nazism. In their public speeches V. Putin and D. Medvedev demand that the legal authorities fight nationalism and xenophobia more vigorously and unmask the ideological inspirers of interethnic animosity. Vladimir Putin has also supported the FJC’s intention of opening a Tolerance Museum.
In October 2006 EAJC General Secretary initiated the creation of the Expert group on problems of Anti-Semitism under the World Jewish Congress (WJC) FSU Committee. The FJC has a special department for cooperation with the army, the Ministry of Emergencies, and legal institutions. The department is headed by Rabbi Aaron Gurevitch. A cooperation agreement was signed in 2007 between the FJC and the Federal Service for Administration of Punishments.
As part of restitution communities have received some synagogue buildings. Elsewhere, the state has allocated lots for building. The situation with restitution of other types of communal property is more complicated. Thus, the transfer of Torah scrolls was virtually frozen in 2000, after the FJC and the KEROOR clashed over the right to dispose of them. The clause of the NKA law on obligatory state funding for autonomies is not even symbolically followed.
According to sociological studies, ideological (consistent) anti-Semites comprise about 6-9% percent of the population. 17-64 percent of the citizens believe at some level or other in separate negative stereotypes to do with Jews. Such types of anti-Semitic vandalism as offensive graffiti on synagogue walls and desecration of cemeteries are widespread in Russia. Notably, so-called Holocaust revisionists have appeared in Russia in the 1990s, and because of mass mistrust of official historiography, their views began to spread even through works of fiction; there were also several cases of blood libel since 2005 (Krasnoyarsk, Istra, Lipetsk). Another typically Russian-specific phenomenon is the popularization in the 1990s of the “Khazarian myth”, linking Russia’s problems of all times with the Khazars who converted to Judaism and their descendants, who allegedly took over power in 1917. Most anti-Jewish outbursts are concentrated in the media, supported by marginal opposition parties and organizations.
Anti-Semitism in Russia traditionally remains part of the ultraright-wing conservative ideology without being monopolized by any one party or leader. Among its followers are radical nationalists, neo-Nazis of various kinds, religious fundamentalists (belonging both to Orthodox tradition, including movements alternative to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Islam and neo-paganism). To be fair, since the second part of 2006 the legal institutions have been reacting more sternly to the anti-Semitic activities of radicals. It seems that a certain system is emerging in the activities of the authorities, wherein not only the criminals themselves are persecuted, but their inspirers as well.
The Jews are far from being the main object of ethnic phobias for most citizens now. Prejudice against people from the Caucasus, Roma, etc. is more widespread and more radically and openly shown. The Western stereotype of open anti-Semitism being unacceptable in the rhetoric of any politician seeking popularity and respect is also making its impression.
Diplomatic relations between Russia and Israel were established in 1991. The relations can be called friendly as both states see each other as allies in the war against terrorism. Since 1994, Moscow is regularly visited by high-ranking Israeli officials (including virtually all Prime Ministers since I. Rabin). In April 2005, President of Russia Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Israel for the first time in history. In January 2006 Russia joined Australia, Israel, Canada, and the USA in initiating a UN resolution suggesting that January 27th be named international Holocaust victims memorial day. In February 2008, Russian Ambassador to Israel P. Stegny announced that Israel’s safety is Russia’s foremost concern in the Middle East. At Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, Russia was represented by the Federal Council Speaker S. Mironov.
An Israeli-Russian Commerce chamber has been created, led by the famous Israeli manufacturer L. Levayev. Agreements have been signed of economical and political cooperation (mainly, combating crime and terrorism). In May 2006 Israel and Russia agreed on expanding nair communications, and the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry signed a cooperation agreement with Israel’s Association of Manufacturers. Israel has become one of the centers of Russian tourism with almost 200,000 Russian tourists visiting it in 2007. In 2008, a mutual visa waiver agreement was signed between Russia and Israel. A parliamentary league of Israeli-Russian friendship is presided over by Knesset member Robert Ilatov. In May 2008, celebrations were held in Moscow in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary. A special edition of then Vokrug Sveta (Around the World) magazine was dedicated to Jewishness,n Judaism, and the state of Israel. In late May, 2008, the exhibition of paintings and drawings “Central Asia – Moscow – Jerusalem in the Work of Jewish Artists” was opened with the aid of the EAJC at the State Museum of the East; it was dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the State of Israel and the 90th anniversary of the Museum.
These relations are prevented from becoming fully allied by Russia’s wish to preserve contact with the former allies of the USSR in the Middle East, among the regimes and organizations Israel considers enemies. During the 2006 war in Livan there were publications in the mass media about “the Hezbollah organization fighting the IDF with Russian-made weapons”. However, some armament deliveries were suspended in response to Israel’s request. Israel, in turn, minimized in 2008 sales of weapons to Georgia whose relations with Israel are still tense.
A noticeable Israeli community has formed in Russia. Even according to official data there are no less than 1,000 Israeli citizens living in the country, whereas unofficial sources quote 20 or even 50 thousand. There are Israeli movie festivals in Russia since 2002. The Eshkol: Contemporary Jewish and Israeli Culture in Moscow Project was launched in 2004 in Moscow and St.Petersburg.
There is also a certain political expansion of Russian Jewish community members. A. Gaydamak is conducting extensive political activity in Israel (he ran for mayor of Jerusalem in 2008); RJC president Vyacheslav Kantor was elected chairman of the European Jewish Congress in June 2007.