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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News May 2012

May 18, 2012


The Foundation's Programs in Eastern Europe and Russia, 1965-2011

The next Biennial meeting of our Board of Trustees and the 25th Anniversary meeting of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship will take place, as you know, in Warsaw, Poland on July 3-11, 2012. The Foundation has earlier held meetings of its Board in Eastern Europe in 1987 in Budapest, in 1994 in Riga, in 1997 in Czechoslovakia and in 2001 in Moscow. In conjunction with our next meeting in Eastern Europe, we have published a volume documenting all the programs we have supported there from 1965-2011. It is, we believe, an impressive achievement and one of our most important contributions to Jewish life in the post-Holocaust era. For those interested, that volume is now available on this website.

The purpose of this Board Briefing is to provide an overview of those programs and, even more important, its conceptual underpinnings.

I should like to emphasize at the outset of this report the unique role that the Foundation has played in Eastern Europe. Most of the attention given to the issue of Soviet Jewry since Glasnost has been focused on the successful exodus of Russian Jews from the former Soviet Union and dealt with the political efforts exerted in Israel and by the global Jewish community to make it happen.

An equally and perhaps even more significant and crucial endeavor was fostering the renaissance of Jewish culture and identity among the Jews in the former Soviet Union. While not as dramatic, and for some time not even visible, that campaign created the climate which made possible both the miraculous exodus as well as the restoration of Jewish cultural and communal life in the countries formerly dominated by the Communist ideology.

In our judgment, this segment of the story, largely inspired by the Russian Jews themselves and aided by external Jewish bodies, especially in Israel, and the Diaspora, deserves more attention and credit than heretofore received for one of the contemporary miracles in Jewish civilization in our time. It is in this area that the Foundation has played an important role that I will briefly try to describe in this report.

Between 1965-2011, the Memorial Foundation allocated more than sixteen million dollars for Eastern Europe. It awarded 1012 institutional grants, assisted in the publication of more than 800 volumes related to Jewish culture, granted 2031 scholarships and fellowships and recruited 166 young men and women to the Foundation's prestigious Nahum Goldmann Fellowship program.

No less important than this concrete assistance is, as I indicated above, the conceptual underpinning of these programs, which the Foundation continually reviewed and reshaped as conditions there warranted. This has helped us achieve both a high level of success and continuity in our work over more than five decades.

Long before other Jewish communal agencies envisioned the possibility of the easing of Communist restrictions on Jewish cultural and religious life, the Memorial Foundation pioneered in the development of educational programs, the publishing of scholarly and educational materials and the training of rabbis and other communal professionals to serve the Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.

The Foundation has supported these programs since its inception in 1965. While most Jewish organizations focused on the emigration of Soviet Jews, the Foundation operated on two levels. While encouraging increased aliya to Israel, it concentrated its efforts on strengthening cultural and religious life which directly led to aliya but also to serving those who decided to remain behind.

In Eastern Europe the Foundation operated on two tracks: first, the former Soviet Union itself and secondly, in the other Soviet Bloc countries in Eastern Europe. We have dealt with these two sectors somewhat differently, and it is important to explain the differences as well as the linkages between them.

The Soviet Bloc countries to which we are referring include Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Rumania, and Yugoslavia. From 1965 to Glasnost, our work in these countries was aimed largely at supporting local Jewish communities to maintain their cultural life. By maintenance of Jewish cultural life, we are referring to the "official Jewish culture" which was either tolerated, indirectly supported, or officially sanctioned by the Communists. Each of these Jewish communities had their own special history and needs; so did their governments and societies differ. Our work was shaped by the unique cultural profile of each of these communities.

In the late seventies, we took a very important step forward, not to passively fund their requests as they were transmitted to us. We believed that we could both expand the Jewish community's vision of the parameters of what was possible even in Communist countries and help them accomplish those visions even under their severely circumscribed condition.

The Foundation's program for the enlargement and intensification of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe focused on three goals:

 

Some examples of our program in the Soviet Bloc countries:

Our most pioneering work in the Soviet bloc countries took place in Hungary, the most progressive Communist country in the Soviet Bloc in the 70's and 80's. After years of intensive effort developing mutual understanding, trust and credibility with the Jewish community and its leaders in Hungary, we were able to persuade their leaders to expand their work into new areas and directions, e.g. publication of books for children and families, the first publications of this kind since the Holocaust, the training of rabbis at the rabbinical seminary in Budapest, the development of a teacher training program for Jewish schools at that institution, and the establishment of a Jewish studies program in the University of Budapest. Old-timers still active on our board remember the inauguration and celebration of these programs at our meeting in Budapest in 1987.

During the darkest period of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the Memorial Foundation was one of the only Jewish agencies supporting Jewish life in that country. Despite the harsh political repression of the period, the Foundation funded the publication of Jewish books in the form of Samizdat — underground literature — and the training, sometimes covertly, of the future rabbinic and communal leadership of Czech Jewry. Almost all the current leadership of the Czech community were supported by the Foundation during that difficult era.

In Latvia, we selected Riga as our first model Jewish community in the former Soviet Union to demonstrate how post-Holocaust, post-Communist Jewish life might be revived. The Riga program, which has been replicated in many other communities in Eastern Europe, provided Jewish education for those planning to settle in Israel, and programs to strengthen Jewish family life for those who chose to remain, special training for lay and professional leaders, Jewish music and art for children and teens, and outreach to the unaffiliated. We also successfully established ongoing academic convocations and a Jewish studies program at the University of Riga.

At the Foundation's meeting in Riga in 1994, we also launched computer-aided education in Eastern Europe, an extension of the important work in the new technologies and Jewish education that the Foundation pioneered worldwide, in cooperation with the World ORT Union.


Books

In Russia, because we had no direct access to the Jewish community until after Glasnost in the 1990's, the Foundation was required to operate there very differently. In the beginning, we worked almost exclusively with the Israeli government, particularly the Lishkat Hakesher, a separate department of the Prime Minister's office dedicated solely to Russian Jewry. With them, we heavily supported the publication of books, emphasizing Zionism and the Hebrew language. We were specifically involved with them in the funding of the Sifrat Aliya, which as its name implied, was intended to deepen Zionist consciousness among Russian Jews, and hopefully encourage them to consider and undertake Aliyah.

In the early eighties, the Foundation became more pro-active and creative, analogous to the Hungarian model, but with a different focus. We set out to expand the parameters of what we thought was possible on behalf of Russian Jewry imprisoned behind the iron curtain, not by working with the community itself which was impossible at that time, but by working with the groups who produced the material, and/or creating new ones to do so. At that time most of the titles of the books being published in Israel were selected by a small group of Israelis, deeply concerned and committed to Soviet Jewry. We thought that to be effective in creating a literature to stimulate Jewish consciousness among Russian Jewry, we needed more input and information directly from the population we were trying to influence.

The Foundation commissioned Prof. Zvi Gitleman, a distinguished authority on Soviet Jewry, to undertake a study of Russian emigres in Israel, with a sample, scientifically selected, of representatives of the various geographic sectors of the former Soviet Union, and the different age and ideological groups. They were questioned about the material they had seen and read in the Soviet Union, their reaction to that material and finally, what books they and people like them believed were needed. We also prepared an inventory of everything published to date in the early 80's in the Russian language on Jewish culture to identify lacunae and major gaps in that literature.

The study was groundbreaking for the Foundation. It revealed that Russian Jews were thirsting for more information about their roots, as they had been forcibly disconnected from Jewish history and the Jewish religion by the Communists for more than half a century. Obtaining this knowledge, in their view, was critical for the reconstruction of their Jewish identity, and even more, their self-esteem as Jews. Secondly, there was a total absence of books for children and young people. Nothing at all had been, or was being, published in that area. One can speculate sociologically, as we did then, about this remarkable anomaly, possibly an outgrowth of the almost complete emphasis then on Aliyah, with little thought about the maintenance of Jewish culture and life in the former Soviet Union.

Finally, among the more highly educated Russian Jews, which was a very substantial group given the high level of cultural achievement in Russia, there was considerable interest in classical Jewish texts in a variety of fields — philosophy, poetry, religion, and law. The Foundation took steps to enlarge our program of publications and convened meetings with relevant bodies, and with the new publishing houses that recent Russian emigres were establishing in Israel, outlined our plans and accepted proposals from them for these new directions. Where not forthcoming, we commissioned our own works.

Our first thrust, easiest to implement, was material about Jewish history and about the Jewish religion. It should be stressed that the material we provided did not prescribe behavior and attitudes but described narratives from Jewish history and religion, so that Russian Jews could develop a better understanding of who they were and undo their forced disassociation from the Jewish past, almost successfully engineered by Communism. In this program we emphasized four H's — History, Holidays, Heroes and Hebrew.

The Foundation also initiated the Orot library for children, young people and families. Tens of books, selected and translated especially for this audience, culminated in the Jewish Family Library, one of our most successful projects.

The Foundation also engaged in the publication of classic Jewish texts, including several Russian translations of the Torah and the Hertz Chumash, selections from the Mishna and Talmud, the writings of classical Jewish philosophers like Maimonides' Moreh Nevuchim and Yehuda Halevi's Kuzari, classical Jewish poets like Ibn Gabirol and finally a monumental project, the publication of an abbreviated Encyclopedia Judaica.

In the Soviet bloc countries outside of the USSR, the books were published by the communities themselves. In the USSR, they were transferred clandestinely, mostly by the State of Israel.

When Soviet officials granted the Memorial Foundation formal permission to fund cultural and religious projects in the USSR in 1989, the Foundation launched its publications program there. Working in close consultation with Rabbi Adolf Shayevich and the Choral Synagogue in Moscow, we published some of the first Jewish books published in Russia since the Russian Revolution — Pirkey Avot, the Haggadah, and volumes on Jewish Law and Kabbalah. Tens of thousands of copies of other books on Jewish interest were also reprinted in Moscow with Foundation support.

The hundreds of books that grew out of our pro-active stance in the pre-Glasnost era are now many of the core books in most of the libraries now functioning in schools and synagogues in the C.I.S. We published most of these books in attractive formats, with colorful graphics, as we believed even then that these books would one day be legally available in the former Soviet Union.

Jewish books are today widely available there commercially, with a growing market and interest in them by both Jews and non-Jews. But the Foundation was there at the very beginning, at B'reishis, playing a critical role, not only supporting the visionaries and activists in the movement to revive Jewish cultural life here, but in helping to shape the literary contours of that historic movement.

Besides books, the Foundation also supported a wide range of educational and other cultural resource material for the schools and for the hundreds of cultural groups that emerged in the CIS after Glasnost.


People

But books alone, as crucial as they are, do not alone a revolution make. Revolutions, cultural ones too, are made by people.

In this area, we again played an important pioneering role. Long before Glasnost, when the iron curtain seemed impenetrable, the Foundation was supporting the training of Russian young men and women for future service to the Russian community. In the late seventies and early eighties, these young people were mostly Russian emigres who had accomplished Aliya. Many were scientists or academicians, with deep commitment to help revive Russian Jewry. We provided scholarships for them to study in Israel. Some of them, in turn, created training institutions for Russian Jewry, specifically geared to help educate Russian Jews Jewishly, and commit them to service for Russian Jewry. When the iron curtain finally fell, these individuals were the first emissaries to serve there as rabbis, educators and communal leaders.

Following Glasnost, through people like Rabbi Shayevich and other communal leaders already serving in the Soviet Union, we were able to identify young men and women who were also prepared to study in Israel and return for several years of service to communities all over the former Soviet Union.

Among the leaders we have trained and supported who are now occupying critical roles both for Russian Jewry in the CIS and Russian Jewish communities in Israel and Diaspora were former prisoners of Zion and dissidents Yosef Mendelevich, Yosef Begun, Yuli Edelstein, Eliyahu Essas, Shimon Grilious, Zeev Dashevsky and Benjamin Fein; religious leaders Adolf Shayevich, Berel Lazar, Yaakov Bleich, Pinchas Goldschmidt, Zinovy Kogan and Nelly Shulman; community leaders Mikhail Chlenov and his son Matvey Chlenov, Iossif Zissels and Gregory Krupnikov; educators Gregory Lipman, Mark Groubarg; Grigory Shoihet and Hana Rotman; academics Ilya Altman, Irina Belskaia, Ilya Dvorkin, Valery Dymshitz, , Gennady Estraich, Alexander Gorodetsky, Lev Gorodetsky, Mikhail Kemerov, Arkady Kovelman, Igor Krupnik, Mikhail Krutikov, Mark Kupovetsy, Ilya Lempertas, Larisa Lempertene, Alexander Militarev, Mikhail Oshtrakh, Yohanan Petrovsky, Anatoly Podolsky, Vladimir Shapiro, Zeev Vagner, Galina Yevtushenko and Manulik Zingeris; writer David Markish and composer Mikhail Gluz.


Cultural Network

Finally, in addition to books and people, the Foundation's master plan for Russian Jewry developed in the 80's by the Foundation's Committee on Soviet Jewry recommended that the Foundation help Russian Jewry create a cultural infrastructure for the production, intensification, and dissemination of Jewish cultural materials and programs. The finest example of this phase of our work is the Association of Jewish Schools in the C.I.S. and Baltic States. The Association, which the Foundation organized in 1991 was a stellar example of the Foundation's role in community building. The Association was founded by the Foundation right after Glasnost with nine schools. A decade later it had a membership of more than 50 elementary and high schools, serving more than 25,000 Jewish students from all over the C.I.S. These schools covered the whole range of schools then operating in the Soviet Union — Zionist and non-Zionist, secular and religious — ranging from the Reform movement to Chabad. The Association was an independent body, with the leadership fully in the hands of the principals themselves, who established both the priorities and programs of the Association.

The major achievement of the Association has been the more than twenty seminars that the Association sponsored. The programmatic offshoot of these seminars was not only upgrading the skills and knowledge of these principals, but also providing them with the opportunity to share and discuss their experiences and common concerns. In the judgment of the principals, the Association was critical in strengthening the Jewish schools in the C.I.S. as the cultural center of the community, and helping transform their schools into a conduit for the dissemination of Jewish values and culture throughout the C.I.S. Through the Association, the network of Jewish schools in the C.I.S. generated new energy, which not only sustained the individual principals in the schools, but also sparked a cultural impulse within the larger nascent Jewish community in the C.I.S. The growing role of the schools as one of the vital transforming institutions in the community, seeded and nourished by the Association, was a major achievement and a model example of community building.

A similar program was developed for Jewish journalists from all the former republics of the Soviet Union.

The Memorial Foundation has helped initiate Project Judaica, a pioneering Jewish Studies program at Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, co-sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. It was the first degree-granting academic program in Jewish studies in Russia. It offers an intensive five-year program leading to the Russian equivalent of a Master's degree in Judaica, and a one-year certificate program to train young Jewish communal leaders for Russian Jewry.

Project Judaica also developed with our support The Jewish Archival Survey in the former Soviet Union led by Professor David Fishman, co-director of Project Judaica, who was earlier the recipient of both doctoral scholarships and fellowships from the Foundation. The Archival Survey is a monumental research project, which involves the participation of teams of historians and archivists who are knowledgeable in Jewish history, command numerous languages, and are intimately familiar with the Soviet archival system. Professor Patricia Grimsted, the world's foremost authority on post-Soviet archives has called the Jewish Archival Survey in the FSU "the most ambitious and extensive project of its kind".


Conclusion

The Foundation periodically re-visited and re-shaped the conceptual framework and the paradigm that have guided our programs in the former Soviet Union, as warranted by the changing conditions that impinged on Soviet Jewry. This has given our work in the former Soviet Union real continuity over more than five decades. We did not jump from issue to issue or opportunity to opportunity, but have stayed our course, guided by, and committed to our paradigm. Because the concepts that have guided our work have fortunately proven sound, we have thus greatly amplified the impact and results of our work, far beyond the funds we have invested there.

We have helped through our publications to re-connect Russian and East European Jewry with their roots, enlarging their Jewish knowledge and consciousness. We have, through our training programs, our scholarships and fellowships, and the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, helped Russian and East European Jewry develop a new generation of leadership to revive and rebuild their community and develop its cultural infrastructure.

Finally and most significantly, the Foundation has throughout, worked and consulted with, and supported the indigenous community, as they defined their needs, and did not impose theological, ideological or organizational doctrines, preferences or biases from the outside. The Foundation has as well, throughout, worked with the total community and all its variegated parts.

From the beginning of our work, we adhered to the principle that the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe should make the decisions critical for the evolution of their community. We also believed that it was our responsibility to help them develop the knowledge, experience, and self-esteem to make those decisions, as illustrated by our work with the Association of Jewish Schools in the C.I.S. and Baltic States. This principle and methodology was far more significant than the funds we expended, and has infused our contributions there with a catalytic, expanding dynamic.

In this report, we have provided an overview, the guiding paradigm and some potent selections from among the programs the Foundation initiated and supported in Russia and Eastern Europe. We hope you will peruse this impressive volume on this website which documents the whole range of our efforts in Russia and Eastern Europe since the Foundation's inception in 1965. It is one of the Foundation's most impressive achievements of which we are exceedingly proud.


Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President