Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture
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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News July 2001

July 20, 2001

EXECUTIVE COMMITTE IN MOSCOW

The first meeting ever of the Foundation in Russia took place in Moscow on July 2-4, 2001. It was a moving experience for all who participated.

The Foundation has been deeply involved in the revival of Jewish cultural life in the former Soviet Union since the late 60's. The meeting in Moscow provided us with a unique opportunity to demonstrate the wide range of the activities and programs we have supported there and the fruitful results we have achieved. No less important, we utilized the occasion to expose our leadership to the vitality of Jewish cultural life in Russia, and the opportunity to discuss and explore the future of Jewish life there.

 

The Foundation's Contribution to Jewish Life in the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

Professor Anita Shapira opened the Executive Committee meeting with an excellent paper about the need to expand our concept of Jewish culture. The major focus at the meeting, besides our regular business, was Russian Jewry. At the reception, prior to the opening of the meeting, almost the entire leadership of the cultural, religious and educational institutions of the Russian Jewish community was present, including the two chief rabbis. This is in keeping with the Foundation's practice of involving all sectors of the community in our work.

Prior to the meeting, the Foundation staff prepared for the Executive Committee a comprehensive document listing all the programs we supported in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe since 1965.

Professor Mikhail Chlenov presented a paper on the future of the Jewish Community in Russia. Attached is his paper and two of the background papers that we commissioned from Professors Zvi Gitelman and Mikhail Krutikov on the same subject that were distributed to the Executive Committee prior to the meeting. These papers, in total, provide a comprehensive picture of the Foundation's work in the Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union and significant material for contemplating its future.

The on-site visits we made in Moscow provided a much more hopeful and optimistic picture than that of the academic papers.

 

The Association of Jewish Schools in the CIS

CIS is the establishment of the Association of Jewish Schools in the CIS and Baltic States. It was initiated by the Foundation immediately after Glasnost with six schools. It now consists of over 50 schools, representing all the ideological and religious trends in the CIS. About 25-30 thousand students are currently attending these schools. The importance of this association is described in my paper as well as in the executive summary memo attached.

According to Emile Durkheim, the noted French-Jewish sociologist, schools generally reflect the community. In the Jewish community in the CIS, the schools are actually creating the community. As such, they are the central institution in the CIS for reviving Jewish cultural life there.

To help the Executive Committee members to better understand and appreciate the role of the school in the CIS, we visited Jewish School 1311, the most successful school in Moscow, headed by Grigory Lipman, who currently is the president of the Association. The visit to the school, in the judgment of all who participated in the meeting, was unquestionably the highlight of our meeting.

The evening began with a round-table discussion of Jewish education in the CIS, in which we learned of the remarkable growth in the number of schools and students over the last decade, and the challenges confronting the principals and schools. The principals are as dedicated and committed as any Jewish educators around the world, perhaps even more so, despite the shortage of materials, money and professional personnel.

Children from the elementary and secondary sections of the school then performed Yiddish, Israeli and traditional songs, accompanied with dances. The faces of our members during the performance reflected how deeply moved they were by the children.

Professor Menachem Elon, President of the World Union of Jewish Studies and Honorary Counsel of the Foundation, and Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson, Rector of Hebrew University and a Foundation Vice-President, joined spontaneously with the children in one dance, as did other members of our Executive Committee. It was a marvelous moment, connecting our leadership from all around the world with these young talented people, who one day may be the leaders of Jewish life there.

The first song the children sang was the traditional She' Hechianu blessing, thanking the Almighty for keeping us in life and bringing us to this day. All of us in attendance, witnessing this miraculous revival of a new generation of Jewish youth in the former wasteland of Jewish cultural life under the Communists affirmed with a quiet Amen.

Our visit concluded with a tour of the school, led by the students in English, and to a pearl of a museum on the school's premises created partly by the students. The theme of the museum was the cultural history of Russian Jewry immediately before the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and the Communist Era, ending with the revival of Jewish life in the CIS, represented by their school.

We also visited the Jewish Studies program at the Russian State University for the Humanities, which, like the Association of Jewish Schools, was celebrating its 10th anniversary. The Foundation has supported this program since its inception in 1991. The program opened with a symposium on Higher Jewish Education in the CIS, by Professors David Fishman, director of the program and Menahem Ben-Sasson, followed by the graduation of students, who were receiving MAs in Jewish studies. All had undertaken serious research projects in a wide variety of areas, many of which will be published by the Russian State University.

The student speaker who represented all the graduates (who has received a Foundation scholarship to study at JTS), opened her remarks with the same traditional blessing of She'Hechianu which I mentioned earlier. Again, Amen.

 

Prognosis for Jewry in the CIS

What our meeting in Moscow demonstrated persuasively is that there has emerged in the CIS authentic cultural and educational institutions on the level of western Diaspora Jewish communities.

The Foundation's objective over the past several decades in the CIS has been to deepen the Jewish consciousness and literacy of Russian Jews, in two directions; firstly, to motivate Jews to go on Aliyah, and prepare them as Jews for entry into Israeli society. Secondly, for those who choose to remain, to enable them to create a cultural infrastructure that can support the creation, intensification and dissemination of Jewish culture in the nascent Jewish community in the CIS.

Both these aims require the re-socialization and re-acculturation of Russian Jewry. This incredible cultural metamorphosis has miraculously taken root in one decade, expressed in the bright faces and enthusiasm of the young students at the Jewish school, and the serious graduates of the Jewish studies program.

No person attending our meeting, whatever his/her religious and ideological orientation, and whatever his/her earlier views and conceptions or misconceptions of Russian Jewry, can deny that reality. As Professor Elon put it in one word at the conclusion of the meeting to me,"Hitragashti" ("I was deeply moved").

What was also evident during our meetings with the Russian Jewish leadership during our visit is that Russian Jews are beginning to take control of their cultural institutions. The Jewish external agencies have been of enormous help in the past, and will undoubtedly be so in the future.

It has always been our belief, from the very inception of our work in the former Soviet Union several decades ago, that Russian Jews should make the decisions concerning the character of their community. We believe that it was our role to provide them with the necessary resources, and to enable them to develop the confidence and self-esteem to do so. At our meeting we were witnesses to this inevitable development.

The young Russian scholars and communal leaders who addressed our meeting, who were supported with Foundation scholarships more than a decade ago; people like Grisha Lipman; Rabbi Berel Lazar, Chief Rabbi of the Federation of Jewish Communities; Ilya Altman, Director of the Moscow Holocaust Center; and Mikhail Krutikov, Professor of Yiddish Studies, will undoubtedly in the future raise Russian Jewish consciousness and communal development to levels that we never dreamed were possible heretofore.

The tensions that are a growing part of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union are a reflection of this healthy process. Russian Jews are beginning to shape and implement their own vision of Jewish life, not a xeroxed one of other Diaspora communities. May they go forward in the direction they choose, with our continuing help and support in the future.

Best wishes for a pleasant summer.

Warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President