WARSAW – Trekking through Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, the young men and women
chatted in a mixture of Russian and German, pointing out ornate headstones and
As a guide from the Jewish Agency, a velvet skullcap
perched on his usually bare head, pointed out the graves of famous Polish Jews,
they listened attentively, huddled in their coats for warmth.
weekend around 300 German Jews, mostly from Russian-speaking families, arrived
in the Polish capital for an annual gathering bringing together graduates of
agency programs in an effort to strengthen their Jewish identities.
an overwhelming majority of Germany’s Jews are immigrants from the former Soviet
Union, Russian speakers who, according to agency officials, have experienced
something of an existential crisis.
Many of the participants have
wrestled with issues of self-identity, agency spokesman David Schechter, himself
a Russian emigre, told The Jerusalem Post. Young German Jews of Russian
extraction, he said, do not feel Russian, as they have spent their formative
years in Germany, but neither do they feel German.
While many young
German Jews are aware of their Jewishness, it does not always play a central
role in their lives, agency officials believe. Having moved with their parents
to Germany following the fall of communism, due in large part to the promise of
freedom and financial generous inducements, Russo-German Jews are stuck in a
“Among all the Diaspora communities Germany is
unique and there is nothing like it,” agency emissary in Berlin Marianna Levtov
told the Post. “Many people are not part of communities and do not think of
themselves as part of communities,” she explained.
Jews who live in
Germany, she continued, do not always live in large communities but, rather, are
spread throughout the country.
“In Germany the connections with the
community is very weak.” Russian-speaking Jews “are dispersed in many places in
Germany,” said Dr.
Michael Yedovitzky, the agency’s director of
activities in Germany, elaborating on Levtov’s point.
“It’s not like
Paris in France or London in England, where most of the Jews are concentrated in
one location,” he said. “In Germany Jews live in more than 100 small communities
that lack a critical mass of young people.
“It is hard for them to
identify as Germans, it is hard for them to identify as Russians because they
are many years away from Russian culture [and] they have really a dilemma, a
search for their identity.
This hurts them.”
Yedovitzky said that
the agency’s goal with this weekend’s gathering, sponsored in part by the Claims
Conference, was to give participants a chance of developing a Jewish identity
and to “interact with other Jews.”
“These activities create the sense of
belonging and the sense of meaning,” he said.
Many of the participants do
not see each other in person except annually at this gathering.
young Jews, aged between 16 and 35, gathered on Thursday at their hotel, the
excitement was palpable, with hugs exchanged pictures taken.
German-speaking rabbi from Samaria was flown in to discuss theological issues,
and participants attended historical tours of Jewish Warsaw, including the site
of the ghetto, the cemetery and prayers at the last pre-Holocaust synagogue
standing in the city.
The goal of the agency in Germany, Levtov said, is
to allow Jews “to investigate their roots [and] to educate
In creating a forum for Jewish education and socialization,
she added, she believes that she is creating inducements for endogamy.
like to think we have a small credit in Jewish marriages,” Levtov
Elina Kurakin, a 23-year-old living in Nuremberg with her husband,
immigrated to Germany from Uzbekistan when she was 12 years old.
couldn’t identify me until maybe 15 or 16,” she told the Post. While she knew
that she was Jewish, and it was clear to her that she was a “Jewish girl,” she
only began to make Judaism an integral part of her life in her teen years, she
Kurakin does not identify as German, stating that it is “not so
easy to get into society” and that she has faced anti-Semitism.
43-year-old smartphone application developer from Hamburg, moved to Germany from
the Ukraine in the early 1990s.
While he said that he always identified
as Jewish, he began to participate in a larger community framework only five
“The person who took me back to my Jewish identity is Michael
Yedovitzky,” he said.
“One point is to be Jewish and another is to take
Russian-speaking Jews in general are different from their
contemporaries, Roman Polonsky, the director of the agency’s Russian-Speaking
Jewry Unit, told the Post.
“They were deprived of their roots for 70
years. There is a huge abyss, a huge gap that is something that we take into
account when we work with all of them,” he said.
he said, lack the Jewish traditions – such as knowledge of “Jewish holidays,
history, heroes [and] Torah” – that are passed down from generation to
“We were deprived of this and disconnected from this for 70
years, and of course our Jewishness was defined not by us but by anti-Semites.
That’s why our Jewishness was to some extent a negative Jewishness,” Polonsky
Jews who passed through the communist system, Polonsky added, “have
an aversion to all these slogans [urging them] to contribute to the community
[and] to the whole society, because we were fed up with all the Soviet empty
In order to rebuild communities, he explained, “we need these
people to take responsibility, to donate their time, their money, their efforts.
It is a problem in involving them.”
His division’s efforts, he explained,
are aimed not only at connecting young Jews with their fellows and building a
sense of identity, but at convincing them to “be an active part, not to only be
an individual Jew but part of a community.”
As such, this weekend’s
gathering has a serious purpose, Polonsky explained. The participants did not
just come to “sing ‘Hava Nagila.’”