Birobidzhan 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Rabbi Mordechai Shainer had problems finding enough Jews to hold services when he first arrived here four years ago. Now, his brand-new synagogue crowned with a neon-lit Star of David is packed with worshippers during the holidays.
Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region, first established by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1934, never fully lived up to its billing as a homeland for Jews in the Soviet Union, where they faced widespread anti-Semitism and official repression.
After suffering anew from the exodus following the 1991 Soviet collapse, the region is now enjoying a revival of Jewish life in its remote location in Russia's Far East - though the Jewish population is overwhelmingly elderly and remains a decided minority.
More Jews have been returning than leaving in the last few years, said Albina Sergeeyeva, director of programs for the Jewish community, estimated at about 4,800 people. Some 200 Jews came home in 2004 from Israel and Germany, while 80 departed to Israel, she said.
"Jewish traditions have got their second wind," said Irina Lenskaya-Margulies, who runs social groups for elderly singles, providing meals and lessons about Jewish rituals - many of which were forgotten in the officially atheist Soviet Union.
Visitors to the Jewish region's capital Birobidzhan, about 180 kilometers (110 miles) west of Khabarovsk, are greeted by a sign with the city's name written in Russian and Hebrew characters. It is certainly the only station on the Trans-Siberian railroad that has its name posted in Yiddish.
Around the town of 77,000 people, indications of Jewish life abound, from the menorah sculpture at the train station to a memorial in a central square to Sholom Aleichem, the writer whose stories of life in Russian shtetls, or villages, formed the basis for the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."
It was in those shtetls that Jews lived before the Communist revolution, forbidden by the Czars from moving to big cities, serving in the military or getting a higher education.
Jews started emigrating to the Far East in the 1920s, given special incentives to move here as part of the Soviet Union's efforts to populate and develop the area.
The Jews were not forcefully sent, as Stalin did with many other ethnic groups, and were free to return to the places they came from, said Yevgenia Grishukina, head of the history department at the regional museum.
At the peak of the emigration during the early 1930s, some 42,000 Jews lived here, said Lev Toytman, head of the Jewish community. The region attracted immigrants from across the world who wanted to help the dream of a Jewish homeland prosper. Toytman, a resident here for 71 of his 80 years, said that as a child he studied alongside pupils from Argentina, France and the United States.
The Birobidzhan Stern newspaper began publishing daily in 1930 in Yiddish, the Jewish vernacular of Eastern Europe, which has Germanic linguistic roots and is written with Hebrew letters. A Yiddish-language theater opened in 1934, drawing top performers from Moscow.
But the breath of religious and cultural freedom was not destined to last. First came Stalin's purges in the late 1930s, then World War II.
After a brief influx of new immigrants following the war, an official campaign against Judaism, labeled "cosmopolitanism," sent many of the community's brightest members to near-certain death in the Siberian gulags. The Yiddish theater was shuttered in 1949, its synagogue was destroyed in a fire in 1956 - after being allowed to open only eight years earlier - and study of the Torah was banned.
After the Soviet collapse, many Jews left for Israel or Germany, which offers Jews from the former Soviet Union special immigration
But in recent years, due to the difficulties adapting to a new culture, and threats of terrorism in the Middle East, some Jews have been returning home, community members said.
Israil Prosmushkin came back to Russia from Israel in 2004, a year after his 43-year-old son returned because of difficulty finding work there.
"It's difficult there for the younger people," said Prosmushkin, 69, a guard at the Jewish community building. "You need to wake up very early and work late into the night."
Another returnee, 74-year-old Larisa Lebyedkina, said she had simply been unable to adjust to life in Israel.
"I am a Soviet Jew, brought up on Russian tradition," she said.
Shainer, an Orthodox rabbi from Israel, said he is regularly stopped on the street by people speaking fluent Hebrew learned from their time abroad.
"Jewish life is reviving, both in quantity and quality," he said, noting increased participation in events along with residents' greater knowledge of their heritage.
The Birobidzhan Stern still publishes twice weekly, but now mostly in Russian with just two pages a week in Yiddish.
School No. 2, the city's public Jewish school with 670 students - 30 percent of whom are Jewish _ teaches Jewish history along with the Hebrew and Yiddish languages. Teachers are giving extra after-school help to students returning from abroad.
Since the Soviet collapse, Russia has experienced a wave of racism, mostly targeting people of African origin or from the Caucasus or Central Asia.
Residents of Birobidzhan, however, boasted of living in an atmosphere free of intolerance. Toytman said community events were open to all who wish to attend, no matter what their background.
"We don't have anti-Semitism," said the Jewish community's Sergeeyeva. "Everything is open, everyone's together and everyone helps each other."