World Jewry: Mission to Moscow

Natan Sharansky returns to Russia to galvanize local Jewish leaders into taking responsibility for sustaining their own communities.

sharansky in russia thinking 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
sharansky in russia thinking 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Natan Sharansky's Hebrew teacher, back in the Cold War days when learning Hebrew and exploring one's Jewish identity were forbidden, used to charge his students 3 rubles per lesson. He would also demand of his students to prepare homework, and those who didn't perform the required assignments had to buy the teacher a bottle of wine, which in those days also cost 3 rubles. Back when he was earning 120 rubles a month, the price of the regular Hebrew lesson - and occasional bottle of wine - were not a paltry sum for Sharansky to fork out. The Hebrew teacher's philosophy was simple: one values something one pays for much more than if one gets it for free. Sharansky, and his fellow dissidents, loved and valued their Hebrew so much that they found ingenious ways of talking to each other in Hebrew under the most impossible of conditions in Soviet prisons, including shouting into the toilet bowl between flushes, when the sound would carry through their prison cell walls. It is this truism that Sharansky, making his first foray into the world of Jewish and Zionist education in the Former Soviet Union since taking over the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency in June, is banking on. The message, delivered to local lay community members, as well as super-wealthy Jewish tycoons, during a lightning 48-hour visit to Moscow this week, was two-fold: that the Agency was back and would not abandon them despite its financial difficulties, and more importantly, that the local leaders themselves had to start taking financial responsibility for sustaining Jewish life in the FSU. The days of rich American Jews giving money to the Jewish Agency, who in turns doles it out to poor Russian Jews enrolled in programs cooked up in Jerusalem's Kiryat Moriah [where the Agency's education department is based], are well and truly over. JAFI is shifting its focus from aliyah to strengthening Jewish identity, and for this it needs local partners. It's deeply ironic that Sharansky, the former Prisoner of Zion, would come back to Russia decades later to help deliver its Jews from a far more insidious enemy than the USSR: assimilation. Russian Jews, those who have at least one Jewish paternal or maternal grandparent, are assimilating at a rate of 70 percent. Estimates of the number of people with a connection to Judaism in the FSU range from 200,000 to well over a million, depending on whom you ask. Only 10% are affiliated with some form of organized community. Jewish Agency officials in Russia agree that Jewish life outside of the main cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Kiev, is doomed. According to some estimates, there are about 100,000 Russians with some Jewish connection outside of the main cities. Young, secular Jews continue leaving their villages for the big cities after high school and college. Aliya from the periphery is high for socioeconomic reasons, but those who stay usually marry out of the Jewish fold. Assuming youngsters attended one of the very few Jewish schools - and that is a big assumption - once they get to college campuses, their connection to Judaism is lost, as the FSU does not have nearly as strong a Hillel system as in America. Soon there won't be any Jews left in the 500-or-so towns and villages where Jews are known to live today. But there are challenges within the big cities too. The few Hebrew ulpanim are facing closure, as the financial crisis has forced a massive draw-down of JAFI funding. Jewish day schools, facing a crisis of leadership as well as a lack of manpower and money, are being forced to make a choice: emphasize Jewish education, or teach a broader curriculum to make the schools a more attractive option. Jewish parents do, after all, want to send their children to competitive schools that will get them into the best universities. There is a dramatic increase in the interest young Jews here show in the wildly successful Taglit and Masa programs. Studies show that participation has dented assimilation rates. Enrollment in these programs has jumped, but while funding for Taglit (which introduces youth to Israel on a 10-day blitz) remains strong, donations to the less sexy, but more substantive and expensive Masa are falling. Sharansky faces a tough challenge indeed to find partners to keep it going, and he also needs to create post-Taglit programs to build on the momentum that short trip creates. WHERE IS all this money going to come from? Just as the world economic crisis and the Madoff scandal have affected American Jewish philanthropy, some Russian Jewish tycoons have also suffered. Africa-Israel chairman Lev Leviev's fortunes are plummeting, and while not one Leviev-funded school in Russia has shut down yet, they are all now running on the barest of budgets. But there are other Russian Jewish tycoons. Sharansky focused this week on local Jewish magnates such as Michael Fridman, chairman of the lucrative Alpha Bank, who last year established the Genesis Philanthropy Group which finances Jewish identity programs in Russia. The Jewish Agency secured a three-year, $6 million deal this week that will see GPG finance Jewish summer camps. Smaller, but similar deals and partnerships were forged with other groups, such as the Russian Jewish Congress. Despite these initial achievements, there are many other problems facing Russian Jewry, and Sharansky needs to get cracking. But before he can start engaging the Jewish communities, he needs to bring their leaders under one tent. An issue he focused on was to liberate the various Jewish organizations working in the FSU from decades of non-cooperation - from bitter rivalries, personal vendettas and turf battles - and to get them moving in the same direction. The situation is maddening, and depressingly familiar. Wherever Jews gather, there are wars of the Jews. And in Russia, the wars of the Jews are the most venomous anywhere. For decades officials of the Jewish Agency and Nativ, which variously fell under the Prime Minister's Office or the Foreign Ministry, didn't talk to each other, even though they were ostensibly working on the same target. The bad blood here was over money, prestige and access to power. Similarly, JAFI and the nebulous, super-wealthy and connected Chabad wouldn't cooperate with each other on ideological grounds: JAFI is a Zionist enterprise trying to bring Jews to Israel, while Chabad has different, non-aliya priorities for its flock. But this week Chabad gave Sharansky an attentive ear and an open mind, and has agreed to partner on a summer camp program in Israel. Meanwhile, several leading Russian rabbis, whose animosity toward each other is a thing of legend, won't be caught dead in the same room together. Such is the depth of their disdain, that there are whole communities of Orthodox Jews in Russia that don't talk to each other at all - their schools don't mix and they don't pool their resources. On the secular side, there is the Russian Jewish Congress and the World Congress of Russian Jewry - two totally separate organizations. JAFI and Keren Hayesod, which raises funds for Jewish and Israeli programs worldwide, also have to clear up territory issues. BUT ALL Jewish organizations are suffering from the economic climate in Russia, and noncooperation has become a luxury none can afford. It is within this context that Sharansky met all the players this week: local JAFI officials, the Nativ and Keren Hayesod leadership, the Israeli embassy staff, top Russian rabbis and Jewish senators, philanthropy giants such as the World ORT, Genesis Philanthropy Group and local Jewish community leaders whom he sees as the true stakeholders, not simply the recipients of aid and instruction. Sharansky didn't even try making peace among them - that would be impossible. Instead of bashing heads together, he offered to put his head in together with theirs. Instead of the usual instructions from Jerusalem they are so used to hearing, he offered them a two-way partnership. He doesn't need the Jews to make peace, he told The Jerusalem Post, they just need to start working together on the common goal: sustaining existing organized Jewish communities in Russia, while reaching out to the unaffiliated. So far the results have been promising, but measured. The fact that the chiefs of JAFI and Nativ are even talking to each other is a significant improvement. The bigger picture is that we are a religion of some 14 million people, not even the official population of Moscow. We are thirsty for contact with other Jews. It is imperative that Jewish organizations work in partnership with each other and Israel. If he can get all the stakeholders moving in the same direction, and soon, Sharansky could go down in history not only as the man who pulled Russia's Jews out of the Soviet darkness, but also as the man who helped them create their own light. The writer was a guest of the Jewish Agency on its mission to Moscow. For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs