The surprising story of Jewish revival in the Former Soviet Union

Russia itself and also included Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Georgia have seen an increase in Hillel centers.

Soviet Jews and Jewish traditions  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Soviet Jews and Jewish traditions
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is unusual, when reviewing a book, to suggest that readers turn first to the Appendix. In the case of Let My People Grow, it is recommended. A glance at the Appendix gives, in an instant, the essence of Rabbi Goldman’s astonishing story:
“Hillel Centers in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) in 1993: None.
“Hillel Centers in the FSU in 2004: 27.”
This bald statement is followed by the complete list of the Hillel centers established in what had once been the USSR during a decade of intensive activity. The locations of the 27 encompassed Russia itself and also included Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Georgia.
Let My People Grow is Rabbi Yossie Goldman’s account of how he helped foster the rebirth of Jewish identity, life and culture among young people in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). It is not a story of easy success. The difficulties Goldman faced were sometimes desperately discouraging. Yet in the end he won through.
The USSR’s attitude towards its Jews had long been repressive. The administration believed that displays of Jewish identity on an individual basis, and certainly any communal manifestation, threatened Communist solidarity. After the Second World War. Stalin used the whole apparatus of the state to suppress the Jews as a unified group. Goldman remarks: “Some historians believe that only Stalin’s death in 1953 saved the Jews from large-scale unprecedented persecution.”
Happily that did not happen, although the Jews who did openly engage in Jewish activities, and especially those who repeatedly demanded the right to emigrate to Israel ‒ the “refuseniks” ‒ were persecuted, deprived of status and work, and often arrested. However, as Goldman points out, the majority of those with a Jewish background were not activists, and over the decades of communist rule their connection with their Jewish identity became increasingly attenuated. As for any connection with Judaism as a religion, in many cases it was non-existent.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the floodgates of migration were opened there was a huge outpouring of Jews. Something like a million immigrated to Israel. Their subsequent story is built into the history of Israel itself. But millions of people who were halachically Jewish, or who had varying degrees of Jewish ancestry, remained in the FSU. It was these people that particularly concerned Goldman, especially the young people ‒ students who had completely lost touch with their origins.
In Let My People Grow Goldman explains how he went about engendering, virtually from scratch, a sense of Jewish identity in people of Jewish origin but with no connection to Jewish life, culture or religion. His instrument was, of course, the Hillel organization – the student-based body concerned with enriching the lives of Jewish students by enhancing spiritual, emotional and physical well-being.
Hillel came into existence in the early 1920s as the joint brainchild of a Christian professor of Biblical literature in the University of Illinois and a rabbi. Today it is almost certainly the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. Each Hillel center acts as a faith and social community, a Jewish educational resource, social network and place to develop leadership and professional skills. A center’s program often includes dinner on Friday nights and Shabbat worship, celebrating Jewish holidays, and offering classes in Jewish studies and Hebrew.
Shortly after immigrating to Israel in 1965, Goldman applied for the post of director of Hillel at the Hebrew University, and beat off 120 applicants to secure the position. Meeting hundreds of students from the FSU as he went about developing Hillel from a neglected, near moribund situation to a thriving organization, he began to ask what he might be able to do for the countless young people with Jewish roots who remained in the states of the old Soviet Union. With the issue permanently troubling him, he began to explore how he could make a difference in the FSU.
Goldman takes us with him on his ten-year struggle to establish Hillel centers across the FSU. It is a heartening journey, a tale of obstacles overcome, problems solved and opportunities seized. As the facts illustrate, he certainly succeeded, but his success was only the outward sign of his far more significant achievement ‒ master-minding a virtual renaissance of Jewish self-awareness among hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of young people. Goldman’s final credit balance shows not only 27 thriving Hillel centers spread across the FSU where none had previously existed, but the enrichment to an immeasurable degree of countless young lives. Let My People Grow is inspirational.
Let My People Grow: Hillel and the Jewish renaissance in the former Soviet Union
Rabbi Yossie Goldman
Gefen Publishing House, 2020
$24.20; 219 pages