Struggling to remember

The Jews of the FSU have started to search for their past and consider its implications for the present.

st. petersburg synagogue (photo credit: Haviv Rettig)
st. petersburg synagogue
(photo credit: Haviv Rettig)
The Jewish community in the former Soviet Union lives each day with the gap created by 70 years of totalitarian Soviet communism. Jewish adults, in some areas intermarried at a rate of 90%, have vague memories of Jewish practice or Yiddish melodies. The children and teenagers don't even have this. The Jews of the FSU are by and large non-observant. Yet communal life is usually religious in nature, if only for the fact that the vast majority of it takes place within the walls of a synagogue, school or other religious institution. In this long-atheistic environment, the awakening of a post-secular search for identity among the general population - the Russian Orthodox Church has especially seen a resurgence of its power and influence since the fall of the Soviet system - the Jews of the FSU have started to search for their past and consider what it has to tell them about their present. For an optimistic few in these scattered, intermarried communities, there's even talk about a vibrant and meaningful Jewish future. Every Jewish act, event and institution in the former Soviet Union in some way bridges this gap between the massively rich and variegated Jewish culture that preceded the Soviets, and the present reality. After aliya took away the most committed and identifying Jews and emigration to America drained large parts of the intelligentsia, the communities are now gathering together the pieces, putting them back together as well as they can, and moving ahead with the age-old tasks of building communal institutions and educating the young. Thousands of young people, teenagers and college students, have started to explore anew the cultural and religious inheritance that Jewish communal life might offer them. In this old-new world, the celebration of Pessah, as with all other aspects of Jewish life, is a combination of the enormous - if often forgotten - past and the struggling present. It is also another opportunity for organized Jewry to reach out, as it tries to do at every opportunity, to the Jews living in the geographic and communal peripheries of the FSU. While the format of the Pessah Seder is the same in Kiev as elsewhere in the Jewish world, Haim Kapelnikov, head of the Jewish Agency mission in the Ukrainian capital, says the way it is conducted in Kiev is unusual. "The Seder night passes in at least three languages," Kapelnikov says, with each language reflecting a different period or experience of Ukrainian Jewry. The Haggada is read in Hebrew but translated into Russian so that less educated Seder-goers can make sense of the proceedings, and this is followed by hearty singing of classic Yiddish ballads and songs. Pre-Soviet Yiddish culture meets - stiltedly and with imperfect understanding - modern Zionism. "It makes the Seder very long," Kapelnikov, an Israeli, says. "It becomes an event of many hours." Outside Kiev, in the regions of central and western Ukraine where Kapelnikov directs Jewish Agency activities, some 20 Seders were conducted by Agency personnel in towns where the Jewish community is often tiny and mostly intermarried. In Kiev itself, which has a Jewish community estimated at 100,000, Jewish Agency staff usually attend one of the many Seders around town as participants, with the exception of Seders in Agency institutions themselves, such as the ulpanim and the Zionist midrasha. But in the small towns of the Ukrainian countryside, Jewish Agency representatives are often the only people qualified to run the Seder. An American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee program in St. Petersburg revolving around matza-baking tells much the same story about the fragile rebirth of a community with a weighty past and a tenuous present. "In Soviet Russia, you couldn't buy matza at home, and few were courageous enough to go buy at the synagogue," says Menachem Lepkivker, the JDC representative for St. Petersburg and northwest Russia. But since last month, hundreds of children in this beautiful Russian city have been taking their parents to matza-baking sessions with the JDC. After an educational "Pessah experience" program, the mostly non-observant members of St. Petersburg's 20,000-strong Jewish community get to make the matzot and then take them home. For many, it's an experience of "remembering what they had been doing at home in those [Soviet-era] years," Lepkivker says. The program has even attracted interest from non-Jewish Russian schools in town, such as the prestigious American School, that have significant numbers of Jewish children as students. The Reform movement in the former Soviet Union finds itself in much the same position. In Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Minsk, communities that have permanent Reform congregations and rabbis, the synagogues arranged large communal Seders. According to Kiev-based Rabbi Alex Dukhovny, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post prior to Pessah, the Seder in Kiev this year should draw 200 members of the local congregation, and is part of the movement's Pessah activities, which includes smaller Seders in kindergartens for parents and kids. In the towns of the Ukrainian countryside, however, "places where there are no rabbis," the Reform movement sent rabbinical students from the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem "to lead Seders together with the lay leaders of the congregations," says Dukhovny. These students conducted at least 15 Seders throughout Ukraine, an attempt to reach the estimated 11,000 Jews in the country who are affiliated with the Reform movement's various religious, social and cultural programs. "These programs are beneficial for the congregations, where there is no rabbinic presence," Dukhovny notes, "but also for students who want to make a future as spiritual leaders of Jewish congregations." Most of these students, he said, "are going to the places where they believe their ancestors came from. So they're also discovering their roots in this part of the world. "It's a very popular project," he says, both for the congregations and for the rabbinical students. For Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, a Stolin hassid and one of Kiev's four chief rabbis, the celebration of Pessah in modern-day Kiev illustrates the growing religious commitment within Ukraine's Jewish community. "Seventeen years ago, when I came to Kiev, there were very few Jews who celebrated Pessah in their homes, so the focus was on communal Seders," he says. "Today, you have hundreds of families in Kiev and throughout Ukraine who are making Pessah in their homes, and they are kosher for Pessah, as much as they can be, and they have matza." Bleich believes that on Pessah, community activities are not a sign of communal strength, but of weakness. Pessah, he says, should be a holiday celebrated among family in the home. "The story here isn't about the communal Seders, but about how people's personal lives have changed," he says. "Stores are stocking kosher-for-Pessah products, [while] more matza is being brought into the Ukraine today - about 500,000 kilos of matza for the entire FSU - than when you had millions more Jews 20 years ago. "Our community is made up of many different types of Jews, and we're trying to reach out to each person at [his or her] level," Bleich says. This heterogeneity, he believes, is a sign of the "movement of people toward Judaism. In 1990, we did a Seder at a restaurant in central Kiev with probably 750 people, paid for by JDC and Nativ. That was the Seder of Kiev - a tremendous restaurant with three large Seders in different rooms." Today, with many Jews maintaining an active religious life at home, that no longer happens. While "we hold a communal Seder in the center of town" with attendance expected to reach 250 unaffiliated or non-observant Jews, "for the families who are shomrei mitzvot [observant] and the yeshiva students, we have more intense Seders in the synagogues," Bleich says. The Seders for the more observant were also expected to draw around 250, he says, noting that most local Jews planned to celebrate in the home. "For the last 3,319 years, Pessah has been a family holiday," says Bleich, recalling a story that illustrates the point. "Once, the Kiev Museum of Historical Treasures did an exhibit of Judaica, and they wanted to do it according to the Jewish holidays. They had nothing for Pessah, so they called me. I told them all their treasures - stolen from synagogues - don't connect to Pessah because there is nothing different in the synagogues on Pessah. It's a holiday for the home and family." The Jewish community of the former Soviet Union, though still struggling by the standards of communities elsewhere in the world, is gaining strength, getting involved not merely in the international Jewish organizations that came after the Soviet collapse, but in the homes and personal lives of individual Jews. More than anything else, for the Jews of the FSU this Pessah is about the revival of local Jewish identity, as unaffiliated Jews are increasingly drawn to re-examine their heritage. Though they (or their parents) did not join the Exodus alongside the rest of Soviet Jewry in the 1990s, they are slowly but increasingly choosing to stand at Sinai.