At annual gathering, Germany’s Russian Jews search for identity

‘They do not feel Russian, but neither do they feel German,’ says Russian emigre at gathering where there were 300 in attendance.

Jews in cemetery in Warsaw 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Jews in cemetery in Warsaw 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
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 taking pictures.
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.
Over the 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.
Today 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 cultural no-man’sland.
“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.
As the young Jews, aged between 16 and 35, gathered on Thursday at their hotel, the excitement was palpable, with hugs exchanged pictures taken.
A 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 themselves.”
In creating a forum for Jewish education and socialization, she added, she believes that she is creating inducements for endogamy.
“I like to think we have a small credit in Jewish marriages,” Levtov said.
Elina Kurakin, a 23-year-old living in Nuremberg with her husband, immigrated to Germany from Uzbekistan when she was 12 years old.
“I 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 said.
Kurakin does not identify as German, stating that it is “not so easy to get into society” and that she has faced anti-Semitism.
Igor, a 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 years ago.
“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 part actively.”
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.
Russian-speaking Jews, he said, lack the Jewish traditions – such as knowledge of “Jewish holidays, history, heroes [and] Torah” – that are passed down from generation to generation.
“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 said.
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 slogans.”
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.’”