A new Zionist community

Jewish Agency has shifted from encouraging aliya to an emphasis on Jewish identity education in Ukraine.

Shofar kid 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Shofar kid 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Estimates place the level of intermarriage among the Jews of the former Soviet Union as high as 90 percent. Add to that an aging population and 16 years of massive emigration to Israel, and that the US and Germany have reduced Soviet Jewry to a few communal centers in the large cities and a handful of tiny and vanishing outposts scattered across the expanses of Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Though precise figures are hard to come by, fewer than half a million Jews are believed to reside there. The damage wrought by the ideological and demographic pummeling sustained by these communities is evident in more than the diminished numbers. Seven decades of Soviet rule, coupled with the tendency of the affiliated and committed to leave for Israel, have left Jews largely ignorant and non-observant. Though the Soviet authorities' experiments in "secular Judaism," such as that in the Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidzhan, failed utterly, communism's secularizing influence is deeply felt. Jews see themselves not as a religious group, but rather as an ethnic or cultural minority. Patrilineal descent, a topic of vitriolic debate elsewhere, is taken for granted here. A recent trip to Kiev and St. Petersburg as a guest of the Jewish Agency provided a close-up view of this fragile but steadily expanding Jewish communal presence. It was a taste of a community treading the fine line between the promise of tolerance and the fear of violence. To be a Jew in Kiev today is to be a nervous optimist, jovial over homemade vodka served in a synagogue that is guarded on Shabbat by police, cameras and a metal detector at the door. One can feast on fine kosher steak at the King David Restaurant, but must walk quickly, head down, past swastikas and white-power graffiti painted on the walls of underground crosswalks in the city center. In this world, the Jewish Agency has been changing its classic mission to accommodate the realities of the community. Where once it worked feverishly - and successfully - to bring as many Jews to Israel as it could, its operations and activities have been shifting toward strengthening the Jewish identities of those scattered remnants of Jewry that remain in the vast reaches of the former Soviet republics. This includes strengthening their willingness to withstand the pressures of anti-Semitism and their desire to explore and deepen their connection to the Jewish people and to Israel. "At the Jewish Agency, we believe that Israel stands at the heart of the Jewish future," declares its Web site. "We help those who wish to make aliya," echoes Haim Kapelnikov, head of agency operations in Kiev and central and western Ukraine, but adds, "for those who wish to stay here, we bring Israel to them." Indeed, he notes, "for the long-term survival of the community, so that there will someday still be Jews to bring to Israel, we're working on strengthening the cultural identity." This change, away from encouraging and facilitating aliya to an emphasis on Jewish identity education, marks a new focus from Diaspora support for Israel to the needs and pressures of the communities themselves. The Jewish Agency is far from the sole channel for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. Chabad, the Joint Distribution Committee, local hassidic sects and the Reform movement - the list goes on - all maintain networks of communal institutions, donors and rabbis that serve its scattered communities. But the experience of the Jewish Agency here is uniquely emblematic of the change that has come: Emigration has slowed to a trickle and few Jews leave for ideological or even financial reasons. And in the midst of assimilation, pockets of vibrant Jewish identity have sprouted like seedlings after a fire. This environment demands more than the agency's usual "Jewish Zionist education" programs. Only through strengthening Jewish identity from the bottom up can it incorporate Zionism into local communal life. Through classes on Hebrew and Jewish tradition, the celebration of Jewish and Israeli national holidays and a commitment to working with all the streams, whether Chabad, modern Orthodox, Reform or otherwise, the agency's goal has become the creation of "a Zionist community." THE EFFORT appears to be working. According to agency figures, its work in Jewish identity and connecting to Israel has been greeted with tremendous enthusiasm. Jewish identity studies are conducted according to different schedules and in different ways, catering to a varied audience. Lectures are attended by some 4,000 ulpan students, three-day family seminars include a "Shabbat experience" and frequent Holocaust seminars are enormously popular. Some 25,000 participants take part in educational programming each year. In the Kiev region alone, the Jewish Agency's Hebrew ulpan attracted 1,422 participants last year. Hebrew teachers reach every Jewish community, however small and lost in the Ukrainian countryside, with eight emissaries operating and coordinating this work in 44 communities. To increase attendance, Hebrew courses are taught in a wide variety of settings, including courses centering on learning and performing Hebrew songs, a Jewish art studio and computer classes in Hebrew. In one of the agency's most remarkable projects, Jews can obtain a fully-accredited bachelor's degree in Jewish studies through a Russian-language program run on-line and by video-conference by Israel's Open University. Some 1,900 students were participating in the four-year, 17-course program last year, 628 of them newly enrolled. At least half of the participants in these programs, agency officials say, have children or other family members in Israel. For this reason, connections to Israel are evident throughout the programming. As one example, participants in the Hebrew computer classes join in on an on-line chess tournament with sister communities in Chicago and Kiryat Gat. "There are those who don't intend to make aliya," says one emissary from the Education Department, "but the connection to Israel is still very important." IF THERE is one complaint heard from Jewish educators and activists in Ukraine and Russia, it is that a lack of funds leaves educational initiatives chronically starved for resources. Each new program launched by the Jewish Agency, Kapelnikov says with no small measure of pride, fills up without a need for advertising. The only thing holding these programs back, he adds, is a lack of funding. Many of the most successful programs are threatened by the increasing gap between the cost of expanding activities and the current level of donations. As the Ukrainian economy expands, prices in many areas, particularly real estate in large cities such as Kiev, have skyrocketed. The Kiev office needs $150,000 more this year than it needed in 2006 to maintain its buildings and pay its utilities. With a full-time police guard on the Kiev office, along with cameras and security guards - attacks are not uncommon - its security budget alone has reached $150,000 a year, out of a total infrastructure budget of some $1.9 million. Budget cuts caused by these rising expenses and a drop in donation income led to the firing of one-third of the Kiev office's staff last year. More significantly, the budget for the Jewish identity component of the Kiev office's education initiatives, once $1.5 million, has been scaled back dramatically to some $600,000. The Open University courses, through which some 5,500 Jews in Ukraine have tasted their first serious study of Jewish texts, are offered for free, since the vast majority of the community cannot afford the NIS 2,000 per-course cost. Though the program has many sources of funding, including the Russian Jewish community in Germany, the Avi Chai Foundation, the Open University itself and the Claims Conference, the agency is forced to refuse many applicants for lack of funding. For all the difficulties inherent in working in Ukraine, the Jewish Agency has staked out a position alongside Chabad and JDC at the forefront of the development and expansion of grassroots Jewish education. It has, in short, become part of the increasing expansion of Jewish communal life throughout the former Soviet Union, an expansion that has seen thousands of teenage and college-age Jews begin to examine and connect to their past and today's Jewish world. For as Kapelnikov says, "If we don't get to them, we will lose them to the Jewish people, period."