From Russia – with love

We brought with us then items that could assist the refuseniks in their struggle – religious objects, books on Judaism, Hebrew primers, small amounts of money and food, which was scarce in Russia.

PICTURES DEPICTING Jews as lovers of money are featured at a Moscow art exhibition. (photo credit: SUSIE WEISS)
PICTURES DEPICTING Jews as lovers of money are featured at a Moscow art exhibition.
(photo credit: SUSIE WEISS)
I knew this trip to Moscow would be far different than my last one. When I first traveled to the Soviet Union in the mid ‘80s to visit refuseniks, there was no cheering as the plane landed on Russian soil – as often happens today when El Al planes safely arrive at their destination. That trip was before perestroika and glasnost – the “restructuring” and “openness” of the Soviet system that would ultimately lead to the free emigration of Soviet Jewry. Back then, of course, there were no El Al flights to Russia, as there were no diplomatic relations between the USSR and the Jewish state; they had been broken following the 1967 Six Day War and would not resume until 1991, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As I stepped off the plane this past week, vivid memories came flooding back to me. As a young rabbi in Chicago, I had been sent, along with the vice president of my synagogue, on a mission to meet with the refusenik community and offer whatever help, support and encouragement we could to the valiant efforts of these courageous men and women to live freely as Jews and, ultimately, to begin new lives in Israel. We had learned Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet, and memorized the names and addresses of those we would visit. This semi-cloak-and-dagger adventure was both exciting and frightening all at once, as we were warned that we might be monitored and followed – we were – and could be summarily expelled from the country if the Soviet authorities so deemed.
We brought with us then items that could assist the refuseniks in their struggle – religious objects, books on Judaism, Hebrew primers, small amounts of money and even food, which was scarce in Russia in those days. As observant Jews ourselves, we told the airport guards who questioned us that these items were for our personal use, and they grudgingly let us through. I’ll never forget the Chabad emissary we met at the airport who asked us how many sets of tefillin we had brought. “One,” we said, “that we will leave behind when we go back to America. And how many did you bring?” He then discreetly opened his suitcase and showed us 10 pairs of tefillin, each wrapped in cellophane, with a large red word in Russian written on the wrapper. We were quite amazed that he could bring in so many pairs, when we had trouble bringing in even one. So we asked, “What does that Russian word mean?” He smiled and said, “Disposable!” 
My impression of Russia back then was one of a gray, cold, depressing, monotonous routine, of people living anonymous lives devoid of hope and filled with despair, people trapped within a system where individuality was sacrificed on the altar of the almighty state. But in the refusenik community, we encountered remarkable Jews of spirit, who bravely took on the mighty Russian Bear at great personal risk. They lost their jobs, their university standing, their perks in society; they became pariahs and enemies of the regime, subject to harassment, poverty and at times, imprisonment. 
THE ICONIC St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. (Credit: SUSIE WEISS)THE ICONIC St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. (Credit: SUSIE WEISS)
BUT THEY fought on, ultimately gaining the support of world Jewry and the West, culminating in the unprecedented 1987 mass march in Washington on the eve of the Gorbachev-Reagan summit. And they won their epic battle to emigrate, helping in no small way to bring down the entire structure of communism, as they demonstrated the true power of people dedicated to a noble cause. 
But the Russia of today is far different from those days. Moscow is an amazingly beautiful city, with stunningly scenic, spacious avenues, historic museums, artistically-glorious underground metro stations and elegant hotels. The ubiquitous, cheap Soviet-made Lada automobiles have been replaced by BMWs, Mercedes and luxury cars imported from every country. Amazingly, Moscow has replaced Tokyo as the world’s most expensive city, according to the latest cost of living survey from Mercer Human Resource Consulting. 
Jewishly, Moscow is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance. Though the vast majority of the city’s Jews have departed – Russia’s loss is Israel’s miraculous gain – there are small yeshivot and batei midrashim (“houses of learning”) popping up around the city. The iconic Choral Synagogue – where Golda Meir’s dramatic, unauthorized visit in 1948 both enraged the government and helped to jump-start the Soviet Jewry movement – is still reasonably well-attended, with a full-time cantor from Bnei Brak.
Moscow also features more than a dozen kosher establishments. While eating at the popular Jerusalem Restaurant, I chuckled at the name, the preponderance of customers speaking Hebrew and a pair of silver tefillin boxes on the front table, all things that would have been taboo a generation ago. While members of the local community told us that latent antisemitism still lurks just below the surface – indeed, we saw a series of paintings at a local art exhibition featuring Jews in various poses with gold coins prominently scattered around them – one can walk around freely wearing a kippa (skullcap) or tallit (prayer shawl). And relations between Russia and Israel – particularly the ongoing friendship between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – have significantly raised Israel’s status in the public eye.
It seems to me that Russian Jewry is at a crossroads, not unlike most other Diaspora communities. Most of the Jews filled with Zionist fervor have left for Israel, and now a critical choice has to be made by the present generation: whether to try to sustain or grow the life of a once-prominent Jewish community in its historic home, or to be a full-fledged component of the central engine of Judaism in the home of the real Jerusalem, in the solitary place where one will never be fearful of identifying as Jews. The Jews of Russia back in the age of communism made the difficult yet determined decision to leave Mother Russia in the belief that their future lay in the historic land of their fathers. Ironically, the Jews of today’s Russia – free beyond the wildest dreams of their predecessors – face the very same dilemma. 
I only hope they make the right choice. 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.