Simchat Torah in Former USSR

I want to highlight a piece from the Wall Street Journal about Jewish revival in the former USSR.  It is important as we enter the end of the fall holiday season to reflect on where the Jewish world is today. 

A Miraculous Post-Soviet Religious Revival

As Jews around the world gather to celebrate Simchat Torah next week—the raucous holiday marking the completion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings—I am reminded of one of the more curious practices among Soviet Jews in the final decades of the Communist regime.

Living under duress, these Jews gathered illegally in homes or even in the streets to celebrate a holiday for an object that most had never seen, let alone read from. Such celebrations persisted despite systematic anti-Jewish persecution by the Soviets, including university quotas, discouragement from certain jobs, and an all-out effort to eradicate Jewish culture and religion.

And yet 20 years after the Soviet Union’s fall, this act of defiance has taken on an entirely different character. That’s because—contrary to all expectations—we are in the midst of one of world’s more miraculous revivals of Jewish civilization, and in much of the former Soviet Union such celebrations are no longer taboo. In fact a million or so Jews in former Soviet states are now celebrating their faith, history and culture with an enthusiasm previously unimaginable.

I credit this renaissance to two main forces.

First, and perhaps most extraordinary: the resilience of Jews whether in Ashkabad, Chisinau or Tbilisi. After the tsars and the Soviets, they cautiously embraced their new freedom and began to explore, on their terms, what it meant to be a Jew in an open society.

Second: the indefatigable efforts of American Jews and Jewish organizations. My organization, the Joint Distribution Committee, was actually described by Stalin’s prosecutors as the “international bourgeois Jewish-Zionist organization” allegedly behind the notorious “Doctors’ Plot” of 1953.

In reality, of course, the plot was a Stalinist fabrication and a pretense for anti-Semitic propaganda, show trials and executions. Nonetheless, we and many others continued our secret work in the Soviet Union. Then in 1991 we openly continued in the new states that emerged, with hands full of instruments of Jewish knowledge and tradition, helping to recreate Jewish life.

The quest for Jewish knowledge and community life, pa Ruski, is tangible among people grappling with the challenges of post-Soviet societies. And yet not only can Jews of all ages pray in a variety of synagogues—from Chabad to Reform congregations—they can also engage in bar and bat mitzvah retreats in the hinterlands of Siberia. In Hebrew and Russian prayer books, religious schools and even online, in the world’s first Russian-language Jewish education guide, they are learning about the Jewish New Year, the Torah, Israel, Passover and the mitzvot (commandments) that make up Jewish life.

In almost 200 Jewish Community Centers, music, art, dance and more lead to creative expressions of identity. As Moscow suffered from soaring temperatures and nearby forest fires two summers ago, young Jews at the local JCC—who inherited a society that eschewed modern philanthropy—led an unprecedented Facebook campaign to deliver food, fans and comforting words to the community’s poor and elderly.

In the public square, 200 Jewish libraries containing more than a million Jewish books complement the Jewish Studies courses at more than 100 universities in the post-Soviet region. In 16 Hillel centers, meanwhile, thousands of Jewish students are embracing their identity and wearing it publicly. Such pride was evident when Vladimir Goodkov, the Jewish winner of the popular Ukrainian Stars Factory program (a version of American Idol), had his friends from his Jewish youth group in Kharkov celebrate Shabbat dinner with him and his co-contestants on Ukrainian National TV.

When asked who inspired his decision to choose a televised Jewish meal over a concert in Cannes or his own CD release, he said: “The way I am now—enthusiastic, not afraid to say anything—is thanks to the people, the community that I became part of.”

It is a long journey from the days when owning a book in Hebrew or a Russian-language copy of Leon Uris’s “Exodus” was enough to get a Jew sentenced to jail.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s