10 January 2014

A New Chapter

Melnikov Garage/Jewish Museum in Moscow
I had an extraordinary trip to Moscow this past week, with John Ruskay of UJA Federation-New York and a number of rabbis from the area.  The purpose was to visit sites in Moscow that the Jewish community supports, along with partner agencies like the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel.  We visited Orthodox synagogues, including the Choral Synagogue, one of the birthplaces of the Soviet Jewry movement; visited a Reform synagogue, met with the Chabad Chief Rabbi;  did home visits with elderly, impoverished Jews with JDC after spending a morning at the JCC of Moscow which has 120 seat day care center and a 500 student after school program; spent a day at a Winter Camp for Jewish Teens run by the Jewish Agency and led by young Jews in their twenties who learned that they were Jewish at this very same camp who only discovered they were Jewish in the past few years as well; and, toured the Kremlin, Red Square, the new Jewish Museum for Tolerance.  On our last night we went to Moishe House Moscow and met several young Jewish entrepreneurs who are re-shaping the landscape of Jewish life and culture in ways that have not been re-shaped in more than a hundred years.  Incredible. I ate a lot of chicken, potatoes, rice, beets and cabbage, too.

While diet has obviously not changed much, Jewish life in Russia has.  Based on at least what I saw over these past few days--it is nothing less than totally inspiring and fascinating.

The story of Soviet Jewry is long and complex; my guide for understanding much of the background came from two sources--Gal Beckerman's excellent National Jewish Book Award-winning, When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone; and David Remnick's Pulitzer Prize-winning, Lenin's Tomb.

Context was essential to understand this unforeseen revitalization of a Jewish community that was devastated by Pogroms, War, Holocaust and Communism and whose sole focus for Diaspora Jewry was its rescue.  Now, while guaranteeing the right of any Jew to migrate remains at the center of Jewish communal focus, I learned about the work that UJA is doing--alongside JDC, JAFI and many others--to ensure that the process of regeneration, creativity, education, spirituality, culture and commerce can thrive for those hundreds of thousands who have chosen to remain.

Everyone's story was inspiring.  Everyone's sense of who they were as a Jew mattered deeply.  Everyone I met felt a sense of privilege and purpose which was the result of both their unique sense of individual and collective will along with dogged support from the diaspora community and the state of Israel to see this project of Russian Jewry through to a new stage of life.

Many, many questions remain in my mind after this trip and I hope to return--over and over again--to help, to learn, and to continually be inspired by the lives of this broader Jewish family in Russia.  Some questions that immediately come to mind:

1.  Russian speaking Jewish communities are growing not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg but in Berlin, Warsaw and other places across Eastern Europe.  What will all this look like in 20 years?

2.  John Ruskay's vision for investing in the life of the community is so truly admirable.  The idea that there is "a new chapter being written," something John mentioned all week, is apparent.  And it's happening because of UJA's investment, which I think is not something most Jewish communities in the United States realize.  Certainly not most of the people at my shul--and I look forward to letting them know.
John Ruskay, Alan Hoffman and Camp Sheleg Educators
3.  Something young Russian Jews share with young American Jews--they are discovering their own stake in the Jewish future vis a vis their kids.  Early childhood education; camping; arts and culture--each of these are being spear-headed by and for young people which has the added benefit of the children teaching the parents about what it is to be Jewish.  Unlike America, where freedom, privilege and assimilation allowed us not to be Jewish if we didn't want, Russians obviously experienced state sanctioned anti-Semitism that prevented Jewish identity from flourishing.  So the parents know little that the kids are inviting them back into.

4.  Chabad clearly has a place of privilege at the right hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  What are the implications for the development of the other expressions of Jewish spiritual life?  Are there challenges in being so close to a leader whose policies are called into question by his critics?  Foremost was a complaint I heard often--a large gap between rich and poor.  Moscow is a city of enormous wealth and a number of people spoke about that feeling of "the collective,' while an obvious dirty word left over from days of oppression, has vanished and been replaced by the greed of individuality.  It has left many poor neglected by the Oligarchs who have made money but not yet fully learned what it means to invest in the broader community.

One such example was the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.  Built with Oligarch money (I even saw a dedication plaque from Putin), it's a beautiful, post-modern work of art with a profoundly bizarre message.  Built meticulously inside a restored Melnikov trolley garage, the Museum greets guests with a fundamentalist, nine-minute video about "the entire history of the Jewish people from Creation to the Destruction of the Second Temple."  It's presentation was childish, having the effect of spoon feeding the basic tropes of Jewish life to a public that didn't quite know the story but it had an alienating effect.  It felt Creationist, with an eye toward the Coming of the Messiah as the Final Message of Jewish life.  The exhibit space, however, was excellent and does a terrific job of explaining the Jews to the broader public.  But then one of the docents explained that only Jews visit--so that what in America we would want--a public museum for Jews and non-Jews to learn about Jewish life--in Moscow is still behind a fence, in armed compound, built by Oligarch money.  Something is bizarre and troubling and amusing and confounding and inspiring about this--all at the same time.

No easy answers.

So many images remain with me which I tried to process on foggy early morning runs into Red Square.  It was Russian Orthodox Christmas, so there was lots of activity and while I ran I thought of the two poor Jews, fed and cared for by the JDC, who sit inside their Socialist era apartment building, immobile but cheered by being loved and remembered.  I thought of the Jewish camp counselors, so recently ennobled by their own Jewish stories, leading young teens to a similar place.  I thought of the Reform rabbi of Moscow saying when asked about the future, "Ask me in twenty years.  We'll know a lot more, then."

It brought to mind this week's Torah portion--Be'Shallach.  The Israelites finally leave Egypt and Oppression, and cross the Red Sea to Freedom.  Is that the end of the story?  Freedom?  Of course not.  They are to move, step by step, sometimes moving backwards rather than progressing, stopping at Sinai to get the Torah.  Is that the end of the story?  Of course not.  Then there is 40 years wandering until they arrive in the Land of Israel.  The end?  You get the point.  We are always telling this story, over and over again, and writing a new chapter every step of the way.

The Berditchever Rebbe, Levi Isaac, noticed that whereas the Angel of God, usually preceding the Children of Israel as they moved on their journey, this time, moved behind them.  Why?  Because in their making their out, they had preceded in importance God's regard for angels.  Common mortals a higher step on the hierarchy of life and love.  When you actually "go out," you have so much to teach those of us "angels" born in to good fortune and freedom.

It brought to mind Russian Jewry, who for generations struggled and whose liberation requires of us, more fortunate in the Diaspora and Israel, to humbly experience what it means to learn from those you had the honor of helping to free.

What it all means?  We'll know in twenty years.  It's a story worth reading about and experiencing over and over again.

Shabbat Shalom

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