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Culture news, 25.11.2005 15:54

Helping St. Petersburg Jews reconnect to their history

jews_community Six years ago, I decided it was my duty to help what is likely the world’s third largest concentration of Jews n and possibly among the most impoverished.

I became actively involved in the Cleveland-St. Petersburg partnership. Today, the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland facilitates more than 40 Jewish renewal programs in St. Petersburg, touching tens of thousands of Jews daily.

After seven years of very heavy lifting by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Cleveland Federation in conjunction with other international Jewish foundations and organizations, on Sept. 9, the ribbon was cut on YESOD (a Russian acronym for St. Petersburg Jewish Home).

YESOD is a new 75,000-sq.-ft. building located in the heart of the city. It will serve as the center of Jewish communal life for the 100,000 Jews who reside in St. Petersburg. Several social service agencies that struggled in meager facilities while providing extraordinary services will soon move to this wonderful new building.

The Federation’s Centennial Initiative funded $2.5 million of the $10 million capital project. Children, young adults, the elderly, and individuals with special needs will find support, community, heritage and a bright future in the programs and services it provides. Many of these programs and services were conceived and nurtured in large part by the Federation and funded by our community through the Campaign for Jewish Needs.

The Cleveland Jewish community was well represented at the YESOD ribbon-cutting and inaugural international event by 38 of its members, many of whom had visited Russia before and since the fall of communism. These shared experiences painted an interesting composite perspective as the mezuzah was affixed to the doorpost of YESOD. Dignitaries from regional government, as well as a varied constituency from around the world, addressed the attendees.

Their remarks were filled with enthusiasm and respect for what had been accomplished n the first new Jewish building in Russia in over 100 years. They also expressed their admiration for those having the courage to attempt what was once thought of as inconceivable. Those of us who were there were imbued with a great sense of hope that we will reach our goal: the mining, cultivation and development of a self-sustaining Jewish community, with local leadership and character to meet the cultural, physical, educational and religious needs of its members.

For me personally, the High Holy Days offer some respite from the day-to-day clamor of life: time for reflection, introspection, and restitution. It has occurred to me that these are the very things we are trying to nurture as the Jews of the former Soviet Union climb the steep ascent to self-realization.

YESOD is expected to be an incubator of Jewish life, as well as an undeniable symbol of Jewish renaissance for St. Petersburg’s Jews and the rest of the FSU. Despite a history of torment and continued daily roadblocks, Russian Jews have worked hard and fought great odds to reconnect with their heritage and pay respect to our mutual ancestors. While they are humbled with gratitude and speak of being inspired by our efforts and commitment, they are now the ones who are inspiring all of us.

As I wandered through YESOD, I was struck by the irony that on the 100th anniversary of my grandfather Boris Waxman’s immigration (he fled Ukraine after his father’s glass factory was burned down by anti-Semites), his grandson was back in Russia. Moreover, he was having a hand in the physical and spiritual resurrection of his people and demonstrating the words of Benjamin Disraeli, “A race that persists in celebrating their vintage, although they have no fruits to gather, will regain their vineyards.”

A brief history of Jews in the USSR

Until the late 1700s, Russia generally prohibited Jews from living within its boundaries. Upon the annexation of Poland in 1939, Russia suddenly found itself the “beneficiary” of over one million Jews.

From that period until the late 1900s, Russian policy toward its Jewish citizens vacillated between assimilation, discrimination, and isolation.

In 1941, the Jewish community met the cruelest of all fates: the Nazi assault on the Pale of Settlement. This resulted in the desecration of all property and mass executions.

With the deterioration of communism in the late 1980s, the world got its first look at the remnants of Judaism in the former Soviet Union (FSU). With the exception of the refusenik movement (spearheaded in St. Petersburg) and some closeted Jews worshiping in private, Judaism in Russia lay dormant n one generation from probable extinction.

Fortunately, the Russian government’s census kept very good track of Jews n even of those unaware of their heritage, as their parents hid their Jewish identity out of fear of overt discrimination. Once the Iron Curtain was lifted, we learned that over two million Russian Jews remained on their native soil. Many have moved to Israel, the U.S., and elsewhere. Several hundred thousand still make their home in the FSU.

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