Securing a Jewish Future in the FSU


by Robert J. Meth M.D. and Joel M. Schindler Ph.D.

Fifteen years after we stood together in Washington, DC, to rally for Soviet Jewish emigration, we have a second opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of Jews. Through our efforts in the successor states of the former Soviet Union (FSU), we fight anti-Semitism, work for the return of Jewish communal property, and help create an atmosphere where Jewish life can once again flourish.

The story of post-Soviet Jewry is told through the many people who work every day with survivors of the Shoah, with young adults who are transforming life in Ukraine, and with the children who represent the future of the Jewish community. Rabbi Yakov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, has lived in Kyiv for 13 years. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, has lived there for ten. They have built new lives and are raising their children there. Elsewhere, representatives of the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, some of whom grew up in the FSU and made aliyah, have returned to Ukraine – frequently bringing Israeli-born family members with them – so life will be better for Jews in the 21st century than it was in the last.

Our advocacy work allows these remarkable people to build a vibrant Jewish community there – to succeed, unimpeded by obstacles. We are proud to assume the helm of NCSJ, through which American Jewry maximizes its political and communal potential. As the umbrella organization for advocacy on behalf of Jews in the FSU, NCSJ is uniquely positioned to focus communities and governments on the civil and political needs of more than one million Jews.

Our latest visit to the former Soviet Union, just prior to assuming leadership of NCSJ, reaffirms the important role that American Jews can and must play. These successor states are home to the third-largest Jewish population in the world.

This past October we visited Ukraine. Government and community leaders, including the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Parliament and State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, engaged us in extensive discussions about expanding opportunities for Jewish life. It is true that significant difficulties remain for Ukraine’s 400,000 Jews, but American Jews who sustained the struggle for Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s would be amazed to see the Jewish revival occurring all across the FSU.

In Dnepropetrovsk, we observed a community with a major synagogue, a day school with 750 students, Jewish outreach and educational programs and health facilities that are a model for other communities in the FSU. We met and were thoroughly impressed with local lay leaders who give of their own time and resources to build communal institutions. We saw firsthand the work that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and local communities like Boston have achieved in true partnership with the community that is generally considered the most successful and effective example of Jewish revival and continuity in the FSU. This trip reinforced the message that American Jewish political advocacy fosters the development and revival of Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.

As the past year has reminded us, Jews in the FSU continue to confront serious anti Semitism. In Belarus, cemeteries have been desecrated, vandalism is rampant, and a new religion law criminalizes unauthorized religious and communal activities. In Russia, booby-trapped anti-Semitic signs called for violence against Jews, and individual Jews were singled out for physical abuse. In Ukraine, a mob attacked Kyiv’s historic Brodsky synagogue. Sadly, the roots of anti-Semitism are stronger than those of tolerance.

To their credit, political leaders in Russia, Ukraine and several other successor states have condemned anti-Jewish violence and propaganda and have begun implementing proactive measures to combat hatred of Jews. While problems remain in every country, these leaders are learning lessons from their national history and applying them to the future, for which Americans and American Jews can rightly claim some of the credit. The organized American Jewish community persistently reaches out to convey that anti Semitism is incompatible with integration into the modern world. We advocate pluralistic and democratic values. Ironically, the repudiation of popular anti-Semitism in some of the successor states surpasses that of some established Western European democracies.

Since October 2001, when President Bush sought American Jewish support for "graduating" Russia from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, an important evolution in U.S.-Russian relations has been realized. No longer do Russian leaders dismiss concerns for religious freedom as meddling in their internal affairs. In the November 2001 historic exchange of letters between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, both governments reaffirmed the importance of fighting anti Semitism, restituting communal property, and observing international commitments regarding religious freedom. Such developments underscore the impact American Jewish advocacy continues to have at home and in the successor states, and of the indispensable role the United States plays in promoting freedom and democracy.

Restitution of communal property, including confiscated synagogues and other buildings and land, is addressed in the U.S.-Russian exchange of letters. This issue is vital to the revival of Jewish communal life. Service-providing organizations on the ground must spend millions of dollars on welfare and education, leaving scant resources available for purchasing buildings. Getting back communal buildings, stolen by the Soviets and Nazis, could make all the difference in assuring the continuity and intensity of Jewish life. Elderly survivors of Communism and the Shoah deserve decent dining and medical facilities; their grandchildren deserve schools; and all deserve access to the synagogues and community centers that once proudly stood at the heart of their cities. Time is running out as elderly Jews perish and too many youngsters grow up without the chance to learn about Jewish religion or culture.

Our travels also remind us that these community leaders and activists are equal partners with us. They still have tremendous political and economic needs, but they have a developed sense of community agenda and direction, of responsibility as leaders, and of their connection to Clal Yisrael – Jewish peoplehood. Across the successor states, American communities are turning relationships into partnerships, along the lines of NCSJ’s Kehilla Projects.

American Jews are not just supplying financial resources but helping to carve out a safe and secure niche for communal activity.

We must continue our efforts. We invite you to join us as we witness the rebirth of this vast Jewish community. Personally inspiring, it is also a responsibility we owe to our brethren and to our own ancestors, so many of whom emigrated from there. There are tremendous needs and risks still ahead, which demand our continued involvement. But the payoff has already proven beyond the wildest dreams of rallies and refusenik visits that now seem so long ago. The rules have changed, but the game is the same: securing a Jewish future.

Robert J. Meth M.D. and Joel M. Schindler Ph.D. are, respectively, Chairman and President of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia