Jews of Siberia

Photo provided by Robert Weinberg.

Jews of Siberia:
in the jewish autonomous region

by Jason Pressberg

The Soviet Union was a terrible place to be a Jew, and Siberia was terrible place to be no matter what your background was. In 1934, Stalin created the “Jewish Autonomous Region” in Siberia. It was his attempt to solve the “Jewish question.” While a small number of Jews had been forced to Siberia under the Czarist government, Stalin took Jewish settlement in Siberia to a new level. Yiddish advertisements encouraging Jewish migration promised a better life for those who went willingly to this new region, where Jews would have autonomy and Yiddish heritage and socialism would predominate. In a historical anomaly, a small number of Jews even migrated from the United States.

Until around 150 years ago, Siberia was mostly empty. Natives – similar to Alaska’s Eskimos – lived in small pockets, but the majority of the land did not have to be fought for. The Jews, naturally, were given a land that no one else would want – an empty swamp. The irony should not be lost on Zionists.

Today Jews think of Siberia as the place where refuseniks – Soviet Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union and were denied exit visas – were sent for hard labor in work camps referred to as the gulags. But there is much more in Siberia than just an empty wasteland. In the city of Khabarovsk, 12,000 Jews remain. Jewish life revolves around a building near the center of town that, similar to many far-flung Jewish communities, houses multiple Jewish institutions in shared space in its three stories: the synagogue, Hillel, relief programs, and Jewish secondary schools.

The Jews of Khabarovsk are aided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or the Joint). Founded in 1914, with active relief work – mostly Jewish and some non-sectarian – in over 70 countries, the JDC represents the American Jewish community in taking care of struggling Jews all over the world.

David Zandi – who grew up in Great Neck, a wealthy Jewish suburb on Long Island – recently returned from a JDC-sponsored trip to Siberia for young adults. Family ties have often brought him to Israel, but this trip was very different. He was not going to discover his roots or connect with his homeland. He traveled to Siberia to connect with Jews who know what real poverty is and benefit from the American Jewish community’s aid. Zandi was shown JDC-funded programs for youth at risk, the elderly in need, and Jewish education.

It is strange to think of Jews remaining in Siberia. The Iron Curtain has fallen, Russian Jews have flooded into Israel and the United States, jobs are scarce, and the weather – brutally hot in the summer, bitterly cold in the months of winter – is horrendous. While communism has fallen, its effects linger on.

“The apartments of the widows we visited have not been updated in the slightest,” said Zandi. “The flooring, the wall paper – it’s all classic 1970s Soviet Union. Nothing has changed.” A new life could await these people somewhere else. “One of these widows wanted to travel to Israel, but she would forfeit her small pension. She spoke to Israeli officials about making aliyah. They said they could fly her to Israel and put her into a hotel for two weeks, but after that she would be on her own with no income in a country where she could not speak the language.” As a result, she spends her remaining years alone in her small apartment, only leaving occasionally for groceries and medicine.

The other widow Zandi met had no intention of going anywhere. “This is where my husband is buried,” she said. She expressed gratitude that the JDC could help her make ends meet.

Though Khabarovsk has a larger Jewish population, the Jewish Autonomous Region has its capital in the small city of Birobidzhan, where Jews make up around 5% of the population. The sign welcoming visitors is still in Yiddish and Russian. Jewish life here revolves around a complex of two buildings – a synagogue and a community center. In front of each is a memorial to dead Jews: one for the Holocaust, another for the attacks in Mumbai.

The future of today’s Jewish teenagers living in Siberia is uncertain. Many of those who are passionate about their Jewish identities are moving away as soon as they can, while those who stay are increasingly becoming more secularized. Still, there is hope. In Khabarovsk, the Hillel is active, there is a minyan on Shabbat and holidays, and Jews are slowly discovering their heritage.

“I feel connected to Jews all over the world and I’m glad the money American Jews donate goes to help them in some way,” Zandi reflected. “I’m not sure if there will be Jews here in 40 years. No one does. But at least the Joint is trying to do what they can. I’m glad I could be a part of it.”

Jason Pressberg works at Northeastern University Hillel in Boston and enjoys leading Birthright trips every winter and summer. In his free time, he teaches tennis and is preparing for his wedding in New Orleans this November.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense leadership issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.