Marking the Anniversary of the Revival of Jewish Studies in the Former Soviet Union

[Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, all of Jewish life had to be reconstituted or created from scratch, including Academic Judaica – the study and teaching of Jewish studies on the university level, particularly against the background of Soviet anti-Semitism.

Two years later, at the initiative of the JDC and the Jerusalem Center for Univerisity Teaching of Jewish Civilization, “Sefer: The Moscow Center for the University Teaching of Jewish Civilization” was established in the Former Soviet Union. Rabbi Jonathan Porath, then from the JDC Russian Department, staffed those early efforts. Recently he was invited back to Moscow by Sefer and the JDC and here are his reflections a generation later.]

Marking the Anniversary of the Revival of Jewish Studies in the Former Soviet Union
by Rabbi Jonathan Porath

Twenty years ago this month, in February, 1994, the JDC invited over 100 scholars and academics engaged in Academic Judaica in the former Soviet Union to the first conference of Judaic studies in Moscow.

As a member of the Senior Staff of the JDC Russian Depatment working with university studies, I wrote the following in my report back then:

“The size and scope of the gathering – more than 110 registered participants from 22 cities across the Former Soviet Union – was totally unexpected. Everyone there sensed the uniqueness of the moment. Who would have believed that only two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, such an open and public meeting could be convened, dedicated to the teaching of Judaica in universities across the Former Soviet Union? We were not only engaged in a shared academic mission, but in a spiritual quest as well. People had been waiting for such a gathering for a long time – even for generations.”

Out of that group came the organization called “Sefer: The Moscow Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization,” which just celebrated its 21st annual academic conference in Moscow this month.

What have the past 20 years taught us?

Sefer, through its academic conferences, publications program, student summer and winter schools, programs of study in Israel, and intellectual ferment, recalls the richness of earlier Russian Jewish scholarship, both academic [Dubnov, The Jewish Encyclopedia, great libraries] as well as outstanding Torah scholarship [the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Hatanya, the Aruch Hashulchan and the Mishna B’rura] and great Hebrew and Yiddish literature [Bialik, Shalom Aleichem, Eliezer Ben Yehuda].

It also reminds us of the suppression of Jewish community life and learning under the Soviets, especially after the Great Terror, the Black Years, the Doctor’s Plot, and the freeze on Jewish culture which followed.

Sefer teaches us the lessons of the ages. While studying the Talmudic story of Hillel becoming frozen on the roof of the Beit Midrash, one Jewish academic asked: How could Hillel have risked all and endangered himself to study Torah? The response from the audience was that not long ago, every person in this room, all of those engaged in Jewish scholarship under the former regime, made exactly the same choice: they placed their careers and even freedom at risk for sake of those same principles.

What makes Sefer in the Former Soviet Union so unique?

  • It responds to the unique character of Russian and post-Soviet Jewry with its deep intellectual commitment;
  • It was conceived and initiated without any political agenda and with total local autonomy;
  • It is led by a cadre of local academics and scholars.

No less, Sefer also reflects its spiritual and humanistic underpinnings;

  • It is one of the keys to the personal identity of its members [and over 10,000 academics and students have taken part in its programs over the past 20 years]. One professor in Ancient History carries a kipa in his briefcase – just in case! As I explained to foreign visitors: “You may think he is reading a lecture, but really he is davening – only he is not familiar with those Hebrew words. This is how they express their identification with their people.”

Prof. Arkady Kovelman from Moscow taught that Sefer matches the classical meaning of the word “sinagoga”, which was a Beit Knesset, a Place of Gathering. In many ways, Sefer has become the collective home to Jewish intellectuals and scholars of Judaica all across the Former Soviet Union.

Even politically, Sefer affirms faith in the future of the Jewish community in Russia and reaches out to common allies in this effort. After a hiatus of generations, it is permitted once again, and accepted, to publically declare one’s interest and allegiance to Jewish life and learning. This is, indeed, a revolutionary statement.

Each and every Sefer participant carries a precious gift: Jewish knowledge. It must be shared with the Jewish community and taught to the broader scholarly world as well.

These past 20 years were only the beginning of the revival of Jewish life, scholarship and pride of the Jews of the Former Soviet Union in themselves and in their past and future – wherever they live today around the Jewish world. With organizations such as Sefer and many others, they are beginning to take their rightful place among the other Jewish communities around the world.

Rabbi Jonathan Porath has traveled to the Soviet Union and Russia more than 175 times since his first visit in 1965. He lives in Jerusalem and comes to the States periodically as a Scholar in Residence. He can be reached via www.jonathanporath.com.