My Week in Jewish Moscow

Interior of Moscow Choral Synagogue via Wikimedia Commons

By Seymour Epstein (Epi)

I was in Moscow this December to attend the Non-Fiction Book Fair where my Esther book was to go on sale in Russian. The Esther Scroll: The Author’s Tale had been published in English several months ago and the Russian translation was being launched at this enormous Moscow fair. I was invited to give a lecture on the book at two universities; Lemonosov Moscow State University for Professor Arkady Kovelman and the Russian State Humanities University for Professor Leonid Katsis.

The very fact that Jewish Studies are being taught in Russian universities brought me back to my own work in the FSU (Former Soviet Union) in the nineties. My colleagues in the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or the Joint) and I were privileged to be a part of the cultural and spiritual re-birth of Jewish life in that region. We observed and assisted as study groups were founded by professors in both related and unrelated disciplines, and eventually departments were formed to study Hebrew, Israel, classical Jewish texts, history, etc. One of my lectures was in Hebrew to advanced students of the language.

At the fair there was a “Jewish Quarter” of stands which included my publisher, Mikhail Greenberg, Habad, the Israel Museum, Gesharim, and the Embassy of Israel. David Grossman was in attendance to speak on Amos Oz, z”l. Here too, the contrast with where we started our work in 1989 was striking. I remembered the Sifriat Aliyah books that were smuggled into the USSR and finding samizdat copies of Jewish books reproduced poorly on Soviet photocopy machines. In my mind and heart I could only think of a desert transformed into a garden.

My first dinner in Moscow made the contrast all too clear. Friends took me to a kosher restaurant in the Moscow Choral Synagogue. The food was mostly Bucharan and Kavkazi – delicious. It reminded me, however, that in the early nineties a few of us would visit the Choral Synagogue for a meal in a back room provided by Rabbi Shayevich; American matzot and canned gefilte fish. Moscow now boasts many fine kosher restaurants and many new synagogues.

Since I was visiting Moscow and because the Joint still remembers our early work with pride, I was asked by Yulia Karchevskaya at the Moscow JDC office if I would attend a Knafaim seminar over Shabbat and teach. I was moved by the invitation since Yulia was a student in the nineties whom I brought to the March of the Living in Poland and Israel as part of a delegation of young people involved in Joint activities. Yulia asked me to talk about the early days of JDC FSU work and to teach something about the upcoming festival of Hanuka.

Knafaim (wings in Hebrew) is the Russian version of a young leadership program that JDC sponsors in various parts of the FSU. It targets young people still in university or already working and offers them four seminars/workshops a year with intervening contact and a project management course at a Moscow university. At the end of this program each participant leads a project benefiting the Jewish community. It gives them the opportunity to grow personally, to examine their Jewish lives, and to see themselves as part of a community in their own country and beyond in the larger Jewish world. It does not define Judaism religiously, ethnically, linguistically, or as a nation or people. It leaves that up to the individual participants.

I was impressed by the variety of different souls in the group. There were some with no Jewish background at all, others with bits and pieces of knowledge and experience, and even a fellow aspiring to a Habad lifestyle. All of them showed great respect and tolerance for each other and a wonderful rapport with staff. There was an Israeli educator with significant experience in this form of training, and I talked and taught.

It was a very emotional Shabbat for me. Of course, it reminded me of the many seminars we conducted in the FSU countryside at various dilapidated hotels or sanatoria with terrible food. This workshop took place in a new and beautiful resort hotel just outside of Moscow. Again here, there was this sharp contrast. We dealt with Jews who were Soviet and mostly devoid of any Jewish experience. A Pesach Seder was the very first Seder attended. A Shabbat in Khabarovsk was a virgin experience. These young Jews were born into freedom and are living in a city where Jewish life is now a reality – all kinds of Jewish life.

And then suddenly it came to me. Three million Russian-speaking Jews have added a new limb to the body of the Jewish people. The 21st century is theirs to make their presence felt in all spheres of Jewish life. It took awhile since 1991, but it is beginning to happen. This program called Knafaim should not be limited to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other FSU republics. It is desperately needed in North America, France, other Diaspora communities, and even Israel. Young Jews everywhere are distancing themselves from the Jewish people. Giving those young Jews an opportunity to examine their own lives in a large Jewish tent that illustrates the many facets of 21st century Jewish life and the many portals into those rooms is critically important these days.

It’s time for my Russian Jewish friends to export their experience and teach the rest of us how to seed, plant, cultivate, and harvest (a Russian colleague taught me that metaphor) new Jewish leadership of many different kinds.

Moscow has seen a few revolutions. The Jews are creating their own.

Dr. Seymour Epstein (Epi) worked at United Synagogue Day School in Toronto and helped to found an experimental high school there in 1971. From 1973 to 1978 he was an assistant professor at McGill University where he directed the Jewish Teacher Training Program of Montreal.

In 1981 Dr. Epstein moved to Morocco to become the educational consultant for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Casablanca. During his eighteen years of JDC work, he was active in Morocco, Western Europe, and the Former Soviet Union. He served the JDC as Director of Jewish Education and was responsible for community development in Siberia, Russia.

From 1999 to 2009 Epi was the director of Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education.