Studying the Future for Russian Jewry

IMG_6202by Erica Lyons

I come from New York and studied in Washington, D.C., so perhaps I took the existence of specialized Jewish organizations for granted. Of course communities consist of several houses of worship, academic institutions, communal organizations, preschools, Jewish museums, Zionist organizations, festivals of Jewish learning and the like. Living in the Far East for over a decade, I no longer take the existence of these types of organizations for granted. Upon hearing of a Jewish presence in a particular city, I make no assumptions.

I recently participated in the Sefer International Judaic Studies Conference in Moscow through sponsorship by the Russian Jewish Congress and an introduction by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. The annual conference is but a glimpse of Jewish connectivity in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). While some speak of a rekindling or reemergence of Jewish life in the FSU, I think these terms don’t nearly go far enough as I witnessed what can only best be described as a renaissance.

As Victoria Mochalova, Director of Sefer explains, “When we started two decades ago, the situation was very different. After decades of the Jewish studies prohibition in the late 1980s it became possible to rebuild the academic research and education in the area … we are witnesses of the positive development, though it isn’t easy and simple.”

The Sefer Conference itself brought together over 200 speakers in different sessions and attracted over 100 additional guests, mainly students, representatives from various community organizations and sponsoring organizations and journalists. In addition, numerous other unregistered guests came in to attend particular individual sessions of their choice.

The diversity of the attendees was remarkable in terms of age, observance level, educational background, area of interest, profession and geographical region within the FSU. And as diverse as the participants were, or rather more so, were the sessions themselves, covering virtually every area of Jewish scholarship and research imaginable. While many sessions focused on the FSU, the focus of others spanned the globe and covered from ancient history through modernity.

My own panel chaired by Mikhail Chlenov and sponsored by the Russian Jewish Congress was on Jews on the Far East and in South-East Asia, for example, and covered the region of Birobidzhan as well as the areas of the Urals through the Himalayas. This panel also included my talk on the contemporary expatriate communities of the Far East while another lecturer discussed Harbin’s Jewish community’s role in medical care.

Gender studies also played an important role in the conference, as well as studies in biblical Hebrew, the Second Temple period, contemporary Israeli society, modern Hebrew and the Jews of Ancient Rome, again attesting to the breadth of the conference’s offerings. Perhaps though, the long tables lined with recent publications were the best summary of the wealth of diversity in learning. While eager participants offered to help translate the Russian lectures for me, it was my inability to take advantage of the endless offering of the beautiful new publications that lined the room where I felt my keenest loss at my clear language inadequacy.

But the conference, albeit an incredible spectacle, is but one of Sefer-The Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization’s activites. Sefer, established in 1994, is an umbrella organization that unites Jewish scholars, scholarship and educational programs throughout the FSU. As Mochalova explains, “all our members, faculty, and students as a result of this conference benefit in scholarly and personal growth, in creating the Jewish studies network, or the academic community beyond the boundaries, which gives them an opportunity to enlarge their knowledge, to share their experiences and to share their research results.”

The location of the conference itself, housed in the new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center of Moscow, was further testimony as the development of Jewish Studies in the FSU. This being the 20th conference, the organizers sought to add to the conference experience; how apropos for Sefer’s academic conference coincided with the opening of the Center’s own research center.

Outside of the walls of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center and away from the conference, I had the fortunate opportunity to visit the Jewish Community Center (Nikitskaya Jewish Cultural Centre), the headquarters of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, Chabad’s synagogue, the Jewish pre-school, the historical Choral Synagogue, two kosher markets, both of which the Hong Kong Jewish community would envy, and the new Museum of the Jewish History in Russia.

This glimpse of Moscow, rich in Jewish institutions and activities, surpassed all preconceived notions that anyone might have about life today in Russia. And for all that I expected that did hold true: a biting snowy cold framed by a grey sky and bottomless bowls of borscht served with countless all-too-similar-to-distinguish types of potato dishes, it was the unexpected spark of a rich Jewish future that I carry back with me. I don’t take for granted for a moment that it took a journey to Moscow in February for me to hear my first live Ladino band, that there is a sub-culture of young people there eager to attend a Judaic Studies conference purely out of curiosity or that identifying with Jewish culture is suddenly viewed as cool. So while Russian Jewry carries a narrative of persecution and pogroms during the Czarist regime, genocide during World War II and darkness under the severe restrictions during the Soviet period, this is only part of the story. A new chapter is being written today.

Erica Lyons is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Jewish Life.