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Fishing for Jews in Russia’s muddy waters

MOSCOW – This spring, Howard Flower and his assistants will go to Russia’s westernmost region, Kaliningrad, on a fishing expedition: They’re fishing for Jews.

Flower, the aliyah director of the Russian office of the International Christian Embassy, a pro-Israel evangelical group, plans to look through telephone directories for Jewish-sounding names and meet with local leaders in an attempt to find far-flung Jews — some of whom might not even realize they’re Jewish — and talk to them about moving to Israel.

As elsewhere in the world, determining who is Jewish in Russia is more an art than a science.

In the 2002 Russian census, the country’s most recent, 233,000 Russians self-identified as Jews. Jewish leaders here and abroad consider the figure an underestimate, but they can’t agree on the actual figure or how to determine it.

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Some 233,000 Russians self-identified as Jews in the last Russian census in 2002, but Jewish leaders believe it’s an underestimate. Khamovniki Jewish Community

“Anyone who works in Jewish organizations knows that the real number of Jews is higher than records show because many people do not receive any services and thus are not registered anywhere,” said Rabbi Yosef Hersonski, head of the Khamovniki community in Moscow. “Probably they are not interested. But if their mother was Jewish, we consider them Jews.”

One of Russia’s chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, estimates the number of Jews in Russia at 1 million to 2 million; he considers as Jews all those with a Jewish mother. NCSJ, a U.S.-based advocacy group for Russian-speaking Jews, estimates that Russia has 400,000 to 700,000 Jews, and 1 million to 1.5 million in the former Soviet Union as a whole.

A representative for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the largest Jewish aid group active in Russia, declined to speculate on a figure.

“We have not yet found reliable data based on sound methodology about the number of Jews in Russia,” JDC representative Rina Edelshtein said.

Across Russia, approximately 100,000 Jews are registered with their local Jewish community organizations. To be registered, one has to prove Jewishness.

It’s often not a simple thing.

Official records tend to be a mess. In the Soviet era, ethnicity was delineated on adults’ internal passports. Those with two Jewish parents were registered as Jewish, but the children of mixed marriages could choose the ethnicity of either parent. Since Jews suffered discrimination in the Soviet Union, the products of intermarriages usually did not register as Jewish.

The situation was captured best perhaps in a joke popular at the height of the Soviet Jews’ struggle for immigration to Israel.

“How many Jews are there in the USSR?” Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev asks the head of the KGB.

“Two-and-a-half million,” the KGB head replies. “But if we let them leave, there will be 6 million.”

By the time the Iron Curtain was lifted and Soviet Jews obtained the right to emigrate, there were 1.8 million Jews in the Soviet Union, including 570,000 in Russia, according to 1989 census data. Most have left since then, moving to Israel, the United States, and Germany.

The Israeli Embassy in Moscow says it knows only about those who qualify for aliyah, or immigration to Israel, under Israel’s Law of Return. Under those criteria, anyone with a Jewish grandparent is eligible.

The Nativ organization, which deals with aliyah in the former Soviet Union, estimated that 530,000 Russians meet the criteria for aliyah, according to embassy spokesman Alex Goldman-Shaiman. How many are legitimately Jewish is unknown, he said.

Mark Tolts, a demographer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the author of the “Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe,” estimates that only about 255,000 Jews live in Russia. He bases his figures on census data.

“If you speak of a million Jews, show me the method with which you counted them,” Tolts said. “Given the proliferation of mixed marriages among the Jews of the former Soviet Union in the last generations, it is very difficult to empirically determine the number of Jews, according to halacha. Demographers base their figures on the statistic data they have. These are mainly census results, vital and migration statistics.”

Tolts says that 1.5 million people did not state their nationality during the 2002 census; he guesses that at least 20,000 were Jews.

However, Tolts’ figure of 255,000 refers only to the so-called “core Jewish population” — the aggregate of those who, when asked, identify themselves as Jews or, in the case of children, are identified as such by their parents. It does not include those of Jewish origin who report another ethnicity in the census. Russian passports dropped the ethnicity field in 1994.

To complicate matters, some Russians of Jewish lineage were baptized yet still identify as Jews when asked about ethnicity.

“The main dilemma is who should be called Jews,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of NSCJ.

Flowers, of the International Christian Embassy, called counting Russia’s Jews “one of the trickiest questions facing man.”

His organization recently provided the Jewish Agency for Israel with a list of 1.2 million people in Russia whose names sound Jewish, all of whom were found in online and print telephone directories.

In 2004, a similar list of 30,000 names among St. Petersburg residents was examined. The Jewish Agency chose 10,000 that seemed Jewish and called them. More than 2,000 expressed some interest either in immigrating to Israel or in Jewish community events, according to Flowers.

Along with halachic and ethnic standards, he said the methodology introduced a new way of counting Jews: “phonetically.”

JTA

 
 

Komen Race for the Cure to be run in Israel

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From left, Hadassah President Nancy Falchuk, Susan G. Komen lay leader Hadassah Lieberman, and Komen CEO Nancy Brinker speak with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Birkat at a press conference in Washington on April 28. Courtesy of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

The world’s largest breast cancer organization, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, is partnering with Jerusalem, Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, health advocates, and scientists for a week of breast cancer-related events.

The Komen organization is launching the Israel Breast Cancer Collaborative, a partnership with nongovernmental organizations in Israel, to enhance advocacy, awareness, screening, and treatment of breast cancer in Israel during the week of Oct. 25 to 29.

A series of events will include a think tank on breast cancer, a mission to Israel, and Komen’s famed Race for the Cure, which will be held just outside Jerusalem’s Old City.

While not an overtly Jewish charity, Komen has deep Jewish roots. Nancy Brinker started the organization in 1982 after her sister, Susan Komen, died of breast cancer. Brinker is Jewish, as was Komen.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has invested more than $27 million in funding for international breast cancer research and more than $17 million in international community education and outreach programs. Komen has partnered or funded programs in more than 50 countries.

While most of the money raised by Komen goes to general breast cancer causes, the organization has given $2 million for research in Israel through the Weizmann Institute of Science, Hebrew University-Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, Beit Natan, and Life’s Door. In the United States it has ties to Hadassah, Sharsheret, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

This will be the first time, however, that Komen has held the 5K Race for the Cure in Israel.

“This is exciting. For me it is very exciting,” said Hadassah Lieberman, who joined Komen as its global ambassador several years ago when the organization ran its first international race in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The race has since been held in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Egypt.

“We have been thinking about Jerusalem for a while,” said Lieberman, the wife of Connecticut U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman. “It has been one of the places where these things take a while to coordinate.”

According to Komen officials, breast cancer is the most common form of women’s cancer in Israel, accounting for nearly 30 percent of new cancer cases in the country. About 4,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in Israel each year.

In bringing the race to Israel, Susan G. Komen for the Cure hopes to spark new collaborations with organizations such as the Israel Cancer Association and to raise awareness of breast cancer in Israel.

“Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s very first international research grant went to Israel 16 years ago, and we have enjoyed longstanding friendships and productive collaborations in Israel ever since,” Brinker said in a statement announcing the Israel project. “The new Israel Breast Cancer Collaborative takes our relationships to the next level — in partnership with the city of Jerusalem, Hadassah, government leaders, advocates, and our global partners — as we work to address the critical issues in breast cancer for the women of Israel and the world.”

This might seem a precarious time for an international fund-raising organization to broaden its ties with Israel, with the country feeling the fallout of the flotilla incident in terms of public opinion, but Lieberman says she does not believe it will be an issue for Komen’s fund-raising.

“Everyone, whether it is Jewish organizations or Christian populations, is really excited about this race because we never have had a chance to do it in Jerusalem,” she said. “It’s very been exciting and positive, particularly at times like this, when you have to understand that this illness has no border and boundary and you understand the cure has no border and boundary.”

Lieberman added, “It is very special to be able to go to the Kotel to put a note in the [Western Wall], and for some of these women to go there and have a prayer for themselves or for their sisters’ or aunts’ health, and spread awareness around Israel.”

JTA

 
 

Tomas Sheleg and Luna Road bring light to Haiti

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Tomas Sheleg stands next to the water tank built by the JDC.
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A typical street in Port-au-Prince, where people buy food from farmers who live outside the city, while “garbage is all over them, all around them, and sewage is flowing everywhere.” TOMAS SHELEG

Seeing the light” is not an abstract concept. It is a hard reality, with spectacular implications, says Fort Lee resident Tomas Sheleg.

Sheleg, originally from Israel, traveled to Haiti in July, installing light fixtures that not only garnered gratitude but, he says, saved lives.

“There are lots of robberies during the night. People in the camps are living in pitch black and girls are being raped,” he said. “It’s a common thing since the earthquake. No one understands the scale” of what is happening there, he said, adding that television images don’t show the full horror of the situation.

Founder of the solar lighting company Luna Road, the former Ridgewood resident said the idea for bringing his light panels to Haiti came up during a conversation with Will Recant, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a member of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood.

“We started talking,” said Sheleg. “I showed him one of my products and he was very interested. The idea was to use it in a school in Rwanda to help villages there.”

Then Recant mentioned Haiti, which, he said, needed immediate help.

Told that a specific camp was the site of five rapes in one week — occurring most frequently in the enclosed area where the young girls, 12 to 16, went with a bucket of water to bathe — Sheleg decided to take action.

“Our product is unique,” he said. “It’s small and easy to install.” He thought it would be “an amazing solution” to that problem.

“People were hearing the girls scream but they didn’t go to help because it was too dark,” he said, pointing out that the Port-au-Prince camp, containing some 6,000 people in an area half the size of a football field, had no source of light. So, he said, he decided to produce a few units and rush them to Haiti.

“I flew with the units and joined a representative there from the JDC,” he explained, noting that the Joint Distribution Committee was there to help set up schools and provide food.

“The panels were donated by us — Luna Road — to the JDC,” which covered some expenses, such as shipping.

Sheleg said he was “shocked” by what he saw, especially in Port-au-Prince.

“Some of it is completely destroyed,” he said, adding that while he speaks some French, the predominant language of the country, he was unable to talk directly to the people, using a translator instead. Still, he noted, “you can see that they are very hopeful people. You don’t see their sadness and distress but [rather] a sense of hope.”

Camp residents were very grateful for the light, he said.

“The morning after the first night [with the light] was amazing. You could really feel how happy they were.”

Sheleg said the light took only a half-hour to install and “we could do thousands in a week.” He’s now speaking with other organizations in Haiti interested in having the units put in.

“For the cost of one street bulb you can install 10 of my lights,” he said. “So for the same money, you can help 10 times more people.”

Luna Road was interested from the start in reaching out to needy populations, he explained.

“We were trying to create something cheap enough so everyone could get it,” he said. “Solar technology is cutting edge, but for some it’s inaccessible. So we integrated that technology to make it accessible for third-world countries. We’re Israelis,” he said. “We saw a situation and said, how can we fix it?”

He noted that many of his ideas came from visits to Israel, which he called “the feeding group for any startup today.”

Paying tribute to the JDC, he said the organization had also built a water tank at the camp he visited.

“It’s like a faucet,” said Sheleg, explaining that every other day, fresh water is brought in on a truck.

“They do amazing work; I was very impressed,” he said. “I’m happy to know the Joint is there to help Jews all over the world, but not only our own. It shows that our Jewish spirit goes the extra mile.”

Sheleg, who had already been to the United States several times, said he came again in 2006 through Zahal Shalom, established more than 10 years ago to bring disabled Israeli veterans to New Jersey. Soldiers stay as guests of local families, spending two weeks visiting New York City and Washington, D.C., and participating in community events.

“It creates an interesting dynamic between Bergen County residents and veterans from Israel,” he said.

According to its website, Luna Road — which specializes in the design, manufacture, and installation of “high-tech ‘cat’s eyes’” — was founded to spread the use of solar technology and is “determined to help bring night-time road safety to drivers all around the planet.” Luna Road lights, cell-phone size solar cells, trap the sun’s energy during the day for use at night.

“We believe in saving lives, preserving the environment, and beautifying night-time roads around the globe,” he said, adding that — as he learned in Haiti — light can save lives in more ways than one.

“We will give the units at cost to help the people of Haiti and other NGOs who are looking to do good.”

 
 
 
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