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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

 
 

A ‘gap year’ spent in service

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“Nativers” Ilana Rosenzweig, Seffi Kogen, Shara Fishman, and Gabe Cohen are all from Bergen County.

“My name is Seffi Kogen and I am writing to you from Yerucham, my home for
the second half of my year on Nativ. Back in Fair Lawn, I read The Jewish Standard every weekend, but here, in Israel, I rely on my mom to let me know if there is anything interesting that I should look up online. Recently, she told me about a front-page article documenting the wild behavior that sometimes occurs on yeshiva gap-year programs. That article moved me to suggest that the Standard might want to let their readers know about Nativ: The College Leadership Program in Israel.... Right now, there are five Bergen County residents currently volunteering in the development town of Yerucham. We work in kindergartens, the soup kitchen, the graveyard, the community center, and volunteer with Magen David Adom. We live and work and enjoy ourselves down here in what Israelis lovingly call ‘the middle of nowhere,’ and we would love for more people to know about ... the impact Bergen County is having on advancing the modern Zionist dream.”

That letter, from the son of Linda Ripps and Avi Kogen, prompted a conversation with The Jewish Standard one recent morning after Kogen’s late shift on the Magen David Adom ambulance in Yerucham.

Kogen is among 80 participants in Nativ (“nah-TEEV”), a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in its 29th year. A graduate of Solomon Schechter High School in West Orange, he is joined by fellow Schechter alum Ilana Rosenzweig of Oradell; Frisch School graduate Gabe Cohen of Hillsdale; Pascack Valley High School graduate Shara Fishman of River Vale; and Eric Leiderman of Englewood, who attended the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan.

An active Conservative Jew who attends Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn and served on the United Synagogue Youth regional board for two years, Kogen sees Nativ as the perfect middle ground between a yeshiva program and a secular work/travel program. It offers religious or college studies in Jerusalem in the first semester, and optional Judaic courses during its second volunteering semester.

Participants from all across North America travel throughout Israel, experience a taste of military life and desert survival, take leadership seminars, and receive preparation for Israel advocacy on campus. “I hope they go home from Nativ with the ability to keep on asking questions and keep on caring,” said Nativ Director Yossi Garr. “Nativ grads often take a leadership role on college campuses and later on in Jewish communities.”

During their first semester, Kogen and Rosenzweig took for-credit courses in the overseas students program at Hebrew University. Kogen studied Hebrew, Talmud, medieval Jewish history, entrepreneurship in the Middle East, and Israel society, culture, and politics; Rosenzweig took courses in the Holocaust, modern Jewish history, and Israeli literature.

Although Nativ also offers a kibbutz track for the second semester, all five Bergen County participants chose to volunteer in Yerucham, a blue-collar town 30 miles south of Beersheba. Living in downtown apartments with other “Nativers” and counselors, each chose a volunteer job from a list provided by the community development organization in Yerucham, said Kogen. The majority work in local schools, teaching English or assisting preschoolers. Those who also want to volunteer as emergency medical technicians must complete a 60-hour Magen David Adom (the equivalent of the Red Cross) course in Jerusalem, as Kogen did.

Rosenzweig works at a kindergarten. “It’s great because I don’t know that much Hebrew and they don’t speak English,” she said. Every couple of weeks the youngsters learn words that start with a different letter of the aleph-bet, and Rosenzweig learns them, too — like “nadnedah” (swing) for the letter “nun.”

One of her students is among the five children of her host family in Yerucham. These families volunteer to host Nativ participants for Shabbat meals or during the week. “It’s nice to have a family you can go to when you need it,” said Rosenzweig, who shares an apartment with eight other girls.

Living in a community rather than in a dormitory gives “Nativers” an authentic Israeli experience, especially when it comes to shopping, cooking, and cleaning. They have to learn how to read labels in Hebrew, substitute for American ingredients, and figure out metric and Celsius equivalents for measurements and temperatures.

Kogen said he and his seven third-floor-walkup apartment mates have mastered the Israeli method of cleaning tile floors with a squeegee instead of a mop. “We’re all learning how to play mom and dad,” he said. “These skills will come in handy when we have our own dorms and apartments.”

“It’s very different from what I’m used to,” added Rosenzweig, “but not in a bad way. I enjoy it.” A USY member through the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, she expects to attend Rutgers University to study elementary and special education.

Kogen used a Jewish National Fund connection to get a volunteer job writing a grant proposal for Youth of Yerucham, which aims to help newly discharged soldiers go to college. “Then, hopefully they will stay in Yerucham, and with their education they will bring jobs. It’s all part of trying to improve Yerucham as a whole,” said Kogen, who has met the town’s mayor.

 
 
 
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