A Jewish revival in Birobidzhan?

Birobidzhan Governor Nikolai Volkov unveils a statue of Sholom Aleichem.

Valery Gurevich, the deputy governor of the Jewish Auto-nomous Region in Birobidzhan, Russia, spent days organizing the region's 70th anniversary cele-bration.

At the last minute, Berel Lazar, Chabad's chief rabbi of Russia, informed Gurevich that he needed to get back to Moscow before Shabbat - which required a helicopter and meant Lazar would miss a meeting with the governor.

The turn of events incensed Gurevich, because the government had already switched all the official celebrations of the autonomous region's 70th anniversary from Sept. 11 to Sept. 10 - at Lazar's request.

That level of concern for, and knowledge of, traditional Jewish observance might be expected among government officials in New York. But it's rare in Russia - except in Birobidzhan, the capital city of the Jewish Autonomous Region - where Jewish sensibilities are deeply engrained.

And although Gurevich wants Lazar at the governor's meeting for political reasons, it's also personally important to him that the country's most powerful Jewish religious leader give the hechsher, or seal of approval, to the city's new synagogue.

Gurevich, like many of the region's elected officials, is Jewish. He's truly interested in developing the region's Jewish identity from a carefully preserved memorial to a bygone era into a living Jewish community.

In 1934, Stalin established the autonomous region in Russia's Far East as a secular Jewish homeland to divert Soviet Jews from Palestine. Yiddish culture flourished here, attracting more than 40,000 Jews from all over the world.

Stalin's initial purges in 1936 shrank the region's Jewish leadership. In 1948-49, the Yiddish schools were closed, the theater was shut down and many actors executed, and the state library's extensive Judaica section was burned.

Today locals believe there's a real chance that a thriving Jewish community could be established in Birobidzhan. Although the city's Jewish population - depleted by the large aliyah wave of the 1990s - hovers somewhere between 2,000-6,000, the region's economic prosperity, combined with its Yiddish heritage, help create rich soil for a Jewish future.

There's still great confusion, however, between Birobidzhan's Yiddish heritage, which is linguistic and cultural, and the Jewish practice that rabbis and foreign Jewish organizations are trying to encourage.

"We call this a Jewish religious community, even though it's not really religious," says Elena Belyaeva, a 30-year-old teacher of Yiddish and Hebrew who, although not Jewish herself, is a leading light in the city's Jewish revival.

That label is in part for tax purposes, she points out, as religious organizations in Russia are beneficiaries of tax breaks. But it's also a conscious effort to remind local Jews that what holds them together above all is their religion, she adds.

In post-Soviet Russia, the turning point from Jewish cultural community to Jewish religious community usually comes when a synagogue is built or returned to the local Jewish population, and a rabbi - most often a Chabad rabbi - shows up to lead services.

That's what happened two years ago in Birobidzhan, with the arrival from Israel of Chabad emissaries Rabbi Mordechai and Esther Scheiner. Scheiner says he and his wife didn't choose Birobidzhan because of its Yiddish heritage. Instead, he says, "We go where we're needed."

Now they're here for good, bringing up their five children in a small apartment a few blocks from the synagogue and Jewish center. And while they're ecstatic about the newly opened shul, a beautiful building which attracted a big crowd to its first Friday night services, the Scheiners say they face political pressure from the leadership of the local Jewish community.

"There was pressure somehow," he says. "They told me, when there's a synagogue we'll come, but not to your house."

The synagogue, Scheiner points out, belongs to the entire community, not just to him - perhaps that's why the local Jewish communal leadership prefers to have religious life concentrated there.

Scheiner's troubles with the local Jewish communal leadership are greater than those reported by other Chabad rabbis in eastern Russia, perhaps because of the region's Jewish past.

"The Jewish population in Birobidzhan is different than elsewhere in Siberia," explains Belyaeva.

She spent most of the summer researching an exhibit on Birobidzhan's early history in honor of a delegation from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that visited Sept. 7, the day the exhibit opened, to inaugurate the city's first kosher soup kitchen.

"In Siberia, they were sent there forcibly. The Jewish communities of Irkutsk, of Novosibirsk, developed around one or two prominent Jewish families with rich Jewish backgrounds. They became religious communities," she says.

"But Birobidzhan was built by artisans and craftspeople, who arrived in a mass, voluntary migration."

Jewish practice was never emphasized by Birobidzhan's Jews, Belyaeva continues. But even after the last synagogue burned down in the 1950s, years after the Yiddish schools and cultural institutions were closed in 1948, Jews in the region continued to mark Jewish holidays, and the older people remembered their Yiddish.

Yiddish and Jewish traditions have been required components in all public schools for almost 15 years, taught not as Jewish exotica but as part of the region's national heritage.

Ritual life was something different, however. During the last 40 years of the Soviet era it was limited to a handful of older Jews who met twice a year - at Passover and during the High Holidays.

Lazar is less enthusiastic about Birobidzhan's Yiddish heritage. He draws a distinction between that history and authentic Judaism, which he believes is not represented by weekly Yiddish sections in newspapers.

As he headed to the unveiling of the city's new Sholem Aleichem statue on Sept. 10, Lazar remarks that he considers the synagogue opening scheduled later that day to be much more significant.

"Sholem Aleichem is going back 70 years, to the idea of creating a 'Jewish' Autonomous Region without men-tioning who Jews are and where we come from," he says. "The syna-gogue opening shows that Jews without a synagogue are rootless. Jews survive because of the syna-gogue."

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