By Oliver Bullough
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Jews, who fordecades have been encouraged to leave for Israel, are changing tack with a newmovement to develop their distinctive culture at home.
But the moves toboost Russian Jews’ self-confidence risk colliding with a resurgence of Russiannationalists, who have already staged several anti-semitic attacks thisyear.
Leaders of the World Jewish Congress flew into Moscow this week fora “Limmud” — talks with community leaders from all over the former Soviet Union — in an attempt to support efforts to encourage cultural and educationalrenewal.
“This is a kind of grass roots movement. After a half-century of ‘let my people go’ in the Soviet Union, this is a chance to say let my peopleknow,” said Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the WJC’s policy council, in aninterview.
“This is a way of responding to the needs of the Jews of theformer Soviet Union and particularly the needs of the Jews outside Moscow,” hetold Reuters, speaking in a Moscow cultural center where little children ranfrom room to room, giggling to each other in Hebrew.
Although a millionJews left Russia after the Soviet collapse, estimates suggest a million remain — the world’s fourth largest Jewish community.
Jewish leaders sayfour-fifths of them have no contact with community groups and have lost contactwith their traditional culture, in a country where Russian nationalists arebecoming increasingly aggressive and confident.
Jews inpre-revolutionary Russia suffered terrible violence, with regular pogroms aroundthe end of the 19th Century provoking mass emigration.
Jews like LeonTrotsky were among leaders of the Bolshevik movement — but they becamesidelined amid traditional racism. Many were barred from many top jobs, andfound it difficult to move to Israel.
Although official anti-semitism isno more, racism has flourished in Russia since communism collapsed. Skinheadshave killed dozens of foreigners in the last two years and local Jews have alsobeen targeted.
A man shouting “Heil Hitler” burst into a synagogueearlier this year, stabbing nine people. Vandals scrawled swastikas on Jewishgraves in Siberia last month.
“When the Soviet Union fell, andanti-semitism stopped being state policy, we hoped it had passed, thatxenophobia had ceased to exist,” said Alexander Mashkevich, head of the Eurasianpart of the WJC, and one of the richest businessmen in Kazakhstan.
“Butsadly, the situation is not improving in Russia. In many regions it is actuallygetting worse.”
The Limmud — an institution that started in Britain, andis spreading to other countries — features dance, cinema, language and otheraspects of traditional culture. Organizers hope it will lead to young Jewsrediscovering their heritage.
“In my opinion, next year there will notjust be a Limmud for the former Soviet Union, but one for Russia, one forUkraine, one for Belarus,” said Alexander Pyatigogsky, 25, who organized theforum.
“For us the main answer to all these anti-semites is to be Jewish, to get as many people as we can to be Jewish, to live like a Jewish person. Thatis the answer.”