Jewish Revival in Birobidjan


by S. Olidort - BIROBIDJAN, RUSSIA

December 6, 2002

The irony of 100 Jews braving icy streets of a remote Russian backwater in 20 degrees below zero, to participate at a public menorah lighting ceremony is nothing short of exquisite. Established as a Jewish Autonomous Region more than sixty years ago, Birobidjan would be Stalin’s solution to the “Jewish problem.” This province in the Russian Far East bordering the People’s Republic of China—some five thousand miles east of Moscow, was his idea of a “Soviet Zion” where Russia’s purged Jewish population would be resettled.

It was the first public menorah lighting ever in Birobidjan. And while only three thousand of the region's 200,000 residents are Jewish, the event is remarkable coming as does in a place marked by seventy years of communist persecution and bloodletting campaigns including harsh labor sentences and mass executions. At its peak, Stalin’s failed plan drew only 35,000 Jews, but the province retains vestiges of a Jewish past that is now largely expressed in a reemergence of the Yiddish language, Jewish-oriented concerts and festivals, and kosher-style foods. Jewish culture, in fact, appears to be the latest fad in this region marked by a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit and a stable economy. Also unusual here is an absence of anti-semitism, so that even gentiles enjoy the benefits of local Jewish cultural activity.

In the few weeks since Chabad-trained Rabbi Mordechai Scheiner, his wife Esther, and their four children arrived, he's met up with many elderly people who vividly recall childhood memories of religious observances and the familiar smells of Shabbat and Jewish holidays. “I've met people who can recite by heart the prayer liturgy,” says Rabbi Scheiner. Fond and cherished though they are, memories are all that remain of Jewish religious observance in the province, and the Scheiners want to revive these memories through real, day-to-day Jewish living.

A newly constructed synagogue, with the support of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, is to be completed within the next few weeks; plans for the building of a mikvah, and the opening of an Or Avner Chabad Day School are the first steps to rebuilding a Jewish infrastructure. In the meantime, Rabbi Scheiner conducts minyans in his own home--the meeting ground for dozens of Jews, young and old. There, over Shabbat dinners Rabbi Scheiner and his wife introduce the locals to Torah, to mitzvot and to Judaism as it is lived in the here and now. There is some scant knowledge of the laws of kosher, says Rabbi Scheiner, and he hopes to boost that via a central kosher kitchen that will cater to communal functions and individual needs. It is a complex project and a huge undertaking in a place where the acquisition of modern amenities like e-mail access and telephone lines are a long process. But with Jewish pride and cultural awareness at an all-time high here, Rabbi Scheiner is determined to “lay a foundation within the framework of Torah, that will ensure the endurance of a vibrant Jewish presence in the Russian Far East.”

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