The prognosis for the recovery of Judaism in the former Soviet Union continues to be negative, although there are signs that the faith is surviving and growing, according to recent reports.
For the past several years the common wisdom about the future of Judaism in the former Soviet Union (FSU) is that the religion is on the decline, mainly because of the continual emigration of Russian Jews to Israel and the upsurge of anti-Semitism. In a 20-page report in Moment magazine (February), Hershel Shanks finds more reasons for concern about Jewish life in the region.
The intermarriage rate is rising (making the American intermarriage rate of 50 percent “look paltry”). The one yeshiva for training Jewish leaders has closed. The few synagogues in such cities as Moscow and St. Petersburg are attended mainly by the elderly and almost no Jewish boys are being circumcised. A recent poll of St. Petersburg’s Jews found only nine percent of respondents claimed Judaism as their religion, with half of them claiming no faith (a quarter claimed Christianity).
There has been little effort among Western Jewry to revive Judaism in the region, according to Shanks. The hasidic Jews have invested the most time and money in Jewish renewal efforts, while the other branches (such as Reform, Conservative and modern Orthodox) have been largely ineffective, except in encouraging more Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel.
Observers say that the strongly anti-modern Judaism of the hasidic groups will not be accepted by most Jews of the former FSU. Yet there is a brighter side to the situation. Anti-Semitism is waning in Russian and Ukrainian society. Jews can receive Jewish education in state schools and recent Russian government has shown a more friendly attitude toward Israel than other Western European countries.
Even in the recent elections, anti-Semitism played almost no part in the campaigns (including that of nationalist Vladimir Zhirnovsky). The growth of Jewish organizations and schools in the FSU alone is reason for hope; in the Ukraine, there are over 200 Jewish organizations. Starting from scratch five years ago, such rebuilding has reached about 10 percent of Jews. “This is both bad news and good news–bad because it suggests how difficult it will be to reach the other 90 percent, good because it indicates the unrealized potential,” Shanks concludes.
The recent appearance of a new Russian volume of the Talmud is another sign of rebirth and reconnection with world Jewry, according to the Washington Post (February 14). No editions of the Talmud were ever published in the Soviet Union, nor were they ever imported until 1987. The latest edition, published under the auspices of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the translation of Israeli Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
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