Jewish community is resurgent

Russia: The new vitality of an enclave near the Chinese border reflects what is happening across the nation.

August 28, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BIROBIDZHAN, Russia - It was trumpeted as a new Jerusalem, a Jewish homeland to be built by zealous Communists in the swamps and forests of Russia's Far East.

And for a few years, the Jewish Autonomous Region - a tiny enclave created by the dictator Josef Stalin near Russia's eastern border with China - flourished as a haven for Jews uprooted from their villages in western parts of Russia, and for others from around the world.

By the time the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the Yiddish-language theater, schools and culture planted here had long since withered, thanks to state-sponsored anti-Semitism. As thousands of Birobidzhan's residents left, many for Israel, it seemed only a matter of time before the Jewish Autonomous Region had no Jews.

But the Jewish community here is being revived. There are a Jewish Community Center, a rabbi and a library with books in Hebrew and Yiddish. Next month, the center will stage a week of concerts, exhibits and performances to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the community's founding. Work is nearing completion on a synagogue, the first to be in a building erected for that purpose.

Most significant of all is that, for probably the first time since the years immediately after World War II, Birobidzhan's Jewish population grew rather than shrank last year.

"Now we see teenagers in the community," said Nadezhda V. Yakovlevna, 55, a librarian at the Community Center. "This is a sign of revival."

That surprising growth is part of the broader changes in the Jewish community throughout Russia. According to census figures, about half of Russia's 550,000 Jews left the country in 1989-2002. But the Jewish population might be rising again.

In April, Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, said about 10,000 Jews have emigrated to Israel in the past two years, while 50,000 have returned to Russia.

The Prosmushkin family is among them. Isa Prosmushkin, 68, was brought here from Belarus by his parents in 1937. He was 1 year old.

His wife, Tsila, 65, was born here. The couple never really wanted to leave. But the Prosmuskhins' two sons, Roman and Misha, wanted a better life. So in 1999 the Prosmushkins, their sons and Roman's wife and daughter left for Israel.

At first, the sons, both in their 30s, could find work only sweeping streets. The families lived in cramped apartments. The elder Prosmushkins couldn't speak Hebrew, and most of their neighbors spoke no Russian or Yiddish.

They missed their friends. They missed their large apartment, their dacha. They missed the green rivers and forests of the Far East. "The people in Israel sit on benches all day," Isa Prosmushkin said. "They don't know what it is to gather mushrooms and berries."

And they grew weary of the dangers bred by the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. "Every day you hear about the war and the young people being killed," Isa said.

So in June the elder Prosmushkins returned here with Roman and his family. Misha, who works with computers in a sock factory, stayed in Israel.

Perhaps Birobidzhan will never be a new Jerusalem, the Prosmushkins say. But it could become an important center for Jewish life in Russia.

Yakovlevna, the librarian, said her son Andrei, 35, and daughter Sveta, 25, left Russia for Israel several years ago. But Andrei returned to Russia last year, to live in the city of Komsomolsk, 250 miles away. According to his mother, "He says that in Russia, there is a future."

"Everything has changed," said Lev Toitman, 79, head of Birobidzhan's 4,500-member Jewish community. He chooses his words carefully, not to offend anyone who believes that all of Russia's Jews should move to Israel: "The Jews that live here, they feel it is their home."

Not all of Birobidzhan's Jews want to see the community resuscitated. Boris Kaufman, 55, known as Dov, has been presiding over informal prayer services here since they were authorized in 1984, under the policy of glasnost. He thinks the Jewish Autonomous Region should never have been created: "We should have gone straight to Israel, not here."

Birobidzhan, a town of 70,000, is laid out on a Soviet-style grid, with broad avenues separating drab apartment blocks. Wooden barracks erected in the 1930s for the first residents still stand. There is the sense of emptiness common to Russian communities drained of their youth by the lure of jobs in the big cities.

The region exports gold and timber to China, and Birobidzhan's newly renovated hotel is packed with Chinese merchants. The city's main market is filled with Chinese and Vietnamese traders selling jeans, leather coats and shoes.

For Jewish youth, the decision to stay or leave can be agonizing.

Tanya Stenena, 18, left for Israel two years ago and recently returned to visit her parents. Emerging from Birobidzhan's only Internet center, she said she's uncertain which country to make her home.

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