Judaism After Communism

Jewish life flourishes both in and outside the former Soviet Union.

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In the last 10 years, the number of Jewish institutions, publications, and other markers of community has continued to increase. By the mid-2000s, post-Soviet Russia was back on the global Jewish map. Russia hosts international Jewish conferences. Russian bookstores have dozens of Jewish-themed books on the shelves. Moscow is host to two Jewish Community Centers, with a third in the planning stage, and more than a dozen synagogues or prayer houses. Moscow and St. Petersburg have dozens of rabbis, primarily Orthodox but also some progressive/Reform. There are also more than 25 Hillels in the major urban centers catering to young Jews.

The community has also spawned avant-garde Jewish arts, literature, and music for young Russian Jews, who see culture--rather than religion and ritual--as their primary means of being Jewish. A culture organization, Eshkol, brings edgy Jewish culture from Israel and around the world to Moscow, packing popular nightclubs with 20- and 30-something Jews. Rabinovitch, an online community, hosts Jewish parties at the hottest dance clubs in town on different Jewish holidays, giving young Jewish Muscovites an opportunity to meet peers through social networking.

The most significant institutional player on the post-Soviet scene has been Chabad, whose presence, however controversial, remains central to the reestablishment of public Jewish life. There is a Chabad presence in nearly 100 cities throughout Russia. They can be found in schools in most large cities, kosher kitchens, nursing homes, and other institutions. Some criticize the organization for using its close relationships to political power to expand its influence on Russian Jewry. Nonetheless, with growing Jewish resources and a booming economy, Russia is becoming a place where Jews want to live, and a place with a vibrant Jewish future.

In Search of Opportunity Through Immigration

If some post-Soviet Jews began building public Jewish lives at home, millions of others left for better economic and social opportunities. Between 1989 and 2003 more than 930,000 Jews and their non-Jewish relatives from the former Soviet Union settled in Israel. Another 378,000 immigrated to the United States, and 200,000 went to Germany.

By far, the largest Russian Jewish population in the States, and in fact, the largest Russian Jewish urban population center in the world is New York. (Moscow has at the high estimate 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews; New York at least that many if not more.) Brighton Beach is the heartland of Russian Jewish New York, though more Russian Jews are becoming visible in segments of the mainstream organized Jewish community. Some, like Gary Shteingart and Lara Vapnyar, are recognized as elite Jewish writers on the New York literary scene and have developed international reputations for being on the cutting edge of American literature.

Beyond the New York area, most American cities with a significant Russian population have their own forms of Russian Jewish presence. In some places, Russian Jews establish independent clubs and organizations. In others, they develop closer ties with mainstream institutional Jewish organizations. With Russian Jews making up more than 25% of New York Jewry, and a significant number of Jews throughout the United States, they will undoubtedly continue to have an impact on communal life.

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David Shneer

David Shneer is an associate professor of history and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and his most recent book is Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust (Rutgers, 2010).