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November 27, 2015 / 15 Kislev, 5776
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Returning to Russia

The Jewish population of Moscow numbers well over 100,000.

Chabad-affiliated St. Petersburg Choral Synagogue,

Chabad-affiliated St. Petersburg Choral Synagogue,
Photo Credit: Entwine

The center’s spokesman said some 50,000 Jews in one form or another avail themselves monthly of various programs – schools, dining, services to the elderly, shows, soup kitchens, summer camps, special programming.

While there are various streams of Jewish organizations and ideologies in Moscow, ranging from haredi to secular, Chabad has a mammoth force of 100 shluchim posted there (a total of 250 shluchim are assigned to forty different Russian cities). Typical of the Chabad group is 27-year-old Elizabeth, New Jersey-born Rabbi Mendel Wilansky, whom I interviewed late one night at the Holiday Inn.

He described how he and his Brooklyn-born wife, Rivky, made their way to Moscow. Both of his grandfathers hailed from that part of the world, one working as a shochet at the Moscow Choral synagogue. His first contacts with Russia were in his late teens as a summer camp counselor. Based on his record, senior shluchim were eager for him to return there.

Rabbi Wilansky focuses mainly on outreach to university-age Jews. He gives classes, organizes shabbatons and holiday events such as a Chanukah raffle contest, and takes students on trips. His travels include a Birthright trip to Israel and a trip to New York. For the New York trip, he insisted that each traveler pay the $750 cost. “No one goes on my trips for free,” he said Rabbi. Rivky finds great satisfaction working with Moscow’s Jewish teenage girls.

The opening earlier this summer of the Chabad-sponsored Museum of Russian Jewish History and Tolerance, two blocks from the Marina Rochna center, reinforces the notion of the political and spiritual renaissance of Russian Jewry. With an estimated cost of $30 million, this high tech facility has the imprimatur of President Putin, who has already visited twice.

While the future of Russian Jewry is no doubt tied to liberalization of the Russian civic culture, so many changes – if not outright miracles – have taken place since my first visit. The danger to Jews in Russia today, when Purim parades march through city streets and a menorah glows in Red Square on Chanukah, is to be found not in pogroms or a gulag but rather, as has been the case for decades in the Western democracies, in self-imposed assimilation.

About the Author: Ron Rubin is a senior political scientist at CUNY and author most recently of “A Jewish Professor's Political Punditry” (Syracuse University Press, 2013).

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