Birobidzhan: The Jewish Community Lives On

David and I went down to School No. 2 yesterday, which in 1995 offered Hebrew and Yiddish lessons as well as Jewish culture and history. Then, the school was divided into Russian and Jewish sections, with the Jewish section numbering just under 100 students.

Today, the school is no longer divided; it's officially designated as a special school for the study of "the languages and culture of the Jewish people." More than 600 students are enrolled -- not all of whom are Jewish, but all of whom have chosen (or have had their parents choose for them) to study here.


Photo Gallery: There has been a resurgence of Jewish culture in Birobidzhan. (David Hillegas)

This last point is the one that school director Lilya Kommisarenko takes care to emphasize. "Everyone who attends this school wants to be here," she said. "They're glad to study Jewish subjects; they're choosing to study them." This, she told us, is one of the most telling signs that Jewish culture in Birobidzhan is experiencing a real resurgence.

She said something else that I've heard repeatedly over the last few days. When I asked her what it means for the community that so many Jews left Birobidzhan over the last 10 years, she said, "The more Jews that leave, the more that are left here." She explained: "Now, many more people here are discovering their Jewish roots, and embracing them. People who before had no interest in their Jewish heritage are now acknowledging who they are."



At School No. 2, more than 600 students take courses in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Jewish culture and history. (David Hillegas)

At the old synagogue, Boris Kaufman told us the same thing. "Many people who came to services here [in 1995] have since died. But we have lots of new people who didn't believe before, but do now." And Albina Sergeyeva, director of the Freid Jewish Community center, said, "Ten years ago, many of those who left didn't want to proclaim themselves Jewish. Now, people call themselves Jewish, and talk about how their grandmothers and great-grandmothers practiced the Jewish faith."

Vasily Gurevich, Deputy Chairman of the Jewish Autonomous Region, acknowledged that the outpouring of residents in the '90s was harmful to the city. "Much of our potential left when all those people left the city. Many of the good people left." Still, he said, "The numbers don't matter. It's the spiritual life of the town that matters. There may be fewer Jews, but we've created better conditions for those who've remained... Now the young people know what a menorah is. They didn't before."



Birobidzhan's train station still has the town's name written in Yiddish as well as Russian. (David Hillegas)

Birobidzhan has enjoyed an influx of funds for monuments marking the revival of Jewish culture: A giant menorah in front of the train station, a monument to Jewish writer Shalom Aleichum, the year-old synagogue and community center. Yet the more I've talked to people here, the more I'm convinced that these are not just cosmetic changes. It does seem as though the Jewish community has a more solid base than in 1995, and a greater sense of permanence.

The Freid Jewish Community can take much of the credit for this. Founded in 1997, Freid has been the driving force behind most of the changes in Birobidzhan: the community hosts numerous clubs, publishes a newsletter and calendar, provides free meals for the poor, and sponsors cultural programs.

Freid chairman Lev Toytman, who came to Birobidzhan as a boy in 1934, told us, "After 1917, people forgot who they were. Especially those born after the 1930s and '40s, they were Pioneers and Communists. The synagogues were closed. Now people will say they're Jewish. Things have changed."

"I'm proud of what we've built here," he said. "We had help with the money, but really we did it ourselves."

In 1995, we called our Road Story here "The Last Jews of Birobidzhan," but that was clearly a misnomer. In 2005, it looks like the Jewish community is poised to thrive here once again.

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In other notes from Birobidzhan, people on the street tend to look at David and me like we just landed from Mars, especially when they hear us speaking English. It feels like we're the only Americans here -- or at least it did until last night, when we had an interesting encounter in the Internet café.

We'd gone in to send our daily update, and I glanced at the screen of a young woman nearby. "Andrea's Blog," it said. Who knew there were two blogs being posted from Birobidzhan?

Apparently, she did. "You're updating a blog, I see," I said to the woman. "We're about to do the same thing." She turned and looked at me, paused for a second, and said, "Yeah, I've been reading yours." She said she'd been in Birobidzhan for about a week, and would be here for a year on a Fulbright scholarship. "I started to email you the other day," she said, "but then figured I'd probably run into you anyway, this town's so small."

We had dinner last night, and have made plans to go to a concert on Friday, part of the 8th International Festival of Jewish Culture in Birobidzhan. After that, she'll remain here in Birobidzhan, updating her blog, while on Saturday morning, David and I will take the train to Chita, the next stop on our travels.

By Lisa Dickey |  September 16, 2005; 8:00 AM ET
Previous: Birobidzhan: Tracking Down Faces From 1995 | Next: The Truth About Gary

Comments

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Dear Lisa and David,

Been following you daily with obvious interest in every word and photo. It's been heart-warming seeing the images of the people we met on the first trip. You're both doing excellent work. One of the surprises for me, at least in the first couple of stories, is that there does seem to be a noticeable improvement in the conditions of the towns and in people's lives in general. More so than I would have imagined. I'm curious if I am reading more into this than is the reality. What are your initial impressions so far?

Keep on trucking, GM

Posted by: Gary Matoso | September 16, 2005 08:34 AM

Dear Lisa and David,

I'm surprised that people are surprised to see an American in Biro. Many American families have adopted children from the area in the last few years: I know of at the very least two American agencies that work in Biro. Have a good trip.

Posted by: ck | September 16, 2005 04:20 PM

Hi, Gary! Glad you're checking in... Based on the first three cities, people's lives definitely seem to have improved materially. In Vladivostok and Khabarovsk in particular, the conditions of just about everything seemed improved (except for the giant potholes in Vladivostok). There are still lots of people, pensioners in particular, who have very little and struggle to make ends meet. But I've been surprised, overall, to see how drastic the improvement has been.
Tune in Monday for an update you might be interested in, by the way!
- L

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | September 16, 2005 05:52 PM

Dear CK: Yes, I found that surprising too. We've gotten several emails from people who have adopted, or are preparing to adopt a child from the area. The reaction has been odd, especially since people not only have been staring, they've been staring quite openly. Maybe we're just funny looking.

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | September 16, 2005 05:54 PM

The living conditions have improuved drastically in past 10 years (especially in past 5-6 years). I was born and raised in Chelyabinsk, not I am in Palo Alto, CA. Every year that I travel back home for New Year I see a change to the better. I am surprised how rapid the change is.

Posted by: Alexei | September 17, 2005 04:20 PM

Lisa, I'm really digging what you do. At first I was extremely disappointed that you would not be rejoining our softball team this fall. Losing you for the season is like losing your ace pitcher to Tommy John surgery. The pitcher upon whose shoulders a manager plans to ride to the Championship. This is no exaggeration. Then I read your recent story about the Jewish community in Birobidzhan and I was uplifted. You are doing some really important work. Keep it up. Our fall season starts tomorrow (Sept. 17). I, and the rest of your team will be thinking of you. We'll keep the mound warm for your return.
Lee

Posted by: Lee | September 17, 2005 05:38 PM

Lisa,

We're finding your blog to be completely fascinating. I read several days at a time because reading only one isn't enough! Keep up the great work. We look forward to seeing you when you get back.

Posted by: Nanci Brown | September 17, 2005 11:23 PM

this blog reminds me of my grandmother telling me stories about attending her high school (i think it was for the arts) in Manhattan. She was from Brooklyn and many of the other students were Jewish, she was one of the only Catholics. She loved it, though, even though most people would have discriminated.

When i was in Kiev our history teacher told us that old Kiev had gates for different people. there was a gate for dignified people and then there were gates for the Polish, Jews, and other races. I told her that Jews are not a race, and she didn't understand. I guess that's just how things are over there.

Posted by: emily | September 18, 2005 08:09 AM

Hey Lisa!

Wow this is such an amazing travelogue. I finally found a quiet morning to catch up on what you've been doing. The encounter with the guy at the lighthouse was really funny and strange. It's so cool that you have made this happen. Good luck and (obviously) keep us posted!

Posted by: Lane | September 18, 2005 09:07 AM

Lisa--sorry, new to blogging, I posted a comment on the Vladivostok blog. It was about adopting a son in Birobidzan. We were at Baby Home number 5, not far from the train station you photographed. My comments concerned the many beautiful children there. To add to the memory of just 18 months ago, the people were friendly. We would walk alone the neighborhood of the soviet era flat and never felt uncomfortable. Only once did some teenagers approach us and demand "one dollar" to which I replied "adna ruble (one ruble)." The demanding teen then offered a ruble and I friendly hit his cap. His friend then hit that kid hard over the head and said in perfect English: "loser." Clearly the one bet the other he could get a dollar out of us. Once a man with blood-shot eyes agressively approached us in the same area and I kept my distance emotionally and acted coldly. I regret that now--all he wanted to do was shake the hand of an American. I didn't realize that then until my wife and I were away from him. By the way, the adoption papers for our son was stamped with the seals of Birobidzan--the Jewish candelabra, the yamakah (sp?). If you can, there is a book store in the small city, you should photograph its front door. The thick glass is heavily-heavily warped from years of Siberian cold outside air and the warm inside air. I believe National Geographic photographed a colorful image through that glass door as an example of the brutal cold's time-wearing effects on something as simple as a glass door.

Posted by: Jim Murray | September 18, 2005 03:29 PM

Lisa & David,
I lived in Birobidzhan in 1992 for four months, just as they were first rediscovering their roots. I was also there with Yale Strom in the late 90s filming "L'Chayim Comrade Stalin." People told me not to go there . . .so I had to go. Please contact me.

Posted by: Lori Champagne | September 19, 2005 02:45 AM

Lisa & David,
Your reporting on Birobidzhan is really facinating. I am sad that I will not be visiting Birobidzhan with my work this fall, and there is no time during my short stay in Russia for me to go on my own. I am glad that you two went, and therefore I have learned more about the city through your work.

Posted by: Kyle Laird | September 19, 2005 09:20 PM

Lisa and David,
You don't know me, but David and I have spoken by phone before. I have been following your reports and viewing the photos and I find it all so amazing. The countryside is so beautiful, so rich in history, and the people seem so warm and friendly. Is this the same Russia we were taught about in school? How could our countries have ever been enemies? Your reporting is showing the world the real heart and soul of Russia, and it is not unlike our own. Keep up the good work.....
p.s. I bet that is a Mac PowerBook David is using behind the scenes...

Posted by: Davis Jefferson | September 29, 2005 10:20 PM

My husband and I were in Birobidjan 1996-98 with the U.S. Peace Corps. Even then, there were signs the Jewish culture there was alive (if unwell), and healing. Travel writers passing through would have people believe it had disappeared with hardly a trace. Never quite true. --
Sharon Dirlam, author of "Beyond Siberia: Two Years in a Forgotten Place"

Posted by: Sharon Dirlam | October 10, 2005 12:32 PM

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