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.
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 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 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.
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.
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