What Does It Mean to be Jewish, Winter 1995
Moscow was our destination. The Fifth Biennial Conference of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews was to be held there on the weekend of September 23-25.
Eighty of us departed North America for this Russian rendezvous. Some of us were apprehensive. We had been bombarded with media propaganda on the dangers of organized crime, mugging, and murder. Twenty people already had succumbed to this warning and had withdrawn from the group. They were convinced that we were flying into a Mafia trap and would be destroyed. Not even the onion domes of St. Basil’s could convince them to relent.
But, for most of us, excitement overcame fear. It was not only that we would experience the wonders of the Hermitage and the Bolshoi, that we would walk the banks of the Neva and promenade under the towers of the Kremlin. It was also that Humanistic Judaism had arrived in Russia. A new Eurasian Association for Humanistic Judaism had been formed some two years before, and we were coming to express our support for this fledgling organization and for the future of a Jewish community in all the republics of the former Soviet Union.
The holding of a conference in Moscow was a gamble. Russia was in economic turmoil. The amenities in public institutions did not meet Western standards. The new leadership of our communities had not yet been tested.
But the experience we had turned out to be far more wonderful than anything we could have anticipated. It was not only that Moscow and St. Petersburg are filled with cultural marvels, or that the new capitalist energies of these two cities provided a dynamic setting of change and hope, or that all our fears of Mafia rape proved to be groundless. It was also that the experience of meeting Russian Jews who shared our aspirations and convictions and who were eager to bond with their brothers and sisters from Europe, Israel, and North America was deeply moving.
The conference was held in the original building of the University of Moscow, right across from Red Square and the imposing towers of the Kremlin. The building had been quite magnificent in tsarist times. But it was now a shabby relic of its former glory, a victim of Communist mismanagement and neglect.
Holding the meeting there was important. It was the most prestigious educational institution in Russia. It also had been one of the chief bastions of anti-Semitism in tsarist and Bolshevik days. Ironically, it now housed the new Jewish University. Our board meetings were held in the new Jewish library.
Two hundred fifty delegates attended the meeting. Besides the 80 of us from North America, there were 30 from France and England, 10 from Israel, 2 from Latin America, and more than 125 from seven republics of the former Soviet Union. The Eurasian delegates, in many cases, traveled several days and nights by train to reach Moscow. They came, not only from Russia, but also from Belarus, Ukraine, Khazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia. The Eurasian Association is a coalition of thirty-five small communities scattered over eight million square miles, some of them closer to China and India than Moscow.
The theme of the conference was “What Does It Mean To Be Jewish?” The question was directly related to the needs of Russian Jews. It also flowed directly from the decision made at our Brussels conference in 1988, when we had dealt with the question “Who Is A Jew?” Having declared that Jewish identity is not only an inheritance but also a choice, we were now confronted by the more important issue of Jewish living. If one is a Jew, how does one lead a Jewish life? If one is a Humanistic Jew, how does one lead a Humanistic Jewish life? Determining Jewish identity is only the prelude to arranging for Jewish commitment. For Russian Jews who are searching for ways to express their Jewish identity for the first time, this question is crucial, especially since they are being assaulted by aggressive Lubavitcher missionaries who claim that their way is the only true way to be Jewish.
Addressing this question was a panel of distinguished speakers. There was Yehuda Bauer, world-famous Holocaust scholar and cochair of the International Federation. There was Yaakov Malkin, founder of the community center movement in Israel and dean of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Israel. There was Albert Memmi, an intellectual darling of the French literary world, a professor at the Sorbonne, and the leader of our French communities. There was Egon Friedler, well-known journalist and writer from Latin America and leader of our Uruguayan organization. There were many Russian speakers, including Semyon Avgustevich, the organizing genius of the Eurasian Association.
There were two stellar moments at the conference. The first was the Saturday evening banquet. The Eurasian delegates sat at twenty-six tables, each of which bore the name of a city where one of our Humanistic Jewish communities existed. Delegates from outside Russia could choose the community they wanted to connect with by simply sitting down at the appropriate table. The experiment worked wonderfully. The bonding was intense. Out of that communication came sister communities. We of the Birmingham Temple in Detroit have adopted Vitebsk in Belarus as our sister congregation. We will offer support, establish an ongoing dialogue, and learn from each other. By the end of the evening there was fervent conversation and spontaneous singing. The presence of distinguished guests from the Russian Jewish leadership and the Russian parliament seemed less important.
The second moment was at the end of the conference on Sunday morning. The declaration on how to lead a Jewish life had just been read. Delegates were standing up to articulate their response to the weekend. One of them, a representative from Kazan, whom we called Olga from the Volga but whose real name was Olga Apollonova, stood up and declared with great fervor, “We thank you for coming to Russia. We have been waiting for the message of Humanistic Judaism. You do not have to break down the door. The door is open.”
What did we learn from our experience?
We learned that Russia, with all its economic and political problems, is bumbling down the capitalist road. No one has a better alternative. Even the opposition does not want to go back to the old communism. They want the freedom of capitalism with a welfare system.
We learned that the new free environment allows fascists and anti-Semites to sell their wares and to peddle their hate. Right outside the former Lenin Museum in Moscow, the anti- Semitic bible, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was being openly sold.
We learned that the Jewish community in Russia is struggling with the issue of whether there is any future for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. The Israelis predict catastrophe and want them to come to Israel. But many want to remain. Despite anti-Semitism, Russia is their home and Russian culture is their culture.
We learned that there is a real opening for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Russia. The aggressive message of Orthodoxy has limited appeal to a community molded by secularism and intermarriage. Our success will be determined by our ability to train educators and leaders for new communities as well as by our power to produce a Humanistic Jewish literature in Russian. The task is formidable. But we cannot betray this historic opportunity.