The Rabbi Writes: I Want You to Come to Russia With Me

The Jewish Humanist, January 1994, Vol. XXX, Number 6

I want you to come to Russia with me. 

Russia is one of the most interesting and exciting countries in the word, especially now that so many changes are taking place.  Once the center of the Communist and Soviet empire, Russia is a troubled free nation struggling to determine its path to survival and success.  Heir to the power of the Tsars and the Bolsheviks, its chief cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are places of cultural and architectural power. 

The rule of Communism and the victory of Yeltsin have set Russia on a course of dramatic change.  Private industry, private business and private property have now entered into the fabric of Russian life.  Free speech, free religion and free assembly have become the Russian norm.  While most Russians are still poor, some have mastered the new system to become successful.  Communist and fascist  thinking are still strong.  But they are unable to find a working majority, even when they have combined forces. 

St. Petersburg, which has repudiated the name of Leningrad, remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  Built by Peter the Great two years after the founding of Detroit, it became the capital of the Russian Empire.  For two centuries the Tsars and the Russian aristocracy lavished their wealth on this northern metropolis by the Baltic Sea.  The result is an inner city of startling palaces, churches and museums which even Bolshevik hostility could not diminish.  The promenade along the Neva is still one of the most extraordinary urban vistas in the world. 

Moscow has been a city of trade and military power for over seven centuries.  Its Kremlin fortress provides a formidable and manificent center to a metropolis which has created successive circular roads around it.  Many Communist monuments still remain, including the tomb of Lenin.  And Stalinist skyscrapers and Brezhev apartments still dominate the landscape.  But the charm of old neighborhoods is being restored, especially the westside Greenwich Village called the Arbat.  Today Moscow is the center of the economic transformation.  Every luxury, Russian or other,   if you have the money.  And the streets are alive with aggressive private enterprise.  The mother city of Russia has gone back to its commercial roots. 

Around Moscow are the wonders of the early Russian state.  Suzdal and Yaroslavl were early rivals to Moscow’s ambitions.  Later they were absorbed into Muscovite ambition.  Magnificently restored, these cities, with their walls, churches and fortresses, represent the patriotic nostalgia which is now spreading all over Russia. 

Russia is also a Jewish country.  From the conquest of the Polish state to the Bolshevik Revolution, the Tsarist Empire encompassed the largest Jewish community of the world.  Many of the members of our congregation are the children and grandchildren of Russian grandparents.  Today Russian Jewry is a traumatized remnant of what was before.  It has been decimated by the Holocaust, by Communist oppression and by emigration.  Some one million Jews survive in Russia, together with another million in the other countries of the former Soviet Union-like the Ukraine and Belarus. 

In the last three years Humanistic Judaism has come to Russia.  An Association of Humanistic Jews has been created, with Simyon Avgustevitch the Education Officer of the Russian Jewish Council, as its president.  Members come from some thirty-five Jewish communities in Russia and from other countries in the former Soviet Union.  Many of them are very young.  While these young people are secular, they are searching to discover what it means to be Jewish.  Deprived of any real connection to their Jewish past by decades of Communist repression, they are enthusiastic to learn all they can about Jewish history and culture.  Only a well-informed disciplined group of Humanistic Jews will be able to offer resistance to the army of Orthodox missionaries who have now descended on the land. 

The emergence of this new association, together with the importance of Russian Jewish liberation, has encouraged The International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews to hold its Fifth Biennial Conference in Moscow in September of this year. 

The theme of the Conference will be, ”What Does It Mean To Be Jewish” (sic) the very question that most Russian Jews are asking today.  The Conference will begin on Friday evening, September 23 and will conclude on Sunday afternoon, September 25.  The meeting will be an extraordinary opportunity to hear prominent Jewish speakers from four continents and an opportunity to enter into dialogue and friendship with fellow Humanistic Jews from all over the former Soviet Union. 

The International Federation trip is the special way you can get to Russia and the Conference, together with dozens of other Humanistic Jews from North America, Europe and Israel.  At the heart of the trip will be the Conference.  But it will also include nine exciting days touring St. Petersburg and Moscow, visiting historic places, attending artistic events, and tasting the emerging reality of a free Jewish Russia.  The basic trip will last for twelve days, beginning right after Yom Kippur on Sunday, September 17 and returning on Tuesday, September 27.  If you want to linger for a while in Russia or Europe before returning, many options exist.  The officially designated manager of our travel is Connie Wolberg.  She can help you create whatever “package” you want. 

I am anxious to share this experience with you.  This trip to Russia is not only an adventure in travel.  It is especially an expression of our commitment to the future of the Jewish people in Russia and to the outreach of our very own Humanistic Judaism.