Senates only Orthodox Jew inspires Russian Jewry

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) brought a message of self-esteem and hope when he visited the Russian Jewish community here recently.

"I am very impressed to see this synagogue and see that it has not only a past, but a present and a future," he said, addressing members of the Jewish community in the city's Great Choral Synagogue.

"This is your opportunity to keep alive the spirit of the light of Judaism in St. Petersburg."

Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1988, spoke about the role his Jewish identity played in his career.

Rather than holding him back, he said, his commitment to traditions helped him earn respect among his non-Jewish colleagues.

Lieberman visited what is known as Russia's second city as part of a delegation from the Washington-based Aspen Institute for a seminar on Russian-American-Ukrainian relations.

He visited the synagogue at the request of Rabbi Mendel Pewzner, a Lubavitch representative who serves as chief rabbi for the city's 110,000-strong Jewish community.

Touring the grandiose, Moorish-style synagogue built in 1893, the senator, accompanied by his wife, Hadassah, seemed to marvel at the synagogue's magnificence.

During the decades of Communist rule, the synagogue fell into disrepair, but it continued to attract crowds, particularly on Simchat Torah.

Lieberman's message struck a chord among many of the roughly 40 members of the local Jewish community who gathered to meet the senator.

"He said just what needed to be said. Others won't respect us until we start to respect ourselves," said Mark Grubarg, president of the St. Petersburg Jewish Community.

"Here, it's sometimes difficult to convince people to consider themselves Jewish and be part of the community," Grubarg added.

In Russia, where Judaism is considered first and foremost a nationality, being identified as Jewish has traditionally led to discrimination in education and the workplace.

Although restrictions on religious observance were officially lifted after the fall of communism, only now are Russian Jews beginning to discover that being Jewish means more than an entry in one's passport.

Lieberman's audience raised questions regarding American support for Russian Jewry, now that the sense of crisis has eased.

"There's a sense that some of those problems have diminished" since the end of the Soviet era, Lieberman said.

But, he added, "the international Jewish community is obligated to make these Jews feel a part of the world community."

Mikhail Brodsky, a professor at the St. Petersburg University of Economics and Finance, said he was impressed with the senator's visit and voiced the belief that the international community would not forget Russia's Jews.

"Those people who want to help, find ways," he said.