Remote Russian community is losing last of its Jews

MOSCOW — The town of Birobidzhan, the center of an area of the same name, may soon have no Jews.

The percentage of Jews emigrating from the town of Birobidzhan, located in the area also known as the Jewish Autonomous Region, is one of the highest in Russia.

The area in the Russian Far East, which was a destination for Jewish immigration since 1928 and officially designated the Jewish Autonomous Region by Stalin in 1934, was long touted by Soviet authorities as an example of flourishing Jewish life in the Soviet Union.

In 1989, the town of Birobidzhan had a Jewish population of about 9,000. By 1996, 7,500 Jews had left Birobidzhan, most going to Israel.

But David Vaiserman, spokesman for the local administration, said at least 15,000 of Birobidzhan's population of 75,000 might be able to "claim that they have Jewish ancestry."

Most of the families in which both parents are Jewish left Birobidzhan in the first wave of emigration during the late 1980s. In the next wave, from 1990 to 1993, many families with one Jewish parent emigrated.

Now, some of those leaving the area for Israel are people with Jewish grandparents.

"A wish to emigrate is the only thing that binds them to Jewry," Vaiserman said.