Officials of Russian Jewish region say they want to help Jewish life thrive

MOSCOW — A top official of Birobidzhan, the Russian area also known as the Jewish Autonomous Region, says his administration wants to create a favorable climate for the local Jewish community.

"I want our Jewish community to have a permanent rabbi and a synagogue," Nikolai Volkov, the governor of Birobidzhan, said in an interview.

Volkov said he was seeking the support of Russian Jewish businessmen who could sponsor the construction of a new Jewish community center in Birobidzhan that would include the region's first-ever synagogue.

The percentage of Jews emigrating from the region, whose center is the town of Birobidzhan, is one of the highest in Russia.

The area in the Russian Far East, which became a destination for Jewish immigration in 1928, was officially designated the Jewish Autonomous Region by Stalin in 1934.

It was long touted by Soviet authorities as a place where Jewish life could flourish in the Soviet Union.

But since 1989, some 7,500 Jews have left Birobidzhan, with most of them heading for Israel.

The region's Jewish population is now estimated at 5,000, out of a total population of 200,000.

Volkov said such statistics should be viewed very carefully. He said that in the nearly 70 years since Jews first settled there, "it's very hard to define who is Jewish" because of the high percentage of intermarriages.

Despite the continued emigration, Volkov voiced the belief that a sizable Jewish community would continue in the region.

He also said his administration was committed to creating conditions for a Jewish cultural and religious revival in the area. The town of Birobidzhan has two government-supported Jewish day schools.

Volkov added that the future of Birobidzhan's Jewish community would depend upon the region's overall economic situation, which he described as gradually improving.