One Russian town epitomizes Jewish reconnection

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TULA, Russia — For decades, Faina and Anatoly Sanevich kept their Judaism private.

Natives of Ukraine, where they both survived Nazi ghettos as small children, the couple spoke Yiddish to each other at home. But unwilling to complicate their children's lives, they spoke Russian with their two sons.

Every Passover they would have matzah on their table — they didn't hold a full seder — but kept this fact a secret from their neighbors and colleagues.

Their need to live double lives changed in the waning years of the Soviet Union.

The Jewish community was among the first to benefit from the opportunities provided by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or openness, initiated in the late 1980s. The most obvious benefit was the lifting of emigration restrictions, which resulted in a massive wave of aliyah to Israel.

Those who remained behind were no less affected by the changes.

Thousands of Soviet Jews took a keen interest in what only a few underground activists, risking jail, would have dared to explore under Gorbachev's predecessors.

"All of a sudden, Jews stopped being one of the best-kept state secrets," Anatoly Sanevich recalled. "We just realized that we could speak freely about what we had been forced to be silent: our Judaism."

Cities across Russia have seen Jewish cultural societies and organizations take the place of the small circles of refuseniks and Zionist activists that operated during Soviet days.

Jewish institutional life in Russia has mushroomed since 1989 — and while there are fewer Jewish organizations today than in the early 1990s, those that operate now are much more professional than they used to be.

Most of Russia's Jewish revival has occurred in Moscow and a handful of other large cities, including St. Petersburg.

But the Sanevich family is helping to spearhead the Jewish revival in Tula, an industrial city that like the rest of the country is reeling from the economic crisis that began last August.

The city of 600,000 has a 3,000-strong Jewish community, most of whom work as engineers, doctors and teachers.

Each year about 100 to 120 Jews emigrate to Israel and a few dozen more leave for Germany and the United States. But Jewish leaders here say they do not feel the community is dwindling.

This is probably the most striking feature of Russia's Jewish revival: Despite continuing aliyah and emigration, Jewish life touches more people each year. There is a widespread belief — which can't be measured statistically due to the lack of reliable sources — that the number of Jews in cities like Tula remains the same, even though a significant number of people leave each year.

"Our Jewish population increases not through births, but through new people who have not been previously known as Jews," said Faina Sanevich, the full-time director of Hasdei Neshama, a welfare center that serves Jewish elderly and poor.

Inna Bronshtein, for example, discovered her Jewish identity 10 years ago.

"I saw a Jewish wedding when my family was visiting our relatives in Ukraine. Then someone gave me a video of Israel," said the 24-year-old primary school teacher.

"There are few of us here, but we want to create an environment in which we and our kids will feel comfortable," said Bronshtein, who is also a leader of the local synagogue's youth group.

Tula, a three-hour drive south of Moscow, has been a center of Russia's munitions industry for centuries.

Jewish life in this town, known as the home of tea-boiling urns called samovars, started 150 years ago, when the right to settle was restricted to Jews drafted into the military. In addition, a limited number of skilled Jewish craftsmen, workers, wealthy merchants and doctors were allowed to settle.

During the first decades of Bolshevik rule after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the city's three synagogues were closed down. Many members of today's Jewish community migrated here from Ukraine and Belarus after World War II.

Tula does not boast any high-profile Jewish projects that would make even local headlines, and no synagogues have been rebuilt.

The city's leading Jewish organization is the Hesed center led by Faina Sanevich. Part of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-established network of social and welfare organizations in the former Soviet Union, it provides basic services, such as food and health care, to dozens of elderly impoverished by the chaos of post-Communist Russia.

In addition to the welfare center, Tula has another Jewish address: a home for Jewish culture, where about 25 children were enrolled this year at the Hebrew school.

A striking feature of the ongoing Russian Jewish revival is that it is increasingly dominated by Jews in their 20s and early 30s.

Yevgeny Katz, a 37-year-old engineer whose interest in Judaism has developed only during the past few years, is one of the handful of Tula Jews — and the only one under 75 — who can read from the Torah scroll.

Much of the Jewish activities in Tula are based at Hasdei Neshama, which rents a space from a public kindergarten. The center's clients take special pride in a local youth klezmer band that plays every Friday night for the Jewish elderly.

At the welfare center club, unlike most of their older listeners whose eyes tear up as they hear the group's Yiddish repertoire, the young members of the klezmer band had no previous attachment to Judaism. Like other young Russian Jews, they are just beginning to experience their heritage and feel pride in their Jewish identity.

During Soviet days, when local Jews could only pray in private homes, the community preserved three of its ancient Torah scrolls and much of its synagogue archives.

Tula's rabbi, a young graduate of Moscow's yeshiva, comes to the city every weekend and holds services in various locations. What the community calls its synagogue is a tiny rented space in an old one-story wooden house owned by the city.

Faina Sanevich said her major concern has been getting more space from the municipality to house the welfare center, the synagogue and the old-age home.

Like other Russian Jewish communities, Tula must rely on aid from abroad to fund its basic needs. In addition to the JDC, a few other groups have funded some of the community projects. For example, the New York-based Jewish Community Development Fund in Russia and Ukraine supports several groups in Tula, including the klezmer band, which is known as one of the best in Russia.

Occasional help comes from Tula's sister congregation, B'nai Torah in Highland Park, Ill., with which Tula is linked through a Union of Councils for Soviet Jews program connecting synagogues in the United States with communities in the former Soviet Union.

But most of the Jewish programs here would not be possible without the help of local donors.

"When we opened up our welfare center, we were looking for the poor to help them," Sanevich said. "When we realized how much it would cost, we began looking around for the wealthy."

Some of the Jewish businessmen take an active part in Jewish communal life, but there are others who do not want their names to be publicly associated with the Jewish community.

While the future of Jewish life in mid-sized Russian cities such as Tula is unclear, there are signs that it will continue: Large numbers of Tula Jews, including many of the 80 percent who are intermarried, are still taking steps to reclaim their Jewish identity.

"People need this. Otherwise why would over 20 kids sign up for the Jewish kindergarten?" Bronshtein asked.