COVER STORY: Religious wasteland — Siberias Jews are fading away

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krasnoyarsk, russia | There is an icy chill inside the dingy Siberian synagogue where 84-year-old Aron Broder sits telling his story.

A veteran of the Soviet war against the Nazis and both Nazi and Soviet labor prison camps, Broder is trying to put together the pieces of a life that took him from Yiddish-speaking Ukraine to the barren Siberian landscape and away from home, family and faith.

Nowadays, the elderly Jew with a wizened face comes to this modest synagogue in Krasnoyarsk to try to recover some of the religion he remembers from his youth.

Much of what he once had has been taken from him: The Nazis took his freedom, the Soviets stifled his religion and, more recently, a murderer robbed him of his 40-year-old daughter. But Broder still harbors hope for the future.

That is the indomitable nature of Siberian Jewry.

“Stamina is what separates Siberian Jews,” Broder says. “We can adapt to any form of life. We’re not afraid of difficulty. Look at me, what I managed to survive. I didn’t lose my spirits. I still have high hopes.”

Stories like Broder’s of suffering and survival are easy to find among the 70,000 Jews dispersed through this massive region, which spans seven times zones.

But stamina may not be enough to overcome the latest threat to the survival of Siberia’s Jews: an intermarriage rate between 80 percent and 90 percent, the highest assimilation rate among Jews in the former Soviet Union.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion was slow in coming to the Jews of this region. While Russian cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg saw a revival of Jewish life in the early 1990s, there was little change in Siberia until later in the decade.

Thousands of Siberian Jews only now are discovering their Jewish roots, 12 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

At first glance, Judaism across the Trans-Siberian Railroad appears to be undergoing a rebirth. Dozens of Israeli and Russian-born rabbis have moved here to spearhead a religious revival. They have developed close ties with governors and mayors, a necessary form of networking in this post-communist era that has helped the Jewish community regain control of synagogues that had been nationalized by the Soviets.

Jewish life is big business even in remote Siberia. Multimillion-dollar Jewish community centers and synagogues are multiplying in semi-cosmopolitan cities like Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk. In some cities, Jewish kindergartens, day schools and youth clubs have as many as 300 children enrolled. Soup kitchens and medical aid warm the hearts of poverty-stricken pensioners.

Jews no longer conceal their ethnic identity. In today’s Siberia, being Jewish even carries some prestige.

But a religious revival has been slower in coming. While Siberia’s Jews clearly are interested in the social benefits of being Jewish, far fewer are interested in their religious culture and tradition.

Prayer services are sparsely attended, drawing mostly elderly Jews looking to connect with the traditions of their youth. Middle-aged and younger Jews in Siberia are mostly secular, raised in the staunchly secular Soviet republic by parents far removed from Judaism.

“The real victims of atheist, communist Russia are today’s middle-aged Jews from 40 to 60,” says Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the former Soviet Union. “It’s a lost cause and we need to learn from that. They intermarried and we can’t make that same mistake.”

Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, the fiery chairman of Russia’s Reform movement, the Union of Religious Organizations of Modern Judaism in Russia, says Russia’s Jewish communities face extinction if the younger generation does not become interested in Judaism.

“The youth are our problem,” Kogan said. “If we don’t solve this in 10 years, Russian Jewish communities will be finished.”

Kogan, who also is chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia, says he has given up hope of drawing the generation of middle-aged Russian Jews back into the fold.

In Siberia, Jewish life is restricted largely to the public sphere. Holidays are festively celebrated in concert halls and circuses, but Judaism has yet to permeate many Siberian homes.

Jewish officials in Siberia predict that Jewish life here will remain forever a crippled beauty, due to aliyah and assimilation.

During Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost in the 1980s, many Jews here started their own grassroots Jewish cultural groups, such as klezmer bands. But when the floodgates of emigration opened, many of these enthusiastic Jewish promoters left for Israel, part of the mass exodus of 1 million Russian Jews who made aliyah.

A second wave of emigrants followed soon afterward, leaving in Russia a generation of deeply assimilated secular Jews, most of whom had never walked into a synagogue before 1990. Those who stepped up to positions of communal leadership were only loosely familiar with Jewish tradition, and they knew Yiddish only as a language that their parents used to speak privately.

Meanwhile, the grassroots infrastructure the first generation of Jewish community leaders created was swept up by ambitious international organizations — among them the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel — which spent millions of dollars professionalizing Jewish life in the form of synagogue restoration, education, and humanitarian and social support.

In Siberia, local Jews live in such deep poverty that they say they can’t imagine playing a contributory role, even a small or symbolic one. For most Jews here, religion merely means support from abroad.

Despite the difficulties in Siberia, some Siberian Jews like Broder are trying to make up for lost time by taking advantage of the new Jewish opportunities in the region.

I want to “make up for everything that I missed,” Broder says.

Though born to Yiddish-speaking parents, Broder long ago grew accustomed to hiding his Judaism, starting in 1940 when, as a Soviet soldier, he was captured by Nazi fighters and sent to a labor camp in Gdansk, Poland. He shielded his Jewish identity by coining an Armenian last name to match his dark complexion.

Later, he passed a circumcision inspection when a humane Nazi doctor concealed the truth. His reward was five years of loading coal onto Baltic Sea fleets.

When the Soviets liberated Gdansk in 1945, Broder underwent a three-month interrogation by Soviet secret service agents who hastily concluded that a Jew could survive a Nazi camp only by collaborating with the enemy. His punishment: Siberian exile and five more years of forced labor, imposed this time by his home country.

Freedom arrived after Stalin’s death in 1953, but it took 40 more years for the Soviet system to collapse and Broder to return to the synagogue.

Despite the thousands of miles and many decades that separate Broder from his Jewish roots, he has now come back.

“What can I say?” he says simply. “We were brought up with this spirit.”

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