Jewish rejuvenation in ex-USSR, Poland, offers lessons for Bay Area

A visit to Jewish communities abroad stimulates new perspectives — not simply about the needs of Jews worldwide but the priorities within our own Bay Area community.

In May and June, I visited major Jewish communities in Russia, Ukraine and Poland, along with my wife, Sandra P. Epstein, the former administrator and chief operating officer of the Jewish Home in San Francisco. The story in all three countries is one of efforts to regenerate Jewish communities decimated by Hitler and Stalin, and repressed by the Communist authorities until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989 and thereafter.

Through the assistance of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, we visited Jewish institutions, individuals and sites in Moscow, Kiev and Cherkassy in Ukraine, and Krakow and Warsaw in Poland. Although specifics vary, Jewish institutions in each community are providing an impressive array of desperately needed services.

These services, many provided through the JDC’s aptly named Chesed program, constitute lifelines and safety nets to Jews from the very young to the very old. Operating with bare-bones budgets and often inadequate facilities, Jewish social service/community centers pulsate with activity generated by staffs who project a can-do spirit and a commitment to serve the needs of local Jews.

In addition to providing social and medical services, employment counseling and other critical aid, these centers sponsor cultural opportunities. Among them are a Jewish community youth chorus in Moscow, chess competitions, musical programs, poetry readings, creative arts and talks. In short, these institutions nourish the Jewish body and soul.

In some instances, Jewish communal services literally make the difference between life and death. In Cherkassy, we visited an elderly stroke victim and his wife who lived in a small but immaculate apartment in an otherwise grim Soviet-era five-floor walkup building. But for the intervention of a Jewish physician, who was serendipitously on the scene when this man sought entry to the local hospital, the stroke victim would have been denied admission. Instead he was admitted, treated and returned home. Since then, he has been sustained by Chesed, which provided otherwise-unaffordable medical, household and nursing assistance.

Similiarly, day schools are functioning in Moscow and Kiev. In addition, cemeteries and synagogues are being restored in various communities and a new museum/synagogue has been built in a Moscow, in large part intended to explain and showcase Jewish history and life to non-Jews.

Finally, in Kiev the International Solomon University is nurturing Jewish community life as well as scholarship. Founded in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has become one of the largest non-governmental universities in Ukraine with approximately 1,100 students and a permanent teaching staff of 300. Nonsectarian in its admissions, the university enables students to pursue degrees in traditional academic areas as well as Judaica.

Our Jewish journey put into perspective for us several important aspects of Jewish community life:

• We Jews are remarkably resilient. Notwithstanding small numbers, limited resources and negative historical experiences, we strive to rejuvenate Jewish life wherever possible. Such efforts are particularly striking in Poland.

• The actualization of Klal Yisrael (“all Jews are one”) — the responsibility of Jews and Jewish communities for each other — is crucial to this revitalization process. The resources and psychological support provided by the Joint, Chabad, the Jewish Agency, federations, foundations and individual donors are essential.

• These communities in Europe are fragile. They exist in politically and economically volatile environments. Although community representatives report that government-sanctioned anti-Semitism has ceased and that palpable incidents are no longer everyday occurrences, anti-Semitism in each of these countries has been an historical fact of life for centuries. It remains latent, and it could resurface dramatically should there be economic downturn, political strife or a return to ultra-nationalistic regimes. Continuing support from more securely established Jewish communities, especially the United States, is critical to the well-being of these communities.

• In the places we visited, elegant multimillion-dollar community centers, senior facilities and museums are not even contemplated. The provision of the most basic human needs is the name of the game. We should recall that the origins of Jewish communal institutions in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the United States involved such basics — hospitals, schools and facilities for orphans and the old, as well as social services.

• We American Jews would do well to examine our funding priorities to ensure that before putting resources into costly capital projects that are not truly critical to maintain the essence of Jewish life, that we meet the basic needs for all Jews within our community — here and abroad.

In the former Soviet Union and Europe, there is a critical need to develop both professional and lay Jewish communal leadership. Meanwhile, private Jewish philanthropy in the countries we visited is meager and episodic.

But we are hopeful. During our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sandra and I witnessed a sight that for us symbolized the resilience of the Jewish people and provided a beacon of hope for our future in Poland and the former Soviet Union.

Amid the rain and gloom in the awful expanse of the Birkenau death camp, a group of Israelis wearing kippot and holding two Israeli flags walked proudly and resolutely down the railroad tracks that 60 years earlier led only to death. Their presence produced shock waves through all who viewed the scene and sent the unequivocal message that despite all efforts to destroy us, we Jews survive and are determined to regenerate ourselves even in areas of past adversity. It was a dramatic reaffirmation of am Yisrael chai — the children of Israel live!

Edwin M. Epstein can be reached at [email protected].