September 10, 2009

A Family Reconnected to Their Jewish Roots

The latest briefing from Asher Ostrin, Executive Director of Former Soviet Union Programs

The Komi Republic is a quasi independent region in the outer reaches of the Russian Federation. Its weather is extremely harsh. It's rich with natural resources, but the population is sparse because of the severe living conditions. During Soviet times people were offered considerable incentives to settle in the area in order to provide the infrastructure needed to mine the resources. Salaries were up to 40% higher than elsewhere. Shops were kept fully supplied with commodities unavailable elsewhere, and in general the standard of living was quite high. Nonetheless, there were not many takers, because of the difficulties of living there. The standard joke about the weather was that the region had two seasons: winter and July 15. It wasn't just cold, travel was virtually impossible for extended periods. The region hosted a series of camps known collectively as the Gulag, as the distance and difficulties of terrain and weather made for perfect conditions in which to hold prisoners with little risk of escape. In addition, the prisoners could be forced to do some of the "heavy lifting" that was needed to maintain the economies of the Republic.

In December of 1967 the USSR signed an agreement with the People's Republic of Bulgaria to supply timber from the Komi region for the Bulgarian construction industry. Carrying out the agreement was no easy task, as communities had to be constructed on the tundra for the Bulgarian workers. By the mid 70's three settlements were ready to receive Bulgarian workers. One of the settlements was Usogorsk. It was in the middle of one of the forests in which the men would work. It was 140 kilometers away from the nearest civilian settlement in the region. Three Gulag prisons were within a 20 kilometer radius.

For vacations the Bulgarian workers often went to regions in the USSR with warmer climates. Uzbekistan was a popular destination. It was exotic, while at the same time politically acceptable, and not many places fell into that category for eastern bloc vacationers. Samarkand, the second largest city in the country, was a particular draw. It lay on the Silk Route, and had a marked middle Asian culture. Arriving there you were transported to a different world while still in the confines of the permitted. It had a strong Moslem heritage, and architecture to match. In addition, the weather is very mild. Organized tours of the Bulgarian workers in Komi visited regularly.

On one of these tours in the early 80's, one of the construction workers met a girl from the Jewish community in Samarkand and fell in love.

This is a strong, and quite insular Jewish community. Unlike Jewish communities elsewhere in the USSR that were ravaged by assimilation, this community maintained its traditions. Synagogues were full and marriage within the group was the norm. There were Jewish neighborhoods in Samarkand, and semi clandestine, but officially tolerated, education frameworks for Jewish education. Bukharian Jewry even had its own local dialect, an analogue to other Jewish languages like Yiddish or Ladino.

The relationship was frowned upon by the family of Gulya, the young woman who was very taken by the Bulgarian lumberjack. Gradually, their love grew and on a subsequent visit they were married.

Gulya was rejected by her family, and she joined her husband back in Usogorsk. She lost contact with her family and community, and gradually stopped any vestige of Jewish observance. She met no Jews in her new community, and she became indistinguishable from her neighbors in practice and life style. Gulya gave birth to two daughters. The second, Elina, was born in 1990. Shortly thereafter, her parents' marriage disintegrated and they split.

The girls were raised in a "typical" Soviet family. They had no exposure to other Jews, as Gulya was not even in contact with her family. Their passports identified them as "Russians". To this day they will say that may even have been told at some point that they were Jews, but the comment would not have registered because it had no context. In Usogorsk, the sobriquet had no meaning.

In 2001 Sasha, the elder sister, moved to Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi republic, to begin her university studies. The city has a Jewish population of 1,500. In one of her classes she sat next to a young man with whom she struck up a conversation. He was a volunteer in the local Hesed center, and from time to time would tell her about how he spent his free time there helping the elderly needy. He readily identified himself as a Jew, but this meant little to Sasha.

On a visit home she mentioned in passing to her mother about the young man she had met and his Hesed activities. The mother responded in a casual way that she too was Jewish. No great, emotional confession; it was all very matter of fact.

On her return to Syktyvkar the local fellow invited Sasha to visit the Hesed center. It was the night of the Passover Seder. Sasha was intrigued and began regularly participating in Jewish events in the town.

When Elina started school in Syktyvkar her sister brought her to the Hesed. Her first visit was a Hanukkah party. While the party was fun, she was particularly intrigued by the holiday's story and the personal resonance for her. She began to volunteer with the elderly, and soon started a program for young children.

This year, JDC sponsored a young leadership program in St Petersburg, called Lehava. These programs, throughout the FSU, have become a cornerstone of our Jewish Renewal program. Students study about Jewish life and community, usually over a two year period. The goal is to connect them to community life, generally through personal projects.

Those responsible for the St Petersburg program, including graduates, took a decision a while ago to open registration to young Jews in the catchment area of the St Petersburg JDC. The Komi community nominated Elina, and she passed what has become a rigorous acceptance process due to the popularity of the program. Elina has developed two programs for the Syktyvkar Jewish community- one for outreach, and the other a Jewish heritage program to explore the personal histories of members of the community, few of whom were raised in the region. Both programs now serve as models for small Jewish communities around the FSU.

When I heard Elina's story I so regretted that Elina's extended family from Samarkand could not see her now. This woman is in many ways the story of Soviet and post Soviet Jewry. Because of her life choices, her mother was written off- no one would have believed that anywhere among her descendants Jewish life would thrive. They saw Gulya's choice of spouse as dooming her and her offspring to assimilation. But even those who took issue with that conclusion would have had to concede that a decision to live in Usogorsk meant the end of the line for Jewish identity in that family. Studying in Syktyvkar hardly raised the odds that a Jewish consciousness would reappear.

And yet, a chance meeting, the existence of a Jewish welfare center primarily serving the elderly, and some other unpredictable situations, together with the care and concern of a very distant Jewry for the fate of every individual Jew- all conspired to reclaim these two young Jewish for the Jewish People. There's a further message in this for JDC planning purposes. The bifurcation between Renewal and Welfare is artificial and misleading. They are symbiotic. In this instance, the Hesed, which we categorize as a welfare program, has reclaimed two young Jews otherwise lost to the Jewish People.

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