October 14, 2009

Reflections on Moscow 20 Years Later...

The latest briefing from Steve Schwager, CEO

I flew to Moscow last week. And as is so often the case these days, today’s column was written on the long flight home. I don’t really mind flights; no meetings, no telephones, and no schedules, but lots of time to mull things over and gather together my thoughts and impressions.

This quick trip was an opportunity to reflect on all that has happened economically—and more importantly, Jewishly—over the last twenty years in Moscow. Americans tend to have very short memories, but those of us involved with FSU Jewry recognize that we have been partners in a modern miracle.

On my first trip to Moscow many years ago, I stayed in a Russian-style hotel, the COSMOS, which had been built for the Soviet equivalent of the World’s Fair. Checking into the hotel was an experience. I approached the counter, announced that I had a reservation, and produced a written confirmation. The clerk behind the counter dismissed the paper I had presented and took out a huge handwritten ledger, searching page by page for my name. After 15 minutes, he finally conceded that I actually did have a reservation and gave me the card to enter my room. I went up to my room and unpacked. The bed felt like it had come from a summer camp; the towels were of various patterns; and, of course, there was no hot water.


After unpacking and showering with very cold water, I went to meet the JDC staffer assigned to work with me. We needed a cab and our staffer simply stood in the street and held up a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. Immediately a cab stopped and, after some words, the car and its driver were ours for the day. No money changed hands—only the pack of American cigarettes.

Our first stop was to the Choral Synagogue. It was the only synagogue that existed in Moscow during the entire communist period. The building was old, run down, with beggars outside. Inside there was barely a minyan—and those present were all in their sixties and seventies. This was certainly not a center of Jewish life. The rest of my first trip was spent meeting people in homes and restaurants who were interested in revitalizing Jewish life, but they had no concept of how to organize it or create a meaningful Jewish community.

The city of Moscow was depressing. Generally there were no street lights. The huge buildings were often dark and unwelcoming. There were no billboards or signs on the streets and very few cars or trucks.

I clearly remember wondering if JDC was really capable of being a catalyst for rebuilding Jewish life in this strange and forbidding part of the world.

Fast forward twenty years: Moscow today is truly a cosmopolitan city, ablaze in lights. New buildings are everywhere and the traffic is impossible—worse than New York when the United Nations is in session.

Jewish life is flourishing. The Choral Synagogue has been renovated and restored to its former glory. Chabad has opened several synagogues and a huge JCC. JDC sponsors several Hesed welfare centers and JCCs. There are Jewish schools, libraries, cultural events, and a long list of Jewish activities and opportunities.

For those who are interested, this trip I stayed in the Marriott Hotel where the bed was great; the towels matched; and, most importantly, there was plenty of hot water.

I was in Moscow representing JDC at the Reform Movement’s dedication ceremonies of the Moscow Center for Progressive Judaism, a beautiful new synagogue in Moscow. The Movement purchased the fourth floor of an office building and has converted it into a synagogue. As in many communities around the globe, some local Jews were seeking alternative ways to practice our religion. This facility was partially funded by a generous gift from old friends of JDC from Pittsburgh—Henry Posner III and his wife, Anne Molloy.

I used some of my precious time to visit the Nikitskaya JCC, which JDC sponsors. The building was full and teeming with Jewish life. More importantly, I spent time with 10 Jewish men and women, 17 to 23 years old, who participate in a Jewish leadership training program. My conversations with this generation confirmed for me the wisdom of JDC’s return to the FSU so many years ago. These young adults are committed to rebuilding Jewish life in the FSU and know they bear the unique responsibility of not only carrying Judaism forward, but also of teaching that heritage to their parents who were denied the beauty of Jewish life under communism. Every person spoke of their parents as the lost generation; and all of them are determined, in the paraphrased words of John Denver’s song, to “take them home, country road, to the place they belong.”

Irv and I believe we must have faith in our people wherever they live. For 95 years we have enabled local communities to grow and develop in their own style and to experience being a part of the world Jewish community. What has happened in Moscow and across the FSU is truly a modern miracle. We should always remember the role that JDC has played in the process and be proud of what FSU Jews have accomplished.

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