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What's Changed in Russia in the Last 25 Years?

What's Changed in Russia in the Last 25 Years?

Group of students and a teacher standing in front of a sign: Help Save Soviet Jews

When Jews first arrived in western Russia in the 7th century, the Russian Empire became, for a time, home to the world’s largest Jewish population. Through pogroms, mass emigration, revolution, and the deconstruction of the Soviet Union, North American Reform Jewish leadership has endeavored to balance its commitment to the welfare of Russian Jews against its ideals around geopolitical realities.

“Miracle” and “redemption” are not terms used casually by modern rabbis. But when the Soviet Union dissolved 25 years ago, even the most rationalistic Reform rabbis marveled at the astonishing turn of events that many believed would never happen in their lifetimes. Looking back, however, the sense of wonder was, necessarily, tempered by caution.

Among the resolutions passed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in 1992, one year after of the unraveling of the USSR, were expressions acknowledging that although the “miracle of the redemption of the Jews of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet States continues to amaze us,” transitioning from the Soviet era also “creates an unstable time,” and, more worryingly, the “tensions in Eastern Europe have heightened fears of nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.”

The fall of the czars in the Russian Revolution a century ago initially held great promise for the redemption of Jews of Eastern and Central Europe. Progressive Jews, including those in the Reform Movement, alongside Jewish secularists of the left, briefly shared high hopes for a genuine liberation of Russian Jewry. It rapidly became painfully apparent that the Soviet revolution had not erased the so-called “Jewish Question” but rather traditional anti-Semitism had evolved into new forms.

For decades, Reform leaders and other segments of North American Jewry faced ongoing and multifaceted challenges regarding relations with the Soviet Union. The USSR may have been an adversary, but it also was home to millions of Jews who needed the help of Western Jewry, whether via material aid, enabling emigration, or supporting Judaism and Jewish culture in the face of official Soviet repression. Although the geopolitics morphed throughout the 20th century, the plight of Soviet Jewry remained steady through the 1980s.

The Russian Revolution swept away the traditional, naked anti-Semitism of the czars, but was supplanted by a system that sought to obviate Judaism and the Jews. In addition, the Bolshevik government was laced with men of Jewish birth. Differing political systems, competing geopolitical aims, and the welfare of Soviet Jews all demanded a nuanced approach to the Soviets.

After more than a decade of no-relations, in 1933, the CCAR was among the Jewish organizations that commended President Franklin Roosevelt for reestablishing relations with the Soviet Union. A decade later, the Reform approach toward the Soviet Union was clarified insofar as the USSR had become a central ally in the war against Hitler and the Axis powers. In 1943 the CCAR declared:

We express our sympathy to Russia for the severe losses they have sustained in the defense of their fatherland. We hail the Russian government for its outlawry of all forms of racial discrimination and for its uncompromising antipathy to fascism. We hope that after victory all the United Nations may build together a just and enduring peace for all mankind.

But even before the official conclusion of World War II, relations between East and West had deteriorated over questions of geopolitics and human rights. As historian Jonathan Sarna writes in American Judaism, the “fate of the Soviet Union’s more than 2 million Jews had aroused concern almost as soon as World War II ended, as reports spread of purges, deportations, imprisonments, and widespread deprivations of religious and human rights – all spearheaded…by Soviet Communist leader Joseph Stalin himself.”

As early as 1945, a CCAR resolution deplored the “capitalization of our differences with Russia by anti-Russian elements. We are not in agreement with the Russian government on some of its international and domestic policies, but we believe that we must learn to cooperate with Russia to maintain the peace of the world. Good will between America and Russia is indispensable to international peace.”

If World War II had represented the most friendly era between the Soviet government and the Reform Movement, the relationship was inherently fractured over Soviet support for the state of Israel’s adversaries, state suppression of Judaism, and the ongoing obstructions placed in front of Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate. At the same time, the Soviet Union was a great power and while the degree of alarm over conflict between East and West varied in the post-World War II era, genuine and justifiable fear of a nuclear conflagration roared back in the 1980s. The “Central Conference of American Rabbis expresses its extreme concern over the potential for destruction to our civilization that a nuclear war poses,” the Reform rabbinate proclaimed in 1982, and yet in the spirit of the prophets, the CCAR and the URJ called upon both the U.S. and Soviet governments to “adopt a mutual freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons and new delivery systems for nuclear weapons.” Notably, Reform and other progressive Jews were caught in the position of advocating peace with the Soviet Union while also criticizing and acting against it for the sake of Soviet Jewry.

A Talmudic passage records disagreement over whether its leaders determine the character of a generation or, alternatively, whether the character of leaders defines their own generation. (BT Tractate Arakhin 17a). Ideologies come and go; geopolitics shift and new leaders arise. But in so many respects, in the post-Soviet, now Putin era, Jews still will need to advocate for our Russian sisters and brothers while unceasingly supporting human rights and the cause of peace. Regardless of our leaders, later generations also will define us by our character.

Rabbi Daniel M. Bronstein, Ph.D., is a scholar and educator who teaches at Hunter College and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. His dissertation, Torah in the Trenches, examined the rabbinical military chaplaincy during World War II. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his family.

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