Birobidzhan - Back to the Synagogue

Birobidzhan has one of the more unusual histories of any Russian city I've been in. Founded in 1927 as a "homeland" for Soviet Jews, it was declared the capital of the new Jewish Autonomous Region in 1934. Unfortunately for the Jewish migrants who were enticed to move here, it was located thousands of miles away from European Russia, with harsh winters and swarms of ravenous mosquitoes in the summer.

Between the late 1920s and early 1930s, 41,000 Soviet Jews relocated here. Some were fleeing persecution and famine in western Russia and Ukraine, while others were drawn by government promises of free rail travel and 600 rubles per "settler." But many of them left almost as soon as they got here -- by 1938, 28,000 had fled the region's harsh conditions. Still, the Jewish schools and synagogues functioned up until the late 1940s, when a resurgence of religious repression shut them down, seemingly for good. After that, all Jewish cultural and religious activities essentially went underground, until perestroika finally led to a revival in the late 1980s.

When I came here in 1995, thousands of Jews had emigrated to Israel over the preceding four years, since the collapse of the USSR. The big debate in the community was, should time and money be spent on getting the remaining Jews out of Birobidzhan? Or should the focus be on maintaining Jewish culture for those who couldn't, or wouldn't, leave?

Boris Kaufman is the head of Beit T'shuva, a small Jewish community based in Birobidzhan's old synagogue. (David Hillegas)

Our first stop in '95 was the town's only synagogue, where a man named Boris Kaufman led twice-weekly services that combined Jewish and Christian traditions. Kaufman was being tutored in Jewish religious traditions by Oleg Shavulski, who argued passionately that "The easiest thing in the world is to leave, to quit. But there will always be Jews in Birobidzhan... Someone must be here to take care of those who stay."

Today, David and I went down to the synagogue, to see Boris again and find out how things have changed in 10 years. At first, it felt like I was walking into a time warp -- the tiny synagogue looked much as it had before, and with his long beard and white hair, Boris looks absolutely no different. But as we talked, it became clear that many things have changed.

The interior of the old synagogue looks much the same as it did in 1995, though the services are now strictly Jewish rather than a blend of Christian and Jewish. (David Hillegas)

For one thing, there's a new, bigger synagogue in town, finished last year in time for the 70th anniversary of the Jewish Autonomous Region. In 2002, Rabbi Mordechai Sheiner moved here from Israel -- the first official rabbi in the city for decades. And though Boris still holds services in the small synagogue, now called the "old" synagogue, he no longer permits any worship of Jesus Christ.  "There were several women here who wanted to do that," he says now, "but in 1996 or so, I told them we had to keep to the proscribed Jewish religious traditions here. So they left."

Perhaps most surprisingly, Oleg Shavulski has left Birobidzhan, emigrating to Germany. Boris gave me his e-mail address, and I hope to find out why he changed his mind.

Until then, we'll keep digging to find out what else has changed here. Tomorrow, we'll visit the new synagogue.

By Lisa Dickey |  September 12, 2005; 8:17 AM ET
Previous: Birobidzhan - The Search for a Room | Next: Birobidzhan - New Rabbi, New Synagogue


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Lisa -

This is a wonderful thing you are doing. Loved the article about preservation of Jewish culture. How "autonomous" is the Region really? And what will happen to the Christian minority? Are they true Christians, or ethnic Jews who are conflating two religious traditions for lack of formal religious training?

Posted by: Mike Hill | September 13, 2005 11:58 AM

Oleg emigrated to Germany? An interesting choice of destination, and he's not alone. In the past few years, more Jews have emigrated from the ex-USSR to Germany than to Israel and the United States combined. Over a longer time period Israel has been the most popular destination by far. But the wave to Israel crested in the early 1990's, and the numbers have been decreasing ever since. Germany simply provided political stability and social welfare benefits that Israel couldn't match. One interesting side-effect has been an unexpected revival of Jewish life in Germany. You could argue that the revival has been at the expense of Jewish life across the ex-USSR, but that hasn't been the case, not least in Birobaidzhan! It's wonderful to hear about the excitement of the new synagogue and rabbi. I wish them both all the best!

Posted by: Mark | September 13, 2005 01:22 PM

Jewish pogroms in Soviet Union, between late 1920s and early 1930s? I don't think so. Czarist Russia, maybe.
That reduces this blog's credibility...

Posted by: alec | September 13, 2005 11:04 PM

You are correct; the last pogroms in Russia were in the very early 20th century and during the Revolution, though there were pogroms in Poland in the '20s. I should have used the word "persecution" and will make the change now. Thanks.

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | September 14, 2005 05:09 AM

"Persecution" is clear overkill also.
Jews were well represented in all layers of Soviet governmental institutions at the time specified. If you insist on using the word, you should add "alleged".
And, of course, far from "persecution", USSR was the only entity that has alloted Jewish people their own parcel of land.
Admittedly, it's no Riviera, but it's infinitely better than nothing.

Posted by: alec | September 14, 2005 01:41 PM

In response to Alec's comment on Sept. 14,

Persecution is far from overkill given the fact that the 1920s and 30s were marked by a well-documented "anti-cosmipolitan" [read anti-semitic] campaign in the early years of Russian Communism. Your comments seem to be denying the presence of anti-semitic tendencies in the Soviet Union and Russian Federation, or have you not seen "the writing on the wall" in such cities as St. Petersburg, Moscow, etc. Graffiti evidence of neo-fascist groups is pervasive on the walls of many buildings. Or how about the recent bombing/burning of a traditionally Jewish restaurant in St. Petersburg? Segregation, as protection from persecution, is hardly better than nothing.

Posted by: Rob | October 12, 2005 01:31 PM

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