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?
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.
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.
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