Birobidzhan - New Rabbi, New Synagogue
In 1995, I found myself wondering whether the Jewish community in Birobidzhan could survive. Most Jews here seemed to be clamoring to leave. Unemployment was rampant and those who had jobs often weren't paid on time, if at all. For economic, personal or religious reasons, as many as 10,000 Jews had left the city in the previous six years, with most heading for Israel. A few holdouts insisted they'd never leave Birobidzhan, but it seemed like attrition would surely win out in the end.
So when I heard a few weeks ago that a new synagogue had been built here, I could hardly believe it. And after seeing it today, I'm even more astonished. Not only is there a beautiful new synagogue, there is a complex housing Sunday School classrooms, a library, a small museum and administrative offices. The buildings were officially opened a year ago, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Autonomous Region.
The administrative offices are spacious and comfortable. The library is small but comprehensive, with hundreds of publications relating to Jewish life in the region. The synagogue has a beautiful old Torah, comfortable vinyl-covered chairs and specially-designed ceiling lights that form a Star of David. And the Sunday school has a computer classroom outfitted with 10 brand-new computers -- with flat-screen monitors.
There is also, at long last, an official rabbi, an energetic young Israeli named Mordechai Sheiner who came here in 2002. He'd never been to Birobidzhan before, but spoke Russian thanks to two years he spent in Ukraine, working at another synagogue. Numerous people in town have raved about him, telling us he's the best thing to happen to Birobidzhan's Jewish community in a very long while.
With so many of the region's Jewish residents having left, how did this seeming resurgence come about? Where did the money come from for the new buildings? And is this a cosmetic change, or does it signal a real turnaround in the fortunes of the Jewish Autonomous Region?
At least one of those questions has an easy answer. The money for the new synagogue complex came from several sources, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia and local private donors. With funding assured for now, the synagogue and its associated activities will continue.
But whether this truly signals a turnaround or not is a question that remains to be answered. We're still digging for information and we will report back more fully in a Road Story by the end of the week. In the meantime, tomorrow I'll give an update on what's happened to the people I met back in 1995, including Alexander Yakubson, Maria Shokhtova and Yakov Sherman.
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