Saturday, January 7, 2006

BIROBIDZHAN, Russia — When he moved here four years ago, Rabbi Mordechai Shainer had problems finding enough Jews to hold prayer services. Now, he has a brand-new synagogue crowned with a neon-lit Star of David, and it’s packed on holy days.

The Jewish Autonomous Region, established by Josef Stalin in the Russian Far East 71 years ago, was supposed to be a Jewish homeland free of the anti-Semitism and repression rampant in the Soviet Union. But it soon fell victim to the Soviet dictator’s purges and paranoia. An exodus of Jews following the 1991 Soviet collapse seemed to spell its doom.

Yet today, the region is enjoying a revival of Jewish life, even if its Jews are a small minority and overwhelmingly elderly.

More Jews have been returning than leaving in the last few years, said Albina Sergeeyeva, director of programs for the estimated 4,800 Jews of Birobidzhan, the capital. About 200 Jews came back in 2004 from Israel and Germany, while only 80 left for Israel, she said.

“Jewish traditions have got their second wind,” said Irina Lenskaya-Margulies, who runs social groups for elderly singles, providing meals and lessons about Jewish rituals, many of which were forgotten in the officially atheist Soviet Union.

Visitors to Birobidzhan, 5,200 miles east of Moscow, are greeted by a sign with the city’s name written in Russian and Yiddish. The station on the Trans-Siberian railroad features a sculpture of a menorah, the Jewish candelabra, and in the main square stands a memorial to Sholom Aleichem, whose stories of life in the Russian shtetls, or small towns, inspired “Fiddler on the Roof.”

It was in the shtetls that Jews lived before the Communist revolution, banned from residing in the cities, serving in the military or attending universities.

Drawn by Soviet incentives to populate the border with China, Jews started moving to the Far East in the 1920s, augmented by others from across the world who wanted to build a Jewish homeland. At the peak, in the early 1930s, about 42,000 Jews lived here, said Lev Toytman, head of the Jewish community, who came here at age 9. Now 80, he remembers classmates who came from Argentina, France and the United States.

In 1930, the Birobidzhan Stern newspaper began publishing daily in Yiddish, the Jewish language of Eastern Europe that has Germanic linguistic roots and is written in Hebrew. A Yiddish-language theater opened in 1934, drawing top performers from Moscow.

But the breath of religious and cultural freedom didn’t last. First came Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s, then World War II.

After a brief influx of immigrants following the war, a Kremlin anti-Jewish campaign exiled many Birobidzhan Jews to the Siberian gulag. The Yiddish theater was shuttered in 1949, the synagogue burned down in 1956, and study of the Torah was banned.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the remaining 14,000 Jews left for Israel, which grants Jews automatic citizenship, or Germany, which offers Jews from the former Soviet Union special immigration privileges as part of its atonement for the Holocaust.

But because of the difficulties of adapting to Israeli culture, along with the terrorist threat in the Middle East, some Jews are returning, community members said.

Israil Prosmushkin came back from Israel in 2004, a year after his 43-year-old son returned because he had trouble finding work there.

“It’s difficult there for the younger people,” said Mr. Prosmushkin, 69, a guard at the Jewish community building. “You need to wake up very early and work late into the night.”

Another returnee, Larisa Lebyedkina, 74, said she couldn’t adjust to life in Israel, where she had emigrated with her son and his family. “I am a Soviet Jew, brought up on Russian tradition,” she said.

Mr. Shainer, a 33-year-old Orthodox rabbi from Israel, said he is frequently stopped on the street by people speaking fluent Hebrew learned from their time abroad. He once led services at his home and held larger events in the community building, but now prays in the new synagogue built in 2004 with financing from the Russian government and Jewish religious organizations.

“Jewish life is reviving, both in quantity and quality,” he said, noting increased participation in events and greater knowledge among residents of their heritage.

The Birobidzhan Stern still publishes twice weekly, but now mostly in Russian with just two pages a week in Yiddish.

At School No. 2 — the city’s Jewish public school with 670 students, 30 percent of whom are Jewish — pupils learn about Jewish history, and the Hebrew and Yiddish languages. Teachers give after-school help to students returning here from abroad, some of whom have trouble keeping up because they haven’t previously attended Russian schools, said the school’s deputy director, Tatiana Mesamed.

Since the Soviet collapse, Russia has experienced a wave of racism and hate crimes, but not Birobidzhan, people here say.

“We don’t have anti-Semitism,” said Mrs. Sergeeyeva, the municipal program director. “Everything is open, everyone’s together, and everyone helps each other.”

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