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news update 2014

Liliane Seidman, Regional Chair, reports on her  visit to our affiliate HAVA in Moscow (6 -12 October 2014).

I have been invited by Irina Sherban and Valeriya Marek to come and visit HAVA in Moscow and had the most wonderful tour of Moscow and our affiliate’s numerous activities. They also set me an intensive program with different organizations and meetings with Rabbis from various synagogues.

My first impression was of a huge cosmopolitan city with modern architecturally interesting buildings, most beautiful colorful cathedrals, wide avenues, large outdoors video ads, neon signs, very efficient transportation system, spectacular metros and terrible traffic. Every one walks fast and people are no longer afraid to chatter in the streets. Of course, the Kremlin and the Red square are very impressive. Moscow is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Europe; it’s interesting to note that a significant part of its population is from ethnic minorities. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a revival of Jewish religious life; the leading bodies of Russia’s Jewish organizations were centered in Moscow and a number of synagogues re-opened. Today, it is estimated there are about 45 000 Jews in Moscow but 150 000 of Jewish origin.

Hava has been created 23 years ago in Moscow by Irina Sherban. They have 35 affiliates all over Russia, 4 of them are located in Moscow. All of those women groups have a very sound program with Jewish family services, master classes of Israeli dances, art projects, ceramics, patchwork, women’s choir, dancing lessons for children, teaching of music instruments, creating music groups who become popular around the country. I saw a group of women practicing a singing session for their next Choir tour of the country; I saw children aged 8-10 years dancing to modern music; I saw an exhibition of beautiful patchwork done by the members, paintings and ceramics executed by handicapped children. I saw a whole installation of music studios where students have private lessons.

Their main project today is the integration of children with disabilities supported by psychologists, art teachers and special educators. They have meetings every Sunday at Hava Centre to give a chance to the parents to have some free time.

For the last 20 years, they are running a special program for deaf-mute children and are in touch with Finland and Israel to exchange their programs.

They also started last year a Pessah/Passover educational meeting between the Jewish and Russian orthodox communities, sponsored by the government because of the concern about tolerance problems in Moscow and Russia. They meet for a whole week explaining mutually the ritual of their religion.

It had such success that they are doing it again next year. They are also going to organize a Tu bi Shvat and Russian Christian New Year celebration inviting both communities to participate. All this is done by volunteers while most of them are still working.

They have an active Day Care Center for very young children (2 to 3 years old) where English is taught by a wonderful young lady Sasha who is a student of linguistics at Moscow University.

They also organize The Jerusalem and the Moscow Day where various states hold meetings aimed at drawing attention of the participants to the culture of the three world religions. Hava does performances with Jewish traditional dances and songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. They organize a charity fair where they sell different art works done by disabled children. The same is done by the other religions’ groups.

HAVA hopes to start soon a “Volunteer” school in the evening for Jews and non-Jews to teach religion and tolerance and send the students to Israel for 10 days. Grants will come from the government, the Christian funds and private sponsors. They also work very intensively with various organizations and synagogues all around Moscow.

My first meeting was with Rivka Kuznetsova, director of the community programs of the Sochnut. HAVA group, led by Irene Sherban, and the Sochnut also work close together for social services, Jewish studies and Hebrew classes. Since 1989, the Sochnut has provided financial and practical support for more than 600 000 Russian Jews emigrating to Israel.

Then, I met Professor Mikhail Chlenov, EAJC Secretary-General, president of the Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Russia of which HAVA is a member. He told me that support for Israel is stronger today and anti-Semitism weaker in contemporary Russia than it is in most of Europe. There is a very good relationship between the three religions Russian Orthodox (41% of the population), Jews (0.1%) and Muslims (6.5%). They support programs in education, social security and develop multilevel dialogue with other nationalities and faiths, support the program “Tolerance – lessons of the Holocaust” for secondary school teachers.

We had a meeting with Rabbi Alexander Lyskovoy from Moscow Center for Progressive Judaism, and his wife, rabbinic student in Berlin. We talked about religious services, educational programs and community events. They also offer a spiritual, social and psychological support for mixed marriages.

Another meeting was organized with the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Adolph Shaevich at the Choral Synagogue, main synagogue in Russia and the most beautiful one. This synagogue was the only one opened during the Communist era, in the former Soviet Union. We celebrated Sukkot under the Sukka built on the parking lot opposite the synagogue.
I visited the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre. It is a very interactive museum showing the history of Jews’ migration, the different Shtetls in the Russian Empire, the literary culture of the 19th century, the breakout of WW1, WWII and the Holocaust. This Hall is dedicated to people’s life from the difficult period of the Soviet Union to today's. Again, the message conveyed is freedom of religion, of movement and respect from Russian officials.

And last but not least I saw The Memorial Synagogue on the Poklonnaya Hill (Victory Park) and the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Holocaust. Next to it are the Church and Mosque. On a multicultural program, student groups from 8 years old are invited to visit those three locations with a guide to show the shared destiny of people who went through the war and sacrificed their life on the altar of Victory. I was very impressed by the knowledge, the pride and enthusiasm of the museum’s guide.

I ended my visit with a big meeting at HAVA office, presided by Irina Sherban and a dozen members. They have a big office which allows all the activities mentioned above and a nice exhibition of the artistic work done at the premises by the handicapped children.

From a Jewish perspective, Jewish activities take place in public all around the city. Moscow universities have a department of Jewish studies where Jewish students pursue Jewish scholarship on a high level. Synagogues have their own successful programs. There is a big challenge to teach Judaism to a re-born Jewish community eager to learn about its heritage, be taught Hebrew and eventually to do Alya in Israel. Education is the key word of the young and new generation!

I want to give a big thank you to Irina and Valeriya who organized a very well planned schedule and a big thank you to my two great guides, Sasha and Yulik (Valeryia’s son) who both speak very good English.