Matzoh in Moscow: glasnost and the Soviet Jew

PRESIDENT REAGAN promised when the Moscow summit began on May 29 that he would press the Soviets on the issue of Jewish emigration. From the very beginning of the Soviet Jewry movement, the highest priority has been given to this basic human right. But when activists in the West relegate to secondary status efforts to train Russian rabbis, supply kosher food, provide Russian-Hebrew Bibles, and make available other educational materials, I must disagree. Such a shortsighted policy miscalculates the dimensions of the Soviet Jewry dilemma. And it does our brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union a disservice by ignoring the great majority of Soviet Jews who have not expressed interest in emigrating.

In many cases, their decision to stay is a consequence of religious ignorance and spiritual lethargy. Indeed, if Mikhail Gorbachev were to open the gates tomorrow, a majority of Soviet Jews would most likely choose to remain. And that is the potential tragedy of an ``emigration only'' approach. It ignores the possibility of a Jewish future for nearly 2 million Jews in the USSR who know little of being Jewish beyond the word ``Ivrel'' stamped on their internal passports.

The reality of the problem was underscored for me personally earlier this month when I was privileged to become the first rabbi from the West to officiate at a major holiday observance in the USSR. I conducted Passover services and led the communal seder in Moscow's historic Choral Synagogue during the first two days of Passover. Joining me was Dr. Joel Selter, a member of my congregation, who chanted the services and the seder, and our cantor, Moshe Geffen, who conducted services during the last two days of the eight-day holiday.

Our group was substituting for the Moscow synagogue's two regular clergymen, Rabbi Adolph Shayevich and Cantor Vladimir Pliss, both of whom are currently enrolled in an intensive study program at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York.

The opportunity to conduct services in Moscow was an emotional experience, permitting us to meet Soviet Jews whose strong sense of Jewish identity and synagogue orientation reflected spiritual courage and determination. Equally significant was the opportunity to meet many Jews who were bereft of any sense of religious identity and who declined to recognize their Jewish heritage because they were brought up in a state where opportunities for religious training have been virtually unavailable for more than half a century. These Soviet Jews are, simply put, the victims of spiritual starvation. Yet I could not help sensing, even among the most apathetic, an unrequited curiosity - perhaps even a deeply sublimated need - to understand more about themselves by learning more about their roots.

We went to Moscow bringing with us two tons of kosher food and other Passover supplies contributed by our synagogue in New York to Moscow's Jewish community. The shipment marked the first time that kosher food had been shipped directly to the Soviet Union from the United States. The food was a source of wonder among the Jews of Moscow; the matzoh and wine and other ceremonial foods led in many cases to long and animated discussions of the meaning of Passover.

On our first night in Moscow some 20,000 people crowded into the synagogue and overflowed into the street. For many among the religiously ignorant who, out of simple curiosity or a deeper need, came to the Moscow synagogue that evening to mingle with those who came to worship, there seemed to be a new sense of awakening, a new sense of solidarity with other Soviet Jews. I believe this experience may turn out to be a first step on a journey toward understanding their Judaic heritage.

One leaves with the conviction that Soviet Jews must be provided with the opportunity to learn about Judaism and the means, even on a token basis, to quicken their sense of Jewish identity.

Some things are already being done. Prayer books and Bibles have been sent to the USSR, as have Hebrew language materials. Through negotiations with Soviet officials, the Appeal of Conscience Foundation - an ecumenical organization dedicated to advancing freedom of religion around the world - has arranged for the recent opening of a kosher takeout restaurant in Moscow. Other projects aimed at building awareness and understanding of the Jewish cultural and religious heritage are being planned. [The USSR has also agreed in principle to open a rabbinical school.]

These are small but remarkable gains. The age of glasnost has already seen advances in the religious sphere that would have been unthinkable during previous regimes. I returned from Moscow persuaded that opportunities will soon arise to bring Judaism to a community that knows little if anything about what it means to be a Jew.

President Reagan and others interested in advancing the cause of Soviet Jewry must understand that not only emigration but also the religious interests of millions who will remain in the USSR are at stake. By using the opportunities afforded by glasnost, we can help trigger a spiritual awakening among the third-largest Jewish community in the world. That example and impact will be felt by all religious denominations throughout the USSR.

Rabbi Marc Schneier of Manhattan's Park East Synagogue recently returned from the Soviet Union.

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