In my childhood bedroom, in Glasgow, there was a poster on the wall bearing an image of the Kremlin and the words “Let My People Go.” Like many other Jews growing up in the 1980s, I felt the profound impact of the Soviet Jewry movement. So I was a bit surprised by my own ambivalence when I recently decided to go on a UJA-Federation rabbinic mission to the former Soviet Union (FSU) to see what Jewish life is like there today.
Growing up, my father always used explain to me that Israel is important because if anything were to happen to the Jews of Scotland, our family would be able to find refuge in Israel. Similarly, my friends and I had marched and demonstrated in support of the Soviet Jews, and my assumption had been that when the dust settled, every man, woman, and child who could would make aliyah to Israel.
So when nine other New York congregational rabbis and I gathered before the trip to the FSU and shared our expectations, I voiced my apprehension that there would be little left of Jewish life, that we would only be meeting the Jews whose religion was least important to them. How could they have remained otherwise? I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Once we arrived, my apprehension evaporated fairly quickly. We saw synagogues, kindergartens, camps, and JCCs filled with Jews whose religion had been irrelevant or unknown to them until fairly recently. Perhaps this was best illustrated by an icebreaker activity we witnessed at a winter camp supported by UJA-Federation through the Jewish Agency for Israel. Kids were instructed to ask each other when they first learned that they were Jewish, which would be an almost nonsensical question for many Western Jews. Stories poured out of revelatory letters from a cousin in Israel, or a parent or grandparent taking them aside one day; some teens didn’t even know they were Jewish until they found out weeks prior to attending the Jewish winter camp.
Everywhere we went there was a tremendous sense of spiritual revival. We met people who, even 10 years ago, were completely assimilated, but who were now returning to their heritage, in large part because of the programs and opportunities for them to reconnect with their tradition funded by Jews from around the globe. The fact that Jewish people in the rest of world collectively organize to make sure a teen can experience his or her first Shabbat, or a poor, elderly Jewish woman in a 6th floor walk-up in Moscow can get kosher meals on a daily basis, is extraordinary.
We met a woman in her 90s who remembered Stalin and vividly recalled when the Germans declared war. She had lived to see Jewish life extinguished and then revived. It restored my faith in the continuity of the Jewish people to see her perspective on the arc of history, and then to see the young Jewish men and women in Moscow’s Moishe House developing their own ideas for Jewish programs in a way we take for granted in the west.
It’s such a historical rarity to a have a cause like the Soviet Jewry movement that, fueled by such idealism, such activism, gets so convincingly and overwhelmingly fulfilled. All the Jews from the FSU who wanted to have been able to leave, and many have moved to Israel. And as I stood in Red Square, seeing in person the domes and spires of the Kremlin that had once graced my bedroom walls, wearing my yarmulke without fear, I knew that the Jewish community in the FSU was there to stay.
Rabbi Robinson is the spiritual leader of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.