Against the backdrop of Russia’s interference in Crimea’s pending separation from Ukraine and word of anti-Semitic acts on the rise in the region, Gal Beckerman, the opinion editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, the nation’s longest-running Jewish newspaper, appeared in Pittsburgh for the first time last Thursday to discuss the history of Soviet Jewry and human rights issues in the former Soviet Union.
Beckerman, whose 2010 book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” netted him the National Jewish Book Award and mentions on the year’s best books lists in both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, spoke to a crowd of nearly 50 at Rodef Shalom Congregation for a half-hour prior to an hour-long panel discussion on the topic. Beckerman said his interest in the topic goes back a long way.
“It stems from this historical question I’ve always wondered about: How does one of the largest Jewish communities in the Diaspora overcome the scars of World War II?” Beckerman asked.
Following the end of the war, there were 3 million Jews in the Soviet Union. They faced, Beckerman said, the paradox of being completely unwanted by the government, while being neither allowed to fully assimilate nor leave the country. This inspired not only a sort of great awakening among Soviet Jews, but Jews worldwide — especially in the United States.
“There was a sense that in this swift assimilation of American Jews, the Jewish part began to feel a little bit hollow,” Beckerman said.
Adding to that, after the war there was a sense of guilt amongst American Jews for not having done enough during it. The crusade to free Jews in the Soviet Union gave American Jews a chance to try to right a wrong during the Cold War.
“The movement to help out Jews in the Soviet Union became a way for American Jews to be both Jewish and American at the same time,” Beckerman said.
Joining Beckerman on the panel were Anne Molloy, an executive board member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism; Elizabeth Fine, director of international initiatives for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; and Rabbi Mark Staitman, former senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom, who also served as the chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
Molloy, whose organization’s focus is renewing Jewish life for those who remain in the former Soviet Union, said that these days, both communities face similar challenges.
“One of the struggles I think we have today is that younger generations are not automatically joining synagogues,” Molloy said. “They have strong Jewish identities, but it’s more cultural. We’re all facing similar challenges in America, in the former Soviet Union and in Israel, and we can learn a lot from each other.”
Beckerman concurred and cited a Pew Research study released last year as the impetus for an op-ed piece the Forward ran on the notion that American Jews are becoming more like Russian Jews were. According to the study, while religious markers are down across the board, 97 percent of people who identified themselves as Jews by religion said they were proud to be Jewish. The number among Jews who identify themselves as having no religion was a still relatively compelling 83 percent.
“The critical way to look at that — and I think it’s worth exploring — is whether that’s enough,” Beckerman said. “Is peoplehood enough to sustain us? This barebones notion of identity is what’s left to us.”
Beckerman contends that the movement to save the Soviet Jews was a sort of perfect storm of conditions, timing and activism, which put conservative and liberal, religious and secular on the same side.
“I don’t see that kind of overlap in our community anymore,” Beckerman said.
As for how this matters today to the Jews of Russia, Crimea and Ukraine, nobody’s really certain.
Fine, who lived in Moscow while working for the JDC in Russia, said she thinks political action on the part of Jews in the area isn’t realistic when the government is as repressive across the board as Russia’s is, and that the current unrest makes the situation even less certain — especially with the lack of unity among Jews in the region.
“There’s no clear answer as to how this affects the Jews in Ukraine,” Fine said. “Ukraine is divided into regions which have governors. Twelve of those governors were replaced after [ousted Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych left. Four of those governors are Jewish oligarchs.”
Beckerman added that the Forward has run op-ed pieces in a multitude of directions.
“It’s still a very confusing situation. People ask what the Jewish angle is. The Jewish angle is not clear. I’m wondering, though, if it’s another moment where people will come together from sort of a human rights perspective, or as an opportunity for Jews to help other Jews.”
“You can say anything you want to say here and not have to worry about government repercussions,” Staitman said. “That’s just not the case in the former Soviet Union.”
(Matthew Wein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)