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October 9, 2009     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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October 9, 2009

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PAGE 18A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, OCTOBER 9, 2009 years By Grant Slater BIROBIDZHAN, Russia (JTA)--The diminutive leader of the .handful of Orthodox Jews in this nominally Jewish district of Russia. 90-year-old Dov Kofman, e-mailed his friend and benefactor in Tokyo to say he could go on no longer. Kofman was planning to. Nearly 4,000 miles from Moscow, the Jewish Au- tonomous Region is unique among .the patchwork of entities that makes up the Russian Federation. All other autonomous regions were declared independent republics w ith the dissolu- tion of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Chlenov. the secretary general of the Eurasian Jewish Congress, Danie! Turk Dov Kofman helps carry in his Beit Tshoova community's new Torah, a gift from the Jewish community of Japan, in 2003. return to Israel and would pass on to his protege. Alex- ander Kleinerman, control of the Torah scroll that the Jewish community in Japan had provided, as well as the keys to the paint-slathered lean-to where his congre- gation worships. "I am confident that the community Beit Tshoova will live." Kofman wrote in his e-mail last week. Beit Tshoova's shul is on the outskirts of Birobid- zhan, the capital of Rus- sia's Jewish Autonomous Region and a relic of a misguided Soviet plan to resettle Jews in the far east of Russia, near the Chinese border, in the 1930s. Kofman's departure says somethingabout the enig- matic nature of this Jewish capital on this, its 75th anniversary. The town of 80.000 is developing quickly by Russian stan- dards, and there is a newer synagogue and Jewish community center off the main square. But at times there is a sense that the veneer of Ju- daism in Birobidzhan is no thicker than the fresh coat of paint applied citywide for the anniversary festivities. Political expediency and regional independence seem more likely motives for an emphasis on Jewish culture and government placards printed in Yiddish than the region's dwin- dling Jewish population, which now stands at about 5 percent. The town receives a cul- tural budget from the gov- ernment in Moscow each year to sustain Jewish ac- tivities like an International Jewish Cultural Festival the week before the anni- versary. In mid-September, the Jewish. educational organization Limmud held a conference here. Today, however, the re- gion is on the cusp of an economic boom. By 2014 or before, a rail bridge across the Amur River will carry granular iron and other metals from Russia into China. with its booming economy. The bridge is the first border crossing constructed together by the Russian and Chinese governments, and only the third bridge to be built across the border. It's not clear, however, whether this will bolster the region's Jewish spirit. Though Birobidzhan always resembled other Soviet towns of similar size. its Jewish character made it unique. Yiddish is an offi- cial language here. Statues of Jewish violinists and ac- cordion players dot the city. A golden menorah presides over the fountain in front of the train station, and Tevya from "Fiddler on the Roof" is fro~zen in bronze on his nearby haywagon a Jew- ish Disneyland, "All this is beautiful, but people have started to live W r " o se, said Igor Maga- denko, a retired lawyer, who relaxed recently with visiting friends from Israel Grant Slater TefiUin and kipot are stored in cubbies in the main hall of the Birobidzhan synagogue. on a new riverwalk built for the 75th anniversary. "There are no jobs, and the wolves in the government are hunting the profits from the new bridge." Marina Gitikh lives in a ramshackle two-room house where the first Jew- ish collective farm here was founded in the late 1920s. Unemployed, she lives with her elderly mother Grant Slater The main theater in Birobidzhan displays a banner celebrating 75 years of the Jewish Autonomous Region. Grant Slater Khava Yavitz, 77, reads from a copy of the collected works of Shalom Aleichem in Birobidzhan "s Jewish community center. said that Birobidzhan and its environs are not strong enough to be a republic. Fearful of stepping on Is- rael s toes with the creation of another Jewish state. Chlenov called the region's status "a delicate matter." "It was not easy to start and it will be more difffcult to eliminate," Chlenov said as his car sped past the remnants of collective farms where Yiddish-speaking settlers attempted to tame the mosquito-plagued swamps 75 years before. A wave of Jewish immi- grants traveled the thou- sands of miles from Eu- ropean Russia or further in the mid-1930s to settle here. But many left the district after the verdant promises of Soviet propa- ganda yielded to the real- ity of harsh winters and swampy terrain. Still others left when a more hospitable Jewish homeland came into existence: Israel. and a son from her second marriage. "We won't go to the city for the anniversary," she said as she poured beer from a five-liter bottle into a teacup. "Why should we celebrate with those people when there aren't better houses or jobs for us? There's no work anywhere." Rabbi Mordechai Shein- er. a Chabad emi ssary who arrived in Birobidzhan in 2002. just before the new synagogue was completed six years ago, said that the community is go- ing through hard times. Chahad suffered a funding crisis last year when its main donor lost a signifi- cant portion of his wealth. Roman Leder, the head of the community that runs the new synagogue and community center, said Chabad's funding to the city was cut in half. The biggest benefactor of the Jewish community there, the American Jew- ish Joint Distribution Committee, warned of impending cuts but they never came. The nine com- munity groups supported by the center continued unscathed, he said. The city of Birobidzhan provides free heating to the two buildings despite laws prohibiting it, Leder said. Daniel Turk, the presi- dent of the Jewish Com- munity of Japan, said his group provided a Torah to the elderly Orthodox Jews in Birobidzhan out of a sense of charity and. in part, to provide the community with a source of religious support other than Chabad. Despite the obvious challeBges, the Jews of Birobidzhan have kept Ju- daism alive in this remote corner of the earth. Three decades ago, when this was still part of the Soviet Union. Chlenov recalls being approached by a waiter who appeared to be Jewish. Quietly, he invited Chlenov to Shabbat prayers. "We have no shul." the waiter said, "but we have a minyan." Grant Slater A railway worker conducts repairs to the Birobidzhan railway station. The sign behind him is in both Russian and Yiddish.