- knowing accepted
- Religious affairs editor, BBC News
Russia is facing a massive emigration of its Jewish population abroad, with at least one in eight having left the country since the start of the war with Ukraine.
The Jewish Agency helps Jews around the world move to Israel. The agency says that 20,500 of the total Russian Jews, estimated at 165,000, have left since March.
Thousands more have moved to other countries.
The specter of historical Jewish persecution looms large in the minds of many who are part of this sudden exodus, who are still trying to get out of Russia.
There was a great effort, in Moscow, to develop the Jewish community after the fall of communism. Pinchas Goldschmidt, the city’s chief rabbi since 1993, was among those who took the lead in this field.
“We started from scratch, with synagogues, schools, kindergartens, social services, teachers, rabbis and community members,” Goldschmidt says.
But just two weeks after the outbreak of war this year, Rabbi Goldschmidt and his family left Russia, first for Hungary and then for Israel.
Then he resigned from his position and began to oppose the war in his speeches.
“I felt I should have done something to show my complete disengagement, my disapproval of the invasion of Ukraine, but I would have put myself in danger if I had done so during my stay in Moscow,” he says.
Some Russian Jews criticized him for leaving the country and speaking out, fearing it would lead to further scrutiny in the community, but Rabbi Goldschmidt said most Jews supported him.
“I received messages saying ‘How do you leave us alone?’ But I would say the vast majority were very supportive. The decision to go there was not a simple matter, for me and my wife, the community was our life.”
By staying out and speaking out, Rabbi Goldschmidt says, he could have put the community at risk.
Since then large numbers have followed in his footsteps.
Pinchas Goldschmidt led the Moscow Synagogue, one of the major synagogues in Russia and in the former Soviet Union.
Many took the opportunity to go to Israel, where the Law of Return grants anyone who can prove they have at least one Jewish grandparent, the right to citizenship.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about why we’re rushing out because we’re not seeing a huge rise in anti-Semitism,” says Anna Strincis, a professor of Yiddish studies at the University of Toronto who specializes in Jewish history in Russia.
“But after I looked at the subject historically, I saw that every time something happened in Russia, like some disturbances, for example, or some changes, the Jews are always in danger.”
Strinshis describes how Russian historical events led to violence against Jews, such as the revolution, the economic crisis of the late nineteenth century, and World War II.
“Not everyone is involved in it, but every Jew in Russia today thinks about it,” she adds.
Strenches was born and raised in Russia. She says she is particularly appalled by the way Jews feel, and feels again that no matter how committed they are to building a life somewhere they can be suddenly taken away from it.
One man we spoke to as he tried to leave felt that he was in exactly this situation. He wanted to be called by a pseudonym, Alexander, because of concerns about the consequences of speaking out since he is still in Moscow.
“After February 24, my family realized that we never support this war, but we didn’t know how to protest. One of my sons is of military age, and that’s another reason why we wanted to leave,” he said.
The distress in his voice was very evident as he had to think about leaving his home and country. He talks about his fears of not being able to find work abroad, and not having large sums of money saved up.
But Alexander’s concern about his family’s future in Russia, Strenches says, goes beyond simply opposing the war.
He says: “The authorities in Russia are unpredictable, they have a bad streak. The Jews became one of their propaganda targets, and we are traditionally a good way to find internal enemies. My great-grandfathers and great-grandfathers suffered from those times.”
Alexander adds that he only knew two Jewish families and that society was not a big part of his life.
But he fears that no matter how well he integrates into society, it will not matter if the mood towards the Jews changes.
Alexander has applied for Israeli citizenship and an interview is scheduled for him in the coming weeks.
One of the things that bothered Alexander was the Kremlin’s stated intention to close the Jewish Agency’s branch in Russia.
“All of a sudden we see it in the news, and we wonder what’s going to happen next? We feel very insecure, we think we might lose our jobs, or we might be put in jail. Things are getting very scary,” he says.
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