For 70 years, Communism all but extinguished Jewish life and religious instruction in the Soviet Union. Since Communism's collapse, many Russian Jews who have chosen to stay here have been rediscovering their roots and opening schools, synagogues and community centers. But Jewish philanthropy and high-profile leadership have not flourished.
Mostly, struggling Jewish institutions rely on donations from Israel, the United States and Europe. Prominent Jews in Russian society, particularly among the newly rich, have not stepped forward to lead their people. This year, they were shamed into being a little more visible.
I was in the United States recently, and Jewish leaders kept asking me, 'What do we do?' " said Vladimir Gusinsky, a media and banking tycoon. "It was a strange question, but a good one."
His answer was to help bankroll the first Russian Jewish Congress. Today, 400 intellectuals, Russian and foreign rabbis, wealthy bankers and businessmen -- and their bodyguards -- gathered in a luxury hotel in Moscow to unite secular and religious Jewish endeavors in Russia and encourage Jewish business leaders to donate to them. Today the members named Mr. Gusinsky president of the Russian Jewish Congress.
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"It is significant," Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an Israeli Talmudic scholar who is a frequent visitor to Russia, said of the congress. He explained with a trace of glee, "The same people who for years disclaimed or hid their Jewishness are coming out of the closet."
Mr. Gusinsky has never hidden his Jewish roots, but until now he had not paid them much attention. The bank he founded, Most, is very involved in philanthropy, but mainly with donations to ballet, theater and other prestigious cultural causes.
The bank's most visible religious contribution was $400,000 toward the rebuilding of the Christ the Savior Cathedral, a pet project of leading Russian politicians and the patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
He said he now wanted to help make Russian Jews more self-sufficient. "Why should the West help the Russian Jewish community?" he said. "We live in Russia -- we should do it ourselves." He persuaded a few other successful bankers to sponsor the event, and start raising some money. "We have about $2.5 million and are aiming for 5 or 6 million," Mr. Gusinsky said.
The sum is not large when measured against the needs of Russia's Jewish population or the potential of its wealthiest members, but Mr. Gusinsky said it was a start. He said the idea of a public congress was not immediately embraced by everyone he approached.
"A lot of guys said, 'Sure, we'll support it, but please, let us do it quietly,' " Mr. Gusinsky said.
There are other aspects of Jewish life that are new to Russia. Moscow now has a few kosher restaurants, but none are experienced enough to cater gourmet luncheons and dinners for the 400 prominent guests of the congress.
The organizers hired Arieh Wagner, director of Silberhorn International, a kosher catering company in Switzerland, who flew in a team of employees and salmon, meat dishes and vegetables from all over Europe and the United States. To insure that the kitchen of the Radisson-Slavyanskaya hotel was properly kosher, Mr. Wagner said, he bribed a hotel fire inspector to let him sneak in a blowtorch to sear clean the steel kitchen counters.
Official anti-Semitism in Russia has gone, and the most overt manifestations -- swastikas and desecrated graves -- are infrequent. But anti-Semitism, which dates back to before the czars, is still ingrained beneath the surface of society. And 70 years of repression, fear and shame has left scars.
In the West, philanthropy can reward the donor with prestige and connections, but in Russia, the consequences of public display are still unknown, and to some, scary. "People give to Jewish causes not just to be kind or for the honor, but they seek some kind of power and influence, and that is not a bad thing," said David Palant, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies in the C.I.S. "We have yet to see what will happen here -- success, or a return to fear."
Aside from the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, a political ally of Mr. Gusinsky, who delivered a gung-ho speech urging Jewish emigres to return to Russia, there were few prominent Russian politicians in attendance -- Jewish or non-Jewish. One of the main underwriters of the event, Vitaly Malkin, president of the Rossiysky Kredit Bank, was not present. He was said to be out of the country on business.
President Boris N. Yeltsin sent a brief message to the congress through a representative, but his words were not overflowing with warmth. He said he hoped the movement forum would "promote a dialogue of cultures and interethnic tolerance, which are so badly needed by our country and by all the world."
"You have to understand the mood in Russia, the complicated political situation," said Gennadi Khazanov, a well-known performer and political satirist who attended. He was referring to rising nationalism and Communist nostalgia. "No one in the U.S. or Israel can vote for Yeltsin. Under the circumstances, he was actually brave to even send a message."
But for the representatives of Jewish organizations in the West who had lobbied hard for the congress, it was enough that some Russians who attended seemed to accept their responsibility for supporting and funding Jewish institutions in Russia.
Rabbi Steinsaltz explained how he had driven home his message to Jewish business leaders. "It is the opposite of the motto of the American Revolution," he said with a smile. "No representation without taxation."