Fishing for Jews in Russia’s muddy waters

Fishing for Jews in Russia’s muddy waters

MOSCOW (JTA) — This spring, Howard Flower and his assistants plan to go to Russia’s westernmost region, Kaliningrad, on a fishing expedition:
They’re fishing for Jews.

Flower, the aliyah director of the Russian office of the International Christian Embassy, a pro-Israel evangelical group, plans to look through telephone directories for Jewish-sounding names and meet with local leaders in an attempt to find far-flung Jews — some of whom might not even realize they’re Jewish — and talk to them about moving to Israel.

As elsewhere in the world, determining who is Jewish in Russia is more an art than a science.

In the 2002 Russian census, the country’s most recent, 233,000 Russians self-identified as Jews. Jewish leaders here and abroad consider the figure an underestimate, but they can’t agree on the actual figure or how to determine it.

“Anyone who works in Jewish organizations knows that the real number of Jews is higher than records show because many people do not receive any services and thus are not registered anywhere,” said Rabbi Yosef Hersonski, head of the Khamovniki community in Moscow. “Probably they are not interested. But if their mother was Jewish, we consider them Jews.”

One of Russia’s chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, estimates the number of Jews in Russia at 1 million to 2 million; he considers as Jews all those with a Jewish mother. NCSJ, a U.S.-based advocacy group for Russian-speaking Jews, estimates that Russia has 400,000 to 700,000 Jews, and 1 million to 1.5 million in the former Soviet Union as a whole.

A representative for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the largest Jewish aid group active in Russia, declined to speculate on a figure.
“We have not yet found reliable data based on sound methodology about the number of Jews in Russia,” JDC representative Rina Edelshtein said.

Across Russia, approximately 100,000 Jews are registered with their local Jewish community organizations. To be registered, one has to prove Jewishness.

It’s often not a simple thing.

Official records tend to be a mess. In the Soviet era, ethnicity was delineated on adults’ internal passports. Those with two Jewish parents were registered as Jewish, but the children of mixed marriages could choose the ethnicity of either parent. Since Jews suffered discrimination in the Soviet Union, the products of intermarriages usually did not register as Jewish.

The situation was captured best perhaps in a joke popular at the height of the Soviet Jews’ struggle for immigration to Israel.

“How many Jews are there in the USSR?” Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev asks the head of the KGB.

“Two-and-a-half million,” the KGB head replies. “But if we let them leave, there will be 6 million.”

By the time the Iron Curtain fell and Soviet Jews obtained the right to emigrate, there were 1.8 million Jews in the Soviet Union, including 570,000 in Russia, according to 1989 census data. Most have left since then, moving to Israel, the United States and Germany.

The Israeli Embassy in Moscow says it knows only about those who qualify for aliyah, or immigration to Israel, under Israel’s Law of Return. Under those criteria, anyone with a Jewish grandparent is eligible.

The Nativ organization, which deals with aliyah in the former Soviet Union, estimated that 530,000 Russians meet the criteria for aliyah, according to embassy spokesman Alex Goldman-Shaiman. How many are legitimately Jewish is unknown, he said.

Mark Tolts, a demographer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the author of the “Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe,” estimates that only about 255,000 Jews live in Russia. He bases his figures on census data.

“If you speak of a million Jews, show me the method with which you counted them,” Tolts said. “Given the proliferation of mixed marriages among the Jews of the former Soviet Union in the last generations, it is very difficult to empirically determine the number of Jews, according to halachah. Demographers base their figures on the statistic data they have. These are mainly census results, vital and migration statistics.”

Tolts says that 1.5 million people did not state their nationality during the 2002 census; he guesses that at least 20,000 were Jews.

However, Tolts’ figure of 255,000 refers only to the so-called “core Jewish population” — the aggregate of those who, when asked, identify themselves as Jews or, in the case of children, are identified as such by their parents. It does not include those of Jewish origin who report another ethnicity in the census. Russian passports dropped the ethnicity field in 1994.

To complicate matters, some Russians of Jewish lineage are baptized yet still identify as Jews when asked about ethnicity.

“The main dilemma is who should be called Jews,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of NSCJ.

Flowers, of the International Christian Embassy, called counting Russia’s Jews “one of the trickiest questions facing man.”

His organization recently provided the Jewish Agency for Israel with a list of 1.2 million people in Russia whose names sound Jewish, all of whom were found in online and print telephone directories.

In 2004, a similar list of 30,000 names among St. Petersburg residents was examined. The Jewish Agency chose 10,000 that seemed Jewish and called them. More than 2,000 expressed some interest either in immigrating to Israel or in Jewish community events, according to Flowers.

Along with halachic and ethnic standards, he said the methodology introduced a new way of counting Jews: “phonetically.”