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During the Third Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia Forum in Moscow, the participants reviewed the results of the federation's work over the past five years and identified problems to be solved in the future
The problems of identity, tolerance and xenophobia are not only relevant to Russia's Jewish community but also to any modern multinational and multi-religious society. "Anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem," Valery Engel, the executive director of the federation, said, "it is a problem for the whole society." Indeed, anti-Semitism is just one form of xenophobia, and many people, including Jews, have caught this disease. This RIA Novosti analyst has heard some Jews say that the "chyorni" (the Russian name for people from the Caucasus) should be expelled from Moscow, which is similar to the skinheads' awful slogan, "Jews, get out of Russia." In Russia, there is not systematic animosity between Jews and Muslims or Muslims and Orthodox Christians or Orthodox Christians and Jews, and so on. However, there is domestic xenophobia among Jews, Russians and Muslims. Engel said, "the main reason Russia's tolerance program is ineffective is that it was developed without representatives of the country's traditional religions." Religion definitely teaches tolerance, but so far, the dialogue between rabbis, priests and muftis has not grown into an inter-community dialogue. Isolated incidents do not change the general picture. The general trend is the more secluded a person within his community, the more he fears people from other nations and of different religions. How can Judaism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which are all based on the concept that they are chosen, teach tolerance? This is a philosophical question. The practical question is: how can a community survive and retain its identity in times of globalization? It is not a coincidence that during the forum, Chief Rabbi of Russia Berl Lazar said that identity was one of the most complicated problems. Do Jews identify themselves as Jews? He said that the results of the 2002 Russian census were "absurd." According to the census, there are 230,000 Jews in Russia, but the rabbi maintains that only every tenth Jew reported his nationality in the census. According to Rabbi Lazar, the reason is that "there is still fear from the Soviet times and that people are ashamed of being Jewish. Also, some people have lost their roots and do not live according to Jewish traditions." What is the correct figure? Borukh Gorin, the spokesman for the federation, said, "different estimates show that there are 230,000-10 million Jews in Russia. But 1 million seems the most likely figure." In order to find out the truth, the federation intends to conduct its own census. The federation will cooperate with genealogical societies and compile family trees and special community books. "Without [a census]," he said, "we will be unable to imagine how the country's Jewish community should develop or how many synagogues and rabbis we need." The idea is clear, however, who will be considered a Jew and for whom will the new synagogues and centers be opened? According to Jewish religious tradition (Halakha), strictly followed by the federation, nationality is matriarchal. Therefore, only people with a Jewish mother (or grandmother) can be assisted by the federation and use its services (language courses, classes in traditions, gyms, libraries, etc.). However, during Jewish holidays the center is open to everyone. The problem is that many of those who are not traditionally considered Jews identify themselves as Jews. A child usually takes his father's last name. After living their entire life with a Jewish last name, which often entails being mocked and all the "delights" of domestic and - in the Soviet Union - state anti-Semitism, it is difficult for people to come to terms with the fact that it was a "mistake" and that "their own people" now reject them. This realization was a blow to many Soviet citizens in the early 1990s. At the same time, there are many people in Russia, who are considered Jews by Halakha and yet have never thought about their roots or remained indifferent to them. People with a Jewish grandmother were brought up in a completely different environment and they are unlikely to ever go to a synagogue or community center. Neither genealogical research nor an increase in the number of rabbis will make them identify themselves as Jews, even if they are listed as such. Of course, some Russians are happy to discover their Jewish roots and not because of the chance to emigrate or send their children to school. These people, alien to the Jewish culture, are happy just to learn about the traditions of their ancestors. Israeli cultural centers, Sokhnut organisations and other non-religious Jewish youth organizations scattered throughout the CIS almost never ask about a person's nationality or his degree of Jewishness and religion. If a person goes there and takes part in the programs with the others, he belongs. There have been cases when people without Jewish blood teach Jewish traditions and pride in Jewish history in Jewish camps and Sunday schools. These people went to these centers out of curiosity or with their friends and subsequently found new friends, new interests and sometimes loved ones. They have not become Jews, but have opened a new world for themselves; this is their vaccine against xenophobia toward other nations. Rabbi Berl Lazar is right to a certain extent: the problem of identity can partially be solved with education. The more synagogues, Jewish community centers and schools there are, the better. The generation that grew up after the Soviet Union's collapse and received an opportunity to study their roots is not ashamed of their nationality and religion. Nor is this generation afraid to discuss these issues with others. All of them are different: some strictly follow traditions while others do not; and some declare their Jewishness all the time, while others prefer not to highlight it. However, most people in this generation, whom this RIA Novosti analyst has spoken with, say that they do not care what the state or rabbis label them, as the most important thing is how they identify themselves
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