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December 13, 2007 - Image 23

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2007-12-13

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Russia Changes

Soviet activists who stayed behind
help build a new Jewish life.

Matt Siegel
Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Second of two parts

Moscow

W

hen the Soviet govern-
ment began issuing exit
visas for Jews in 1987,
hundreds of thousands of people
trapped for decades reacted with
understandable exuberance.
What came next was a tidal wave of
aliyah, the largest since the creation
of the State of Israel in 1948, and then
the collapse of the USSR.
But for many Soviet Jews active in
the struggle to throw off the yoke of
Bolshevism, the question of emigra-
tion was more complicated. Some had
elderly relatives who couldn't make the
trip or younger children they feared to
uproot. Some simply couldn't abandon
their community.
While most of the emphasis
during this, the 40th anniver-
sary of their struggle, is being
placed on the plight of the
refuseniks and the worldwide
movement to free them, it was
the Jews who stayed behind
who became responsible for
the transformation of Jewish
life in the world's third largest
Diaspora community
"I found myself in the position
where most of my friends left and
everyone gave me some kind of heri-
tage," says Mikhail Chlenov, a major
player in the emigration movement
who ultimately chose not to leave.
Chlenov stayed, he says, "because
I was really deeply involved in the
building of this new community here,
which I actually predicted in 1976:'
He remained in Russia primarily
because he had three young children
at the time and was too involved in
community activity to uproot them.
His son Motya, now 37 and head
of the Moscow office of the World
Congress of Russian Jewry, was raised
in the refusenik movement. Motya
even attended what was referred to as
"refusenik kindergarten" at a country
house outside Moscow.

Looking Back
"One of my first memories was a large
table with lots of Jewish kids sitting
around:' Motya Chlenov recalls. "The
adult people were shmoozing about
things, about people who got arrested,
people who got refused, who got a
visa, but I wasn't participating in that."
Naomi Zubkova, a journalist and
translator who had longed to immi-
grate to Israel along with her brother
but stayed to take care of her parents,
describes her experience as very com-
mon.
"I wanted to go; I had friends in
Israel from summers. I wanted to go
then and I thought I'd find my place
there," she says. "But I couldn't go:'
While Zubkova seems satisfied with
the development of Jewish life, she
laments the current state of Russian
politics. She describes the lack of press
freedoms and increasing state control
of the media with barely contained
disgust.

Many of those who stayed
behind are strong-willed
intellectuals with Zionist
proclivities.

Many of those who stayed behind
to build the secular organs of com-
munal life fit a similar description:
strong-willed intellectuals with Zionist
proclivities.
Josef Zissels, 61, a native of
Chernovtzy, Ukraine, fits that bill as
well as anyone.
"I'm a traditional/Masorti Jew and
Zionist in a wider meaning of the
word',' he says. "The optimal formula is
strong Israel and strong diaspora."
He was a member of the human
rights movement in Ukraine and
the Soviet-era Jewish resistance.
Imprisoned twice for his work, Zissels
spent six years as a political prisoner
in the Soviet Gulag. But when the
time came to leave, Zissels, who spent
decades fighting for the rights of Jews

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Russia Changes on page A25

December 13 • 2007

A23

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