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A Haven for Russian Jews Withers

Hard times hit a remote but once-vibrant center of Yiddish culture

Before there was a State of Israel, there was Birobidzhan, Russia. In the late 1920s, the international Jewish community, eager to create a national homeland under the still-unsullied Soviet banner of social justice, sent money and volunteers to Birobidzhan. The people and the dreams that they brought with them are hardly remembered now.

Birobidzhan has come full circle since the days when it attracted thousands of Jewish settlers from the Ukraine and Belarus. Seven huge factories built during the Stalin era transformed Birobidzhan from a vibrant center of Yiddish culture to a cog in the Soviet industrial machine. Now, they're bankrupt. And market capitalism's promises, made by Moscow reformers, have gone unfulfilled in this backwater. In increasing numbers, the Jews that have remained in this city see their future in Israel.

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Birobidzhan, population 75,000, is one of the last stops eastward along the trans-Siberian railroad. If not for the fact that its name is written in oversize Hebrew characters on top of the station house, there would be little to show that this provincial factory town existed for 60 years as the official homeland of Soviet Jews.

Jews still here today say that the sign above the railway station is practically the only Jewish thing left in Birobidzhan. Thousands of Jews have left this small Russian city for Israel in the past six years. Last year, nearly one-tenth of all Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union were from Birobidzhan.

Ironically, Birobidzhan Jews had come to feel at home in this remote corner of Russia in a way that many of their counterparts in European Russia never did.

"In the Far East, it is easier," says Mark Miller, a former factory boss who now lives in the neighboring city of Khabarovsk. "It is not Ukraine or Belarus ... where people have blood ties to the land. Everybody here is from someplace else, so the Jews are not imposing on anybody." When the first waves of Soviet emigres left for Israel in the 1970s, most here decided to stay put.

'People are running away'

"I'm skeptical that everybody is leaving now because they dream of being united with their historical motherland," says Ina Dmitrienko, the editor of Birobidzhan's Yiddish-language daily. "People are running away from their problems. Confidence in the future is almost completely absent here ... although things in Israel are hardly any better at the moment. They have everything we do - the army, the draft, and terrorists to boot."

Even so, the line for Israeli immigration visas is not getting any shorter at the city's Palace of Culture. A makeshift Israeli consulate set up there once a month handles a flood of applications. By official figures, there were only 9,000 Jews in Birobidzhan in 1989. Since 7,500 have left since then, 1,500 Jews should be in the city today.

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But with hard times, many people have begun to take a closer look at their family background. "The more Jews that leave, the more Jews that remain," says David Weisserman, a city official who recently wrote a book on Birobidzhan's history and keeps statistics on Jewish emigration. He estimates that 20 percent of Birobidzhan's population is made up of assimilated Jews.

"For years after Stalin purged the Jews [1949 to 1953] people tried to avoid registering their nationality as Jewish," he says. "But now when it is a way of getting out, everybody is remembering that they are Jewish."

"To tell you the truth, I don't know why Israel needs those kinds of Jews," says a retired teacher, voicing a common sentiment of the stay-put crowd. "First the real Jews left, then people who were half-Jewish, and now the people who are one-quarter Jewish. Most of these people never had a Jewish thought in their head until they thought about leaving."

Charter flights direct to Tel Aviv

But Arkady Gelftman, who works for the repatriation agency Sokhnut in Khabarovsk, sees the issue differently. "I don't think that all of the Jews who left Europe after World War II were Zionists," he says.

Every two weeks, Mr. Gelftman escorts over 100 Jewish emigres to Khabarovsk's international airport and puts them on a charter flight to Tel Aviv. He estimates that 70 percent of those leaving are from Birobidzhan, with the remainder from other nearby factory towns.

When asked their reasons for leaving, most cite economic opportunity: for the unemployed, a steady job; for the elderly, a pension; for the young, an education and the chance to use it. But underneath the dreams of prosperity, there is a basic desire to have confidence in the future - something which is in painfully short supply in Russia these days.

Many Jews worry that a shift in Moscow's political climate after the June presidential elections would be felt in the Russian Far East, traditionally a friendlier place for Russian Jews. "If [presidential candidate Gennady] Zyuganov and the Communists win the election, that's it!" says Natasha, a young seamstress who left recently for Tel Aviv. "Again there will be all the accusations, and it will turn out that we're guilty of everything."

The guarantee of basic social and economic security that Israel offers acts like a powerful magnet, even on those who want to stay here to try to restore a measure of Birobidzhan's former cultural vitality. "I want to say that if the economic situation improves, Jewish culture here won't just survive, but flourish," Jewish editor Dmitrienko insists. "The people who are leaving aren't leaving because they want to, but because they have to."

But she admits that circumstances might force her to consider emigration. "I don't know," she says, "maybe I will need to leave. A lot depends on what will happen with the economy and politics.... Then I'll see whether I still want to live in this country."

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