“No one conceived of the notion there would ever be vibrant Jewish life in the Soviet Union,” said Asher Ostrin. “Now they’ve disproved it big time.”
Ostrin has worked with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee since 1986, first serving as the director of the Vienna office and the country director for Yugoslavia, then, since 1991, as director of the former Soviet Union department. He visited Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation over the weekend of March 8.
Ostrin, an ordained Conservative rabbi, is an old friend and former classmate of Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum. Over Shabbat, he gave two lectures about his experiences working with diaspora Jewish communities, particularly in the former Soviet Union.
“The fight for Soviet Jewry was really a seminal event for an entire generation,” Ostrin told JTNews. Getting Jews out of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s was an effort, in part, to halt the Soviet agenda of assimilation, a concept taken for granted as final and irreversible.
“There was no real notion that anything was left behind. This was four generations of this all-powerful system doing everything it could to erase any vestige of anything Jewish,” said Ostrin. “It was the end of the chapter, of the book.”
Except it wasn’t. In his almost three decades of working with Eastern European Jewish communities, Ostrin has been struck by the unprecedented return to Judaism by younger generations.
“There’s never been a case in Jewish history where an entire community has completely disconnected from their Jewish background [and come back],” he said.
Today, the JDC supports Jews in over 600 locations in Russia alone, providing assistance to needy families, elderly, and victims of emergencies, and supporting Jewish community centers in the revitalization of Jewish life. Jews who came of age in the 1990s have reclaimed their heritage en masse, gathering at Hillels for parties and holidays, often defying their parents’ and grandparents’ legitimate paranoia.
As for why this is happening, “I’ve never found an explanation that was satisfying for me,” Ostrin said. “The Soviets were so thorough in their efforts to undermine — they wouldn’t stop at anything.
“The Nazis come in, you’re going to be killed by the Nazis. If you survive the Nazis then it’s the writers’ plot and the doctors’ plot. If the Nazis don’t get you, the communists will get you. If the communists don’t get you, then somebody else is going to get you. And then all of a sudden when it opens up, and your children are singing ‘Shalom Aleichem’ on Friday morning…I gave up trying to figure out why.”
Ostrin shared the story of a couple, recently made aware their Jewish roots, sent to lead a Passover seder in a northern Ukrainian town with a population of about 700 Jews. Expecting around 100-200 attendees, they rented space in an art school — a building formerly used for the Communist party headquarters. The hammer and sickle emblem remained above the door.
The room quickly reached capacity, and soon 500-600 people were there hoping to partake. When the leader, only 23 years old, reached the cup of Elijah, he proceeded to explain the connection between Elijah, the messiah, and Passover.
An older man, decorated with medals, stood up and told the leader he’d enjoyed himself until the talk about the messiah.
“What kind of nonsense is that?” Ostrin recounted. “It’s ideology. We’re finished with all that stuff. Why do you even bring it up?”
The young leader, Ostrin said, didn’t miss a beat.
“He says, ‘You know, you’re right,’” recounts Ostrin. “‘I can’t empirically prove there’s a messiah.’ And he says, ‘I want to ask you a question. If you and I had taken a stroll down the main street in this town 10 years ago, and we walked past this building, the Communist Party headquarters, and I would have said to you, you see this Communist Party headquarters? Ten years from now there’s going to be a seder, and hundreds of Jews are going to show up. You tell me what’s more implausible: That there’s going to be a messiah, or a seder?’”
Ostrin said that what he’s seen in his time defies academic or ethnographic predictions, even natural law.
“All the stuff that you read in the books, and all the theories, it’s all great, but it’s what’s going to happen on the ground that’s going to prove [the reality],” he said.
When things get tough, Ostrin said he remembers the story of the Passover seder.
“In essence, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “The empirical evidence all would point to the end of Soviet Jewry. But [it’s] the opposite.”