From tractors to Torah in Russia's Jewish land

Birobidzhan, Russia - The tractor plant in this curious Russian outpost once made machinery to work the land settled by Jewish immigrants under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Today the derelict factory in the far east of Siberia has a new purpose. It will reopen next year as a school for young Jews, as the region bearing their name slowly rediscovers a cultural identity confused by decades of Moscow's dominance.

Birobidzhan, capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region which skirts China's border, greets arrivals at its railway station seven time-zones east of Moscow with signs in Yiddish and a large decorative menorah.

Yet the 'Birobidzhan-style' dish on a local restaurant menu is a pork cutlet. Jews in the town are outnumbered nearly 20 to one and there was not even a synagogue until three years ago.

Stalin carved a Jewish homeland out of Russia's marshy, mosquito-ridden fringes in 1928 as part of a policy in which each national group in the Soviet Union had its own territory.

Six years later, the area was granted the status of autonomous oblast, or region.

But two-thirds of the original 40,000 settlers had left by the end of the 1930s. Despite Birobidzhan's huge distance from Moscow, it was not remote enough to shelter from Stalin's purges, when most local leaders were shot and religious schools crushed.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, 12,000 Jews left for Israel, Europe and the United States. Some are now returning.

"Today, for the fourth successive year, more Jews are coming here than are leaving," said Valery Gurevich, deputy chairman of the regional government and the son of original Jewish settlers.


Mordechay Shayner, an Israeli father of six, has been the rabbi in Birobidzhan for the last five years. Until the town's synagogue opened in 2004, services and study groups were held in his apartment.

The previous synagogue burned down in 1956. Scorched religious texts salvaged from the fire are preserved in a small museum in today's building, along with old photographs and a KGB blacklist of those who attended the original synagogue.

"My parents were born in Russia, so I know how it was. People were scared to think," 35-year-old Shayner, with a thick black beard and wearing a yarmulka, says in accented Russian.

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia estimates the number of Jews in Russia at about 1 million, or 0.7 percent of the country's 143 million population.

Shayner says there are 4,000 Jews in Birobidzhan -- just over 5 percent of the town's 75,000 population.

"It's not a small percentage, but people expect it to be more because of the region's name," he says. "The region is called 'Jewish' but it has never been particularly religious."

Shayner studied at the same U.S. institute as Berl Lazar, one of two chief rabbis in Russia. Since being invited to his post by Lazar, he has seen a gradual increase in numbers at the synagogue.

Up to 30 people gather three times a week in the building, located in the centre of the town of five-storey apartment blocks and tree-lined streets.

Shayner is also setting up an Internet link to allow locals to send email requests direct to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Between 90 and 100 pupils have enrolled for the new school, which is being funded by Russian and foreign benefactors.


The Jewish Autonomous Region, an area the size of Taiwan and home to 185,000 people, derives much of its income from cross-border trade with China.

But Jewish tradition is preserved in business. A chain of food stores is called 'Tzimmes', after a sweet Jewish dish containing fruit, vegetables and often meat.

Shayner says there is no single reason why people are returning to Russia, though disillusionment with life abroad and a desire to return to family roots play a part.

"I know a family who lived in Israel for 13 years and have returned," he said. Gurevich, the deputy governor, says it's impossible to give an accurate estimate of the region's Jewish population today.

"It was once said that every fourth person was a Jew. It's less than that now, but it's hard to say how many Jews there are because there are many mixed marriages," he said.

He tells an anecdote to illustrate that some residents are not even aware whether they are Jewish.

"I asked one guy if he was Jewish. He said no, but that his mother was. 'That means you're Jewish too!' I told him. People might not be Jews, but they live Jewish-style."