Builder of Jewish Life in Russia is Now Accused of Hindering Its Growth

By Nathaniel Popper

Published August 22, 2007, issue of August 24, 2007.
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Until recently, the men and women responsible for leading Jewish life in Russia have avoided biting the hand that feeds them.

The hand, in this case, is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a New York-based charity that is responsible for much of the Jewish development in the former Soviet Union since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

However, the hesitation to talk about the JDC’s shortcomings appears to be fading. Earlier this year, Jewish communal leaders in St. Petersburg rose up together to criticize the JDC’s administration of the city’s Jewish life. Now the dissent appears to be spreading beyond St. Petersburg, as several leaders from across the former Soviet Union have come forward to publicly chastise the organization. In recent months, Russian publications have contained broadsides against the JDC from leaders in Baku, Azerbaijan; Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Kishinev, Moldova; Kharkov, Ukraine; Kiev, and Moscow.

“We can observe the same outrageous things happening in St. Petersburg, Kharkov, Odessa and Kishinev,” wrote Rimma Golovina, a communal leader in Tashkent, in a July article in a local Jewish newspaper.

The JDC’s work in the former Soviet Union is multifaceted, and many leaders have praised the organization for feeding and caring for thousands of elderly Jews in the region. But the JDC is also responsible for building the community of tomorrow, and it has been on this front that it has come under attack.

“There is a local leadership and a local vision, and the JDC is normally ignoring these efforts and avoiding being in touch with the local community leaders,” said Michael Chlenov, secretary general of the Euro Asian Jewish Congress.

The anger comes as the JDC is changing its strategy in the former Soviet Union and attempting to scale back its financial commitments in the region.

“It’s time for the Soviet community to stand on its own two feet,” said Steve Schwager, the JDC’s executive vice president, “and it’s time for the American community to put its money elsewhere.”

Schwager said that the organization’s critics are mostly established local leaders who are unhappy with the JDC’s funding cuts.

The JDC’s budget in the former Soviet Union has remained at around $100 million over the past few years, the majority of it from American Jewish federations and from Holocaust restitution agreements. But while the number has stayed the same in real terms, Schwager says that the decline in the value of the dollar has meant that the money does not go nearly as far as it used to.

Tankred Golenpolsky, editor of the Moscow-based International Jewish Gazette, agreed that the JDC’s problems had arisen largely because the JDC had decided to rein in spending.

“This brought forward dissatisfaction with people who think that money is going to grow forever from the sky,” Golenpolsky said.

The JDC’s critics are emerging from many different corners. In Moscow, the former head of the Russian Jewish Congress published an attack, as did the terminated former director of the local Jewish community center. In Baku, it was the head of the Humanitarian Association of Jewish Women who wrote a July diatribe in the online publication Around the same time, a journalist in Kishinev published a piece about the situation there, arguing that the JDC made decisions behind “closed doors.”

“Doesn’t the community have the right to know about the decisions and participate?” the writer asked.

Most of these critics do not complain about cutbacks in funding, but instead focus on what they see as the JDC’s habit of overruling or pushing aside the local leaders who will likely take over leadership of the community once the JDC exits. Golovina said that when her organization, the Tashkent Jewish Cultural Community Center, began to exercise some independence, the JDC opened a new center.

“All budgets and funds were redirected to this new ‘virtual’ center, and a new mansion was built for it,” Golovina wrote in a July issue of the newspaper We Are Here.

“If only those naïve Americans, who donate their money to the ‘Joint’ and arrive in the region as missionaries, saw clearly that they are being deceived,” she wrote.

Joint officials in New York and Jerusalem say that they have opened competing Jewish agencies in some areas because they were not comfortable with the financial arrangements set up by the local leaders.

The most severe problems continue to come from St. Petersburg, which has one of Russia’s largest Jewish populations. During the past year, nearly every local Jewish communal leader has gone public with criticism of the JDC’s leadership tactics.

The root of many problems in St. Petersburg is a new Jewish community center that, if local leaders are to be believed, was built with little input from locals. The JDC has informed the head of the existing JCC that it will lose funding after this year. Since the initial criticism, the JDC has attempted to heal the wounds with certain local leaders. Also, Schwager made a trip to the city this week to talk with critics.

“We continue to talk with people,” Schwager said, “but organizationally we have a long-term vision.”

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