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Since the fall of communism, synagogues have functioned as community centers, drawing Jews to them for the “fun holidays” of Purim and Hanukkah. Most Jews go to synagogues not to pray, but to express sentimental attachments to tradition and Jewishness. As an employee of a Ukrainian Jewish organization put it: “I am not religious… but I try to attend a synagogue for Jewish holidays or celebrate those holidays with my own people, observing all the rules traditional for each holiday. I do that in order to preserve the traditions and not for religious reasons…”
Historically, Jews have drawn two boundary lines to define themselves against others: A Jew cannot practice a faith other than Judaism, and a Jew should not marry a non-Jew. These boundaries helped preserve the Jewish faith and the Jewish collective.
But in the Former Soviet Union, boundaries between Judaism and Christianity are blurring more rapidly than in the United States. In our studies, only a third of the respondents would condemn Jews who convert to Christianity.
The other boundary — prohibiting Jews from marrying non-Jews — has also eroded more rapidly among Russian Jews than in the United States. The Soviet state encouraged inter-ethnic marriage as a means of overcoming “outmoded superstitions,” promoting understanding among the nationalities and advancing toward the “mutual assimilation of nations.”
In 1926, the intermarriage rate was 3% in Belorussia and 5% in Ukraine, but 17% in Russia. By 1936, the rates had climbed all over the USSR, with a large leap, 37%–42% percent, in Russia. Following mass emigration between 1971–2007, the “Jewish marriage market” shrunk and intermarriage rates skyrocketed.
Today probably eight of 10 Jews marrying in Russia marry non-Jews. Demographer Mark Tolts has calculated that in Russia, three of four children born in 1998 who are Jewish according to Halacha have non-Jewish fathers.
The political and cultural contexts in which American and Soviet Jews lived could hardly have been more different. In the USSR, all forms of Jewish education and meaningful religious life were gone by the late 1940s, whereas in the United States neither state nor society places any limits on Jewish culture or religion. Soviet people were expected to be at least a-religious and preferably anti-religious, while the United States has long been the most religious society in the West.