Historical Background on Judaism in the Former Soviet Union

In 1917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Czar of Russia and seized power, a ruthless campaign to destroy all vestiges of Jewish life in the new Soviet Union began. All expressions of Judaism were outlawed, and those who tried to practice religion were mercilessly persecuted. As a result, millions of Jews were forced to give up their heritage.


Seventy years later, Soviet authorities loosened their control. Hundreds of thousands of Jews seized the freedom so long denied them and emigrated to Israel or other countries. However, millions of Jews remain in the Soviet Union (estimates run as high as 2-5 million). Russian Jewry still ranks as the fourth-largest Jewish community in the world, behind Israel, the United States, and France.


With the rebirth of religious life in the FSU underway, many challenges still confront the Jewish community. Both the economic and political climates are unstable. Educational and cultural programs have not yet reached hundreds of thousands of unaffiliated Jewish adults and children. There is also a prevailing notion that decades of isolation from a Jewish way of life somehow make the average Russian unqualified to try to "be Jewish" in his/her home, much less assume a leadership role.


In light of this history, Rabbi Steinsaltz founded the Institute of Jewish Studies in the CIS to give the Jews of the FSU the knowledge, the tools, and the pride to rediscover their Jewish heritage.