Cleveland's Engagement with St. Petersburg
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by Neil Waxman, Chair of the Overseas Connections Committee
Until the late 1700’s, Russia generally prohibited Jews from living within its boundaries, but suddenly found itself the “beneficiary” of over 1,000,000 Jews upon the annexation of Poland. From that period until recent times, Russian policy toward its Jews has vacillated between assimilation, discrimination, and isolation, compounded by 4 years of Nazi assault on the Pale of Settlement, bringing desecration and mass execution.
With the deterioration of Communism in the late 1980’s, the world got its first real glimpse of the remnants of Judaism in the Former Soviet Union (FSU): what we found when the curtain lifted was over 2,000,000 Jews. Ironically the Russian government’s obsession with keeping census data for all citizens of Jewish decent turned out to be a blessing, because many of these Jews were unaware of their own heritage. You see, their parents hid this from them out of fear of overt discrimination. With the exception of the Refusenik movement, which was in fact spearheaded in St. Petersburg, and some “closeted” Jews who secretly worshiped in private, Judaism in Russia laid dormant for a century, one generation from probable extinction. After losing 6,000,000 to the Nazi’s, the world Jewish community had a chance to redeem millions. As part of a larger plan of US Jewish Federations and the American Joint Distribution Committee, Cleveland established a sister-city relationship with St. Petersburg. There were many parallels between the two cities: culturally, industrially, and on a relative basis, Jewishly.