Jewish Education and Its Outcomes: Knowledge and Interests among Jewish Summer Camp Participants in the Former Soviet Union

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Abstract

The current research is based on two surveys conducted in 2011 and 2012 at nine youth camps organized for high school students' education and recreation by the Jewish Agency for Israel in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. Among the campers who responded to our survey, over two-thirds have attended Jewish schools or clubs. However, the study has shown that most respondents had a very limited knowledge of general Jewish and especially Israeli history: only under a quarter (24.7%) came up with three post-biblical names of historical Jewish figures. Recalling three meaningful names in the history of the State of Israel proved to be even more challenging: nearly half of respondents could not recall a single name (47.6%) and only 22.8% stated three relevant names. Respondents also manifested poor familiarity with the history of Russian Jewry over the last two centuries, i.e. their own cultural heritage that apparently is not transferred from parents to children in their (usually ethnically-mixed) families.

Introduction

Experts and community leaders are often concerned about the future of post-Soviet Jewry - a national minority that is constantly diminishing due to emigration and demographic decline - advanced age composition and low birth rates (see, for example, Konstantinov, 2007). Every new census points to the shrinking numbers of the Jews living in post-Soviet states: according to the last Russian census of 2010, Jews merely occupy the 33rd place among the ethnic groups. While the 2002 census reported on nearly 230.000 Jews, in 2010 their number barely reached 157.000 (data retrieved from official websites of Russian government). In Ukraine, the latest census took place in 2001, showing that Jews held the 10th place among the ethnic groups (103.000 people), which means that the Jewish population decreased five times since the last Soviet census in 1989 (Ukrainian statistical office website). Obviously, the next census scheduled for 2013 will reflect the progressive downturn of the Ukrainian Jewish population. In Belarus, the latest census dates back to 2009, and about 13.ooo people there identified as Jews (although it was enough to rank the Jews as the 5th ethnic group behind Belarusians, Russians, Poles and Ukrainians). Thus, in all three of the post-Soviet Slavic states Jews turn out to be small and shrinking minorities, and their social and cultural survival as a distinct ethnic group is getting more and more difficult.

This is why Jewish education plays such a central role in Jewish survival, being the key both to overcoming the consequences of cultural assimilation during the Soviet era and to keeping the spark of Jewish community life today. The decline in the Jewish emigration to Israel, North America and Germany in the recent years has boosted the importance of the Jewish education in the post-Soviet countries, alongside with other community activities.

The current research is based on two surveys. The first one was conducted at five youth camps organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) with support of American Jewish federations in the summer of 2011 in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova; the other one was carried out at four Jewish youth camps in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine in July 2012. I have visited seven out of nine camps included in the research - those in Minsk (2011 and 2012), in the village of Slavskoye in the Lvov region (2011 and 2012), in Kishinev (2011), in Saint-Petersburg (2012), and in Samara (2012). All the questionnaires in Kishinev, Lvov/Slavskoe and Minsk in 2011, as well as the questionnaires from all the four camps visited in 2012, were filled out in my presence. Questionnaires from Kiev and Khabarovsk were administered with the help of the Jewish Agency's representatives. The thorough study of the results from these camps proved that students answered the questions frankly, without any external pressure. A structured questionnaire for the participants was composed in 2004 under the direction of Dr. …