Birobidzhan, Where Is It, What Is It? – A Second Israel?

I was cleaning up a going blind friend’s computer and I found a terrific story about Birobidzhan, a Jewish Autonomous Oblast I never heard of.

I looked this strange name place up and here is the story I found:

Birobidzhan is the administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (JAO), in Russia, located on the Trans-Siberian Railway, close to Russia’s border with China.

As of the 2010 Census, its population was 75,413.

The JAO is a federal subject of Russia, in the Russian Far East region, bordering with Khabarovsk Krai and Amur Oblast, in Russia, and Heilongjiang province, in China; its administrative center is the town Birobidzhan.

Planning Birobidzhan

Birobidzhan, planned by the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, established in 1931, is named after the two largest rivers in the Autonomous Oblast: the Bira and the Bidzhan, although only the Bira, which lies to the east of the Bidzhan Valley, flows through the town. Both rivers are tributaries of the Amur River.

Article 65 of the Russian Constitution provides JAO to be Russia’s only autonomous oblast, an administrative division or region in Russia and the former Soviet Union, and in some of its former constituent republics.

With this constitution provision, through circumstances, JOA has become one of two official Jewish territories in the world, the other one is the state of Israel.

Jewish Aspect

The unknown to me and I am certain to many others – Birobidzhan‘s Jewish aspect

JOA is one of two official Jewish territories in the world, the other one is the state of Israel.

Map of Birobidzhan
Map of Birobidzhan

In the late 1940s, the Jewish population in the region reached approximately 46,000-50,000, around 25% of the entire population. According to the 2010 Census, JAO’s population was 176,558 people, 0.1% of the total population of Russia; according to data provided by the Russian Census Bureau, by 2010 there were only 1,628 Jews left in the JAO, less than 1% of the population, while ethnic Russians made up 92.7% of the JAO population.

Judaism is practiced by only 0.2% of the population of the JAO.

In 1934 Birobidzhan became the Administrative center of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and its town status was granted to it in 1937.

The Yiddish writer David Bergelson played a large part in promoting Birobidzhan’s Jewish status, although he himself did not live there. Bergelson wrote articles, in the Yiddish language newspapers, published in other countries, extolling the region as an ideal escape from anti-Semitism elsewhere, a safe refuge for Jews. Because of Bergelson’s writing, at least 1,000 families from the United States and Latin America arrived to live in Birobidzhan.

Harsh Weather

Life in the mountainous region was not a walk in the park; it was rather difficult. Birobidzhan experiences a harsh, monsoon-influenced humid continental climate that is typified by very large seasonal temperature differences, with warm to hot, often humid, summers and severely cold and dry winters.

In her book on the region, ‘Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region‘, Masha Gessen writes that in the summer of 1928 there were torrential rains, causing flooding that washed out what little crop the new settlers had managed to plant, that was initially hindered by the late arrival of seeds. Their cattle arrived late too, only to be cut down by an anthrax epidemic that raged that first year. The settlers faced a cold winter of relentless hunger, surrounded by their ruined fields and ominous woods, where tiger and bears roamed.

“Shortly after the creation of Birobidzhan the Stalinist purges began. Jews in Birobidzhan were targeted, in the very Soviet way, specifically for what they came there for – for nationalism, for promoting their Yiddish language, for what they were told was a good thing to do just a couple of years earlier,″ explained Gessen in an interview in which she discussed her book.

Following World War II, from 1946 to 1948, tens of thousands of displaced Eastern European Jews found their way to Birobidzhan. Some were Ukrainian and Belarussian Jews who were not allowed to return to their original homes.

Once again Jews were targeted, when Joseph Stalin embarked on a campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans,” a code name for the Jews.

As a result, nearly all the Yiddish institutions of Birobidzhan were liquidated and Jews were executed, among them was David Bergelson, Birobidzhan’s early promoter, who was killed in 1952, on his 68th birthday.

Jewish and Yiddish Culture

Birobidzhan, a Yiddishland in the Far East:

While thousands of Jews migrated to Birobidzhan, the hardship and isolation caused few of them to stay.

According to Rabbi Mordechai Scheiner, Birobidzhan’s former chief rabbi who hosted the Russian television show, Yissishkeit, in the region, Jews can enjoy the benefits of the Yiddish culture and not be afraid to return to their Jewish ancient traditions. It’s safe in Birobidzhan, without any antisemitism.

In 2004 the Birobidzhan town’s synagogue was opened, and next to it is a complex housing that included Sunday School classrooms, a library, a museum, and administrative offices, all to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Yiddish theaters opened in the 1970s. But Jewish culture was revived in Birobidzhan much earlier than elsewhere in the Soviet Union. For almost fifteen years Yiddish and Jewish traditions have been required components in all public, taught not as Jewish exotica but as part of the region’s national heritage.

In 2007, the Birobidzhan International Summer Program for Yiddish Language and Culture was launched by Yiddish studies Professor Boris Kotlerman, of Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. The town’s main street is named after Sholom Aleichem the renowned Yiddish language author and humorist.

For the 2007 Chanukah celebration, Birobidzhan’s officials have built, what they claim to be, the world’s largest Menorah.

The Birobidzhan Jewish National University’ unique in the Russian Far East, works in cooperation with the local religious community. The basis of the training course is study of the Hebrew language, history and classic Jewish texts.

The town now boasts several state-run schools that teach Yiddish, as well as an Anglo-Yiddish faculty at its higher education college, a Yiddish school for religious instruction and a kindergarten. The five-to seven-year-olds spend two lessons a week learning to speak Yiddish, as well as being taught Jewish songs, dance and traditions.

For those parents who choose it, a public school offers a half-day Yiddish and Jewish curriculum. About half the school’s 120 pupils are enrolled in the Yiddish course. Many of them continue on to Public School No. 2, which offers the same half-day Yiddish/Jewish curriculum from first through 12th grade. Yiddish is also offered at Birobidzhan’s Pedagogical Institute, one of the only university-level Yiddish courses in the country. Today, the town’s fourteen public schools must teach Yiddish and Jewish tradition.

The November 2017 article in The Guardian, titled, “Revival of a Soviet Zion: Birobidzhan celebrates its Jewish heritage,” examined the current status of the city and suggested that even though the Jewish Autonomous Region in Russia’s Far East is now barely 1% Jewish, officials there hope to woo back people who left after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Had you heard of Birobidzhan? If not, now you have!

Nurit Greenger
During the 2006 second Lebanon War, Nurit Greenger, referenced then as the "Accidental Reporter" felt compelled to become an activist. Being an 'out-of-the-box thinker, Nurit is a passionately committed advocate for Jews, Israel, the United States, and the Free World in general. From Southern California, Nurit serves as a "one-woman Hasbarah army" for Israel who believes that if you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything.

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