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Soviets Plan Jewish Studies Center, Training of Rabbis

Times Staff Writer

The first center of Jewish studies here in more than half a century will open early next year as part of a new academy of world civilizations, the project’s organizers announced Tuesday.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a leading scholar of modern Judaism from Jerusalem, said the center will train “a new generation of rabbis in Russia” and conduct research in the vast historical archives on Judaism in Soviet libraries.

“These are developments of tremendous significance for Soviet Jews, for international Judaic studies and for the Soviet Union as a secular society too,” Steinsaltz said. “We know, of course, of the Soviet Union’s desire to make changes, drastic changes, and these will constitute such changes.”

Steinsaltz said that the center, part of a broader project by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the World Laboratory, an international science group, will open in February with 40 students and 10 foreign teachers. Steinsaltz, an internationally respected Talmudic scholar, is expected to be the first director.

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“The idea is to have a free academic atmosphere in which all sorts of philosophies and religions and traditions, including ours, can be studied and discussed,” Steinsaltz said. “This concept alone is unprecedented in the Soviet Union.”

Although the official focus of the center will be research and the training of scholars, Steinsaltz said, “we will also be educating rabbis and other religious functionaries, such as teachers of Hebrew.”

“Russia was the heartland of Jewish culture for more than three centuries,” Steinsaltz said, recalling the growth and strength--despite repeated pogroms--of the Jewish communities here in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. “Now, if they wish, they could revive some of the glory that was once here. For myself, I think it is the beginning of the renewal of Jewish cultural and religious life here.”

The freedom to study Judaism or even learn Hebrew was outlawed soon after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. With a policy of state atheism, religious education outside the home was prohibited, and the yeshivas, or religious schools, that had flourished in such cities as Kiev and Minsk were closed.

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Soviet Jews have managed in recent years to study Jewish traditions, religious law and Hebrew at clandestine classes held under strict security in apartments, but a number of teachers have been arrested and imprisoned. A few Soviet Jews have been trained as rabbis in Hungary in the past 15 years.

The continued official restrictions on Jewish religious and cultural life have led tens of thousands of Soviet Jews to emigrate over the past 15 years in a flow that is continuing despite the general political liberalization under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Freedom to Teach

“We will have all the freedom we need to teach, to work and to create our own structures,” Steinsaltz said. “This all will be watched, of that I am sure, but it will not be managed by outsiders. And our hope, and theirs, is that there will be enough local people trained to take over the center’s operations. We foreigners are coming just to bridge the gap of several generations without Jewish education.”

Viktor Gelovani, a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, said in a separate interview that the new, still unnamed institute will also have centers for the study of Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Other departments will focus on arms control, ecology and additional issues of human survival that fall outside the usual curriculum of Soviet universities, he said.

“This will be a university for world civilizations and for some of the most pressing questions facing all mankind,” Gelovani said. “For us, the concept is new, the topics are new, and the approach is new.”

But the World Laboratory, a young organization, has not yet found space to house the new institute, its staff and students, Gelovani said. “We have an agreement,” he said, “but we have not solved all our problems.”

The project has a powerful patron in Yevgeny P. Velikhov, a vice president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the Soviet head of the World Laboratory organization and a senior adviser to Gorbachev.

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Pilot Cataloguing Program

The second part of the project is a one-year pilot program, expected to cost more than $1 million, that will introduce the most modern copying, cataloguing and storage technology in the Soviet Union, using the vast collections of Jewish books, manuscripts and other records in Soviet libraries.

“We want to see what the appropriate techniques, what the appropriate technologies are for preserving and managing large collections of material, some of it very old, very fragile and very valuable,” Gelovani said. “We have no experience in this, but this gives us an opportunity to try out the most modern, most sophisticated methods in an area where the materials are of substantial international interest.”

Most of the material will be copied by highly sophisticated computer-linked cameras onto laser-read optical discs, although some will be stored in other ways, also for computer retrieval. The work will be done in affiliation with libraries, including the U.S. Library of Congress and New York Public Library, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Oxford and Cambridge universities. The Soviet costs will be financed largely by the International Council for Soviet Judaica.

The next step, Gelovani said, will be to agree on standard systems to facilitate exchanges of archival material among scholarly libraries.

“The collections here, particularly in Leningrad, are not only enormous but contain much unique material of great importance for Judaic studies,” Steinsaltz said. “The Russians were the first to acquire much material; they got whole books, even whole libraries, where others got scattered pages. There are bigger collections, but the ones here are of immense importance for the history of philosophy and the history of science as well as for Jewish studies.

Unknown Book of Aristotle

“Some of the books they have we did not know existed--for example, what may be an unknown book of Aristotle. . . . Soviet archives have opened slightly in the past few years, but this will permit a real opening for international scholars.”

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Steinsaltz said that Soviet interest in the project was increased by the fire earlier this year at the Leningrad branch of the Academy of Sciences, in which thousands of historical records were destroyed along with a large collection of rare books.

“That I am an Israeli and there are no diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union does not seem to bother anyone,” he said. “Of course, I do not represent either Israel or the Jewish establishment, but I have encountered no hatred as an Israeli and, quite the contrary, get some more respect because of it.”

Steinsaltz, 51, whose parents emigrated from Russia, has given several public lectures, including one in Hebrew, on theological and religious themes under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences.


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