Known as the Va‘ad (council) of the USSR, the Federation of Jewish Communities and Organizations was founded in late 1989 with the development of an overt Jewish movement under perestroika and glasnost. Unlike the majority of national movements or “fronts” that emerged rapidly between 1988 and 1991, the Jewish movement did not link its aspirations for a national revival with any particular territory in the USSR. It was characterized by two conflicting approaches. One argued that the struggle for aliyah (emigration to Israel) should be its exclusive focus; the other, while insisting on the right to aliyah, also sought a Jewish national and cultural revival in the USSR. After most refuseniks were allowed to depart and mass emigration began, the second position predominated. “Informal” (i.e., unregistered) Jewish clubs and cultural societies arose, like similar groups among other nationalities. By the end of 1989, the number of Jewish organizations exceeded 200. Among these were Evreiskaia Kul’turnaia Assotsiatsiia (Jewish Cultural Association), established in 1988; Soiuz Prepodavatelei Ivrita/Igud Morim (Association of Hebrew Teachers); Evreiskoe Istoricheskoe Obshchestvo (Jewish Historical Society); Obshchestvo Druzhby i Kul’turnykh Sviazei c Izrailem (Association for Friendship and Cultural Ties with Israel); and Irgun Tsiyoni (Zionist Organization), founded in August 1989.
The new circumstances created by glasnost and perestroika enabled not only the establishment of individual sociocultural groups, but also their coordination. A Conference of Jewish Organizations of the USSR was held in Riga on 21–22 May 1989, attended by 120 delegates representing some 50 organizations from 34 cities. Among others, it set up a coordinating committee to prepare the creation of the Congress of Jewish Communities and Organizations of the USSR.
The Va‘ad’s founding congress was held in Moscow on 18–22 December 1989. Apparently, about 400 delegates representing 210 organizations and communities from 73 different cities took part, along with representatives of 55 Jewish organizations from abroad. The charter that they adopted defined the Va‘ad as a voluntary association of Soviet Jewish organizations and a confederation with membership limited to organizations. Mikhail Chlenov (Moscow), Iosif Zissels (Ukraine), and Samuil Zil’berg (Latvia) became the cochairs. A secretariat, a bureau for repatriation (aliyah) and emigration, a public council to combat antisemitism, and a Jewish information center were created. At first the Va‘ad was courted, perhaps even manipulated, by foreign Jewish organizations as the first national Jewish organization in the USSR. Later, however, the Va‘ad asserted its independence and demanded both recognition and representation in international Jewish bodies proportionate to the size of the Soviet Jewish population. The Va‘ad’s goals were the renewal of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union, its reintegration into the world Jewish community as an equal partner, monitoring Jews’ right to emigrate, especially to Israel, and the combating of antisemitism. According to Chlenov, the Va‘ad “from the very beginning viewed itself as a Zionist organization, acknowledging the principle of Israel’s centrality in Jewish life.” Initially, however, international Zionist organizations did not recognize the Va‘ad as such.
The Va‘ad was the main Jewish umbrella organization in the USSR in 1990 and 1991. Its leadership sought to establish an independent policy even while international Jewish organizational structures provided financing. The Va‘ad’s activities were deeply affected by chaotic conditions during the last stages of perestroika and by the instability engendered in the Jewish organizations by the mass emigration movement. Under these conditions, the organization concentrated on representative functions and on formulating general positions. Without its own financial base, it did not engage extensively in either developing cultural programs or in addressing the concrete problems of local communities, which suffered from a dearth of office facilities, financial means, and professional staff. The existing policies, especially those that resulted in the neglect of cultural and educational activities in the localities and the failure to support Jewish studies, caused dissatisfaction and the threat of schism. A number of regional centers that were members of the Va‘ad founded the Assotsiatsiia Iudaiki i Evreiskoi Kul’tury SSSR (USSR Association of Judaic Studies and Jewish Culture) in September 1990.
A distinction should be made between the popular movement symbolized by the Va‘ad and the organization itself, the Va‘ad of the USSR, the formal body for bringing the communities and local organizations under a single roof. While the popular movement played a huge role in reviving communities and in preparing a new generation of leaders, the formal organization lasted for only a short time. With the approaching dissolution of the USSR, Jewish organizations in each republic faced their own specific problems in developing their communities. Indeed, Soviet Jewry as a single identity broke up and reemerged as disparate groups in the various successor states. Local umbrella organizations were created in the non-Russian republics. Sovet Evreiskikh Obshchin Litvy (Council of Jewish Communities of Lithuania) was founded in 1989; Vaad Ukrainy (Va‘ad of Ukraine) arose in January 1991; and others followed. After the collapse of the USSR, the Va‘ad of the USSR practically stopped functioning. It was renamed the Va‘ad of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and became a confederation of va‘ads from former Soviet republics. However, it did not become an umbrella organization that effectively united all the main Jewish organizations of the CIS. Communities were now developing on the territory of each state, and competing organizations arose that aspired to speak in the name of these communities. The Va‘ad of Russia was founded in April 1992 with Chlenov as its president.
Mikhail Chlenov, “Russian Jewry: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” available at Euro-Asian Jewish Congress: Magazine “Jews of Euro-Asia” 1.1 (June–August 2002), www.eajc.org/publish_gen_e.php?rowid 2; Zvi Gitelman, “The New Transnational Politics: The Case of Soviet Jewry,” Shvut 17–18 (1995): 194–217; “The Second Congress of Vaad (The Federation of Jewish Communities and Organizations of the USSR),” Jews and Jewish Topics in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe 1.14 (Spring 1991): 31–59.
Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson