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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Diaspora Gathers for Russian Jewish Congress

To repatriate or not to repatriate -- that was the theme that struck a dissonant chord in Wednesday's opening session of the first convention of the Russian Jewish Congress.

In his welcoming remarks, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov recognized the contribution the Jewish diaspora has made to Russian society and pledged his support of the congress.

"We believe the exodus of each citizen of Russia is a loss of intellectual potential," said Luzhkov, adding that Russia must encourage the development of Jewish traditions and culture to prevent the departure of Jews.

The participation of such a prominent Russian politician in a conference about Jews was itself a sign of change from just a few years ago, when a Jewish stamp in a Soviet passport was a barrier to education, professional advancement and travel. Instead, Luzhkov emphasized the need "to stop the exodus of Jews from Russia."

But Israeli political and spiritual leaders spoke of their desire to keep alive the tradition of aliya, a biblical term that signifies a return to the homeland, or emigration to Israel.

"We are always happy about the successes made by Jews in their countries of residence, but we are more happy that hundreds of thousands of Jews are building their own homes in the state of Israel," said Aliza Shenhar, Israel's ambassador to Russia. "We are hopeful that the number of immigrants will continue to grow."

The financial strength of the Jewish diaspora in Russia was a new theme at the congress. For years, Russian Jews relied on spiritual and financial aid from international organizations, but many now find themselves in a position to support their own community.

"I am glad that many of my colleagues are earning enough money to support art and culture," said Most Bank chairman Vladimir Gusinsky, who was elected president of the Russian Jewish Congress.

The first meeting of its kind outside Israel to draw spiritual and political leaders from Israel, the United States and Europe, the congress attracted some 500 Russian Jews from 100 different cities.

Some 30 U.S. congressmen were scheduled to attend, but had to cancel because of a blizzard. "It's the first time in 30 years they've had this much snow," said one conference organizer. "That's Jewish luck for you."