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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2009
Number 71
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Author’s Reflections

Jewish Philanthropy and Enlightenment in Late-Tsarist Russia
Seattle: University of Washington Press.

By Brian Horowitz

This project began in 2000, when on a fellowship to write a book on Jews in the Russian Elite culture, I discovered the archive of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia. Realizing the goldmine that I had stumbled upon, I decided to devote all my time to reading this enormous archive.

The topic of the OPE (as the society was known according to its acronym, Obshchestvo dlia rasprostraneniia prosveshcheniia) intrigued me because it weaves together the lives and ideas of the most important individuals among Russia’s Jews of the late-tsarist period: Simon Dubnov, Maxim Vinaver, Yuly Brutskus, Leon Bramson and Leib Katsenelson. The central shtadlonim were involved in the society Baron Evzel Guenzburg, Horace Guenzburg and Samuel Polyakov. The interaction of philanthropists and intellectuals, philanthropy and enlightenment characterize the society.

The story that the book argues against is that the society, which began in 1863, and which gave so much hope to Russia’s Jews, quickly petered out and was powerless and ineffectual, despite the fact that it existed until the Bolsheviks closed it in 1929. My claim is that the society did go through a period of weakness, but that it became revived in the 1880s thanks to the Jewish nationalist movement. Certainly, OPE’s leaders devoted themselves to the establishment of modern Jewish schools, training teachers for these schools, and library creation, but at the same time the society put forth its own image of a modern Jew. Basing their idea on Judah Leib Gordon’s “man in the street, Jew in one’s tents,” the society’s leaders wanted to produce a Jew who was equal to any Russian in his knowledge of secular culture and also fully Jewish by virtue of knowledge about Jewish culture.

This kind of modern Jew inhabited a political space “between cosmopolitanism and nationalism,” “assimilation and national isolation.” The Jewish individual was supposed to pursue acculturation with the Russian elite and at the same time build institutions for Jewish cultural, economic, and political enrichment. It was an attempt to give Jews a future in Russia that provided not only for their survival, but their renaissance.

Because the society’s program was broad and for the most part, undefined, it attracted various groups and different ideologies, although, admittedly, the dominant ideology was bourgeois liberalism. The alliance of the wealthy and the intellectuals brought results. When the society could open branches as a result of the political relaxation after the Revolution 1905, 25 opened quickly. The budget of the society was over one million rubles in 1912, and more than 200 schools were run by the society. During World War I, the society played a successful role in the education of Jewish refugees, although critics claimed that the society imposed on the refugees a secular Jewish education in Yiddish, or, in other words, something alien to their traditions.

Although the 10,000 students in OPE educational institutions made up a small number visà-vis the Jewish population as a whole, one can claim that the society played an important role in fashioning a curriculum for Jewish schools in the country as a whole. By formulating a clear program that envisioned the emergence of a Jewish liberal, the society helped make that vision a reality. In addition, the society had an influence beyond its numbers and means. It played central roles in the construction of a Jewish civil society, Jewish politics and culture, and in Russian political life. By promoting secular education, Jewish social and political life, and fashioning a new liberal identity, the OPE positioned itself front and center in late-tsarist Jewish life.

Brian Horowitz, a contributing editor, is Sizeler Family Chair of Jewish Studies and Director of the German and Slavic Studies Department at Tulane University.

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