On November 17, President of the Russian Jewish Congress Viatcheslav Kantor met with students of Moscow Jewish School Etz Chaim.
Western universities frequently invite community and political leaders, business people and scientists to lecture to students, and in recent years, visits by special guests have been widely promoted in Russia, as well. Even so, the meeting at Etz Chaim was a special occasion, marking as it did the first time a leader of a major Jewish organisation in Russia has visited with high school students. All the school’s students attended the meeting, from junior students to graduates. As a common thread throughout his lecture at Etz Chaim, Kantor promoted the idea that it is vital to foster historical memory and learn Jewish history early in life.
The school’s distinguished guest was introduced by headmaster Vladimir Sklyanoy. Kantor spoke for nearly two hours, during which the children listened to him with unflagging interest, even though the speaker decided not to adapt his three-part lecture for the young audience.
The first part described Kantor’s path from business to the Jewish community. His parents did not observe Jewish tradition and were not able to plant a love for it in their son. For this reason, four decades Jewry passed without touching Kantor’s life. “But when I turned forty, I felt a vacuum in my life that had to be filled,” Kantor said. “I realized my need to adopt Jewish tradition.” According to him, “practice of the Jewish tradition made my perception of life more peaceful and realistic.” He went on to say that “as Jews, we have to listen out for and be responsive to G-d’s messages. By gaining knowledge and following tradition we become stronger.”
The second part of Kantor’s talk dealt with the rebirth of historical memory. In answer to a question on why this is still necessary today, Kantor spoke about the Holocaust tragedy, tracing its roots back to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews, from Hitler’s rise to power through die Kristallnacht and further to the tragic events at Babi Yar, Auschwitz and thousands of other death camps. “If we let the tragedy pass into oblivion, it will happen again,” emphasized Kantor. The September 2006 Forum “Let My People Live!” in Kyiv, held to commemorate the 65 th anniversary of the tragedy in Babi Yar and organized on the initiative of the Russian Jewish Congress, is a notable example of preserving the memories of the Holocaust’s victims and reviving historical memory. Kantor’s young audience was deeply moved by the vivid description of the Forum and the accompanying slide demonstration.
In the third part of his lecture, Kantor discussed the way Jews should position themselves in the public eye, emphasizing that there is much for Jews to be proud of. “We must know our heroes so that we can easily prove to anyone that without Jews, the world would not be as bright and interesting as it is.” Among outstanding pioneers in the arts, Russian Jews such as Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, Osip Zadkine, Sonya Delaunay, Marc Chagall and Ilya Kabakov provide inspiration around the world, “but at the same time, they are our Jewish heroes and we can be proud of them,” stressed Kantor.
At the end of the meeting, headmaster Sklyanoy said that he had always known Kantor to be a successful businessman and one of the leaders of Jewish community, but that during the visit he discovered two other important sides of the RJC president – a knowledgeable art historian and an excellent lecturer who can hold the attention of the most challenging audience. “If Mr. Kantor weren’t a prominent businessman and community leader, he could be a wonderful teacher,” remarked Sklyanoy to enthusiastic student applause. The children then asked Kantor to find time in the future for another visit to Etz Chaim.