Jewish Identity and Religion in the Soviet Union


In this lesson, students learn of the destruction of Jewish identity and religion in the Soviet Union from its rise until WWII.

Learning Objectives

Students will understand the elements that make up their own Jewish identities, and the impact that the Soviet campaign against the Jews from 1917-1945 had on Jewish identity at that time.


  1. Classroom Discussion

Ask the students about their Jewish identity. What are the elements that make up their Jewish identity and define their Jewishness – religious ritual? Values?  Language? Culture? Ancestry? What is it that makes them feel a part of the Jewish nation? What does it mean to belong to the Jewish people?

Read to them this quote from Stalin in his 1913 book, Marxism and the National Question:

Jews are “not a living and active nation, but something mystical, intangible and supernatural. For, I repeat, what sort of nation, for instance, is a Jewish nation which consists of Georgian, Daghestanian, Russian, American and other Jews, the members of which do not understand each other (since they speak different languages), inhabit different parts of the globe, will never see each other, and will never act together, whether in time of peace or in time of war?!

Do you agree that language and country are not a central part of what unites all Jews? What then separates us from other nations?

2. Activity

Have the students create their own Magen David based on their own Jewish identities. The Magen David has been the national and religious symbol of the Jewish people for the last four hundred years. Ask the students to pick six elements that are most critical to their Jewish identity (from the attached list), and put together a Magen David where each side represents one aspect of their Jewish identity. (Activity credit: Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin)

  • For younger groups: provide the students with the puzzle pieces and have them choose their six elements. After they have chosen, discuss the results. Have the students defend their choices and explain why they rejected the remaining pieces.
  • For older groups: this can be given as a research assignment in preparation for the class. Separate the class into pairs, assigning each pair one of the elements on the list. Each pair is to research their element and design a puzzle piece triangle using appropriate texts and visuals. The triangles should be photocopied and distributed to the class. In class, each pair is to present their theme and argue why their specific area of Judaism is critical to Jewish nationhood. Following the presentations, give them some time to put together their individual Magen Davids.

3. Review the background history

Have students read the background history of the destruction of Jewish identity and religion in the Soviet Union from its rise until WWII (above).

  • Simultaneously, have students take note of the high and low points of the Jewish experience there (this will be used for a cumulative assessment).
  • Whenever one of the elements of their choice is mentioned as having been eradicated by the Soviet government, have them remove that side of their Magen David.

4. Examine

Have students review the remains of the students’ Magen Davids. How much is left of each of theirs? If they were a Jew living in the Soviet Union, would they be able to hold on to their Jewish identity with just the elements that remained? What did this mean for the Jewish people as a whole?

5. Conclusion

 Have the students reassemble their Magen Davids to be displayed in the classroom.

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