Siberia's Warming Trend


by S. Olidort - NOVOSIBIRSK, SIBERIA

October 24, 2002

For the 25,000 Jews living in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city, Jewish identity has long become no more than a sad footnote in their personal histories. It was Siberia, a “land of ice and chains,” after all, that Stalin chose as a punishing destination for thousands of Jews. And while Novosibirsk was never nearly as forbidding a place as its neighboring Siberian cities, the pall of gloom that has come to characterize the misery of Jewish exiles suffering in Siberia still lingers in Jewish memory.

Add to that an almost non-existent Jewish infrastructure, and Siberia’s capital city, a vibrant center of academic and business activity, was quickly losing its Jewish population to assimilation and intermarriage. But when Rabbi Shneur Zalman and Miriam Zaklos, both natives of Israel, settled here in January, 2000, Jewish activity began to thrive openly for the first time. In less than three years, their operation has grown well beyond anyone’s expectations, prompting the recent purchase of a new 2,500 square meter building, a hint of things yet to come.

In a very short time, the Zaklos’s have developed numerous educational and social programs. A Jewish Heritage Library, Torah seminars, and several weekly classes cater to the community’s growing curiosity, and more than 150 women participate regularly in functions and activities at the Women’s Club with similar turnouts at a children’s Youth Club and the Golden Age Club for senior citizens. Weekly Shabbat gatherings and an Evening of Jewish Music twice monthly are part of an ever-widening gamut of activities reviving Jewish awareness here.

Thanks to the George Rohr Family Foundation, the Jewish Federation of the CIS, and the local community, the new building will replace rented facilities and house a permanent synagogue for the daily minyan and Shabbat services, a Jewish community center and offices for a staff of about one hundred people.

Perhaps Chabad’s single most important achievement here in Novosibirsk is the Or Avner school, which includes a nursery, grammar school and high school, with close to 200 children enrolled. One of only five schools in the city to be awarded the Letzay title, the highest recognition of academic excellence, the school’s certified teachers place special focus on Hebrew, English, Mathematics, Computer Technology and Ethics, and students here have repeatedly reached second and third place in competitions that included tens of thousands of students city-wide. Three meals served daily are an attractive feature for parents, 80% of whom live well below the poverty line, many earning a monthly salary as low as one hundred dollars. And plans for a new school building are in the works, to ensure that an ever greater number of Jewish children benefit from a solid Jewish education.

Humanitarian aid is a central focus of much of Chabad’s work, with a soup kitchen serving freshly cooked meals to thirty people daily, food packages distributed to thousands of the city’s poor, and cash allotments granted to destitute families. And with the high cost of medical attention often completely unaffordable to the average Novosibirsk resident, a free doctor’s service and a medicine fund offer a desperately needed benefit.

After decades of assimilation, Rudolph Rabinowitz, a famous Novosibirsk architect had lost any sense of Jewish identity. But when his eleven year-old grandson, Dmitri, chose of his own accord to attend the Or Avner school, Rudolph’s surprise soon turned to pride. “I don’t know what led my grandson onto this path,” he says. But whatever it was, Rudolph says he was overjoyed to see “Judaism manifest itself here, in a new, young generation.”

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