Russian Jewry Gives Back


by R. Wineberg - MOSCOW, RUSSIA

April 3, 2003

This time last year, over 120 Yeshiva students from the US traveled to 63 far-flung cities in Russia to conduct Passover Seders for Jewish communities with no full-time rabbi.

This year, the numbers are somewhat smaller as ninety two students prepare to travel to Russia this Tuesday to conduct Seders for communities in forty-six cities. But the reason for that, says Rabbi Zev Wagner, coordinator of educational activities at the Federation of Jewish Communities in the CIS, is proof positive of a new era in the history of Russian Jewry: close to twenty Jewish communities in Russia—visited in previous years by American students—will be visited this year by thirty of their own: Russian born and educated Yeshiva students currently studying in Chabad Yeshivas in Moscow, S. Petersburg and Nizhniy Novgorod.

It’s a new phenomenon, Wagner says, and one that reflects the tremendous strides Russian Jewry has made in the thirteen or so years since the fall of communism. “We never had this before,” he marvels. “The concept of our own children coming back to lead the community marks something of a milestone in Russia.”

The students, who in fact come from all over the former Soviet Union, arrive at their respective Seders equipped with several years of Jewish learning and living in Russia’s Yeshivas. Intimately acquainted with the language and mindset of the communities they will be visiting, Wagner says they are the ideal men for the job. “For Jews in small communities, seeing the young, enthusiastic products of Russian Yeshivas is an incredibly encouraging indication for the future,” he says, adding that after such assignments in the past, the students were often asked by the community to stay on and assume a more permanent position, a prospect many of them consider when planning their future. “Most of the students in Russian Yeshivas have no plans to leave the country,” Rabbi Berel Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia and founder of the Yeshiva in Moscow. “They are the leaders of the next generation of Russian Jewry.”

Until then, Russia and its neighboring countries continue to import dynamic Jewish leaders from the United States and Israel. In addition to the 92 American students arriving in Russia this week, a group of 160 from Israel will be covering Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus and other countries in the former Soviet Union. The students, all between 18-24 years old, bring a passion for teaching Judaism and an energy rarely seen in the small cities they will be visiting, Wagner says.

Throughout their nearly two weeks in Russia, the students, aided in some cities by translators, or communicating with the locals in smatterings of Hebrew, English, Yiddish and bits of Russian picked up from previous years, (many of them are returning to Russia for their third Pesach running, notes Yoel Gancz, a member of the coordinating team in New York) bring the spirit of the holiday to communities that range in size from a tiny 200 Jewish families, to a more sizeable 7000 or even more. None of them, says Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the CIS, have a full-time rabbi leading the community.

Berkowitz, whose office coordinates Pesach provisions including approximately 2 million pounds of Matza and 250,000 bottles of wine flown in from Israel, sponsored by Mr. Lev Leviev and American local donors, reports that a total of over 500 communal Seders will be held this Pesach in the former Soviet Union, led by local Rabbis, and American, Israeli and Russian Yeshiva students. The American contingent, a project of the Rohr Family Foundation, jointly coordinated by Merkos L’Inyonei Chincuch and the FJC, is marking its fifth year, says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky of Lubavitch World Headquarters. The impact on Russian communities is remarkable. “In many cases, the community subsequently requests a full time rabbi. It’s the starting point for many a new Chabad House.”

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