High Holiday Feature: Leader of Tiny Jewish Community Mobilizes Aid for Russian Prisoners

The young and energetic leader of this tiny Jewish community first visited Jewish inmates during High Holidays in 1996.

Now Edward Alexeev regularly visits the small number of Jewish men in this leftover from the Soviet gulag.

Believed to be the first local Jewish social service worker to visit Jews in prison in post-Soviet Russia, Alexeev admits that some of the prisoners are not repentant for their crimes, but, he adds, “if we do not help them, chances are weaker that these people will survive and ever return to normal life.”

Alexeev says it is hard to persuade other Jewish groups to help Jewish inmates.

“Many refuse to believe that there are Jews in prison. But there are and they need the community to support them,” said Alexeev, a 29-year-old social worker who heads the Jewish community of 200 in Borovichi, a town of 90,000 people about 300 miles northwest of Moscow.

Alexeev relies mostly on small donations from members of his community to buy food and used clothing for the inmates.

Some inmates are asking for spiritual help as well.

“They ask for books on Judaism, prayer shawls, yarmulkas,” Alexeev said.

Borovichi’s Jewish community has also sent the prisoners prayer books and matzahs for Passover.

When Mikhail Rokhinson, one of the prisoners whom Alexeev visits, was I, a Christian woman helped him and his mother escape from a Jewish ghetto in northern Belarus. Later, during the war, Rokhinson was separated from his mother.

At the age of 3, Rokhinson was placed into an orphanage in Leningrad. It was there that Rokhinson, a teen-ager at the time, received his first prison sentence — for stealing some bread from a street vendor.

Rokhinson, a skinny man with big expressive eyes that contrast sharply with his tanned emaciated face, has spent 25 years of his life in prisons, mostly for minor theft.

He is now serving an 18-month sentence for a similar offense at the Correctional Labor Colony No. 22/3.

Much of Rokhinson’s Jewish identity stems from his childhood experiences during the anti-Semitic campaign unleashed by Stalin.

“They hated me only because I was Jewish,” says Rokhinson, 58.

Recently, however, he has started to read books on Jewish history and the Torah.

“The only dream I have is to go to Israel after I serve my term,” he said.

Prisoners in Borovichi live in white-brick one and two-story barracks surrounded by several circles of walls topped with barbed wire. Guards on walls and barking dogs make the picture seem straight out of movies about the Soviet gulag, the infamous prison system created by Stalin 70 years ago.

There are no cells in Borovichi. Metal bunks line the walls of the sleeping quarters. The prison is now home to some 1,600 convicted criminals.

Many of the convicts in Borovichi, including the eight Jews, are repeat offenders.

The prisoners’ contact with the outside world is mostly limited to letters from home and to a large television set in the far corner of the barracks.

No pictures of loved ones, postcards or placards decorate the walls. But the only kinds of wall decoration shows that the gulag has changed.

A Russian Orthodox icon and a large Star of David carved from wood hang on the walls of the barrack wall to show respect the colony administration is now paying to the convicts’ religious needs.

Alexander Shteinbak, another Jewish prisoner, said a non-Jewish convict made the Jewish star for him when Shteinbak arrived in Borovichi from a prison in central Russia more than two years ago.

Shteinbak, a 32-year-old Muscovite serving a three-year sentence for fraud, wrote the letter to Alexeev in 1996, asking him to visit the Jewish prisoners on the High Holidays.

After the collapse of communism, Russian prisons opened their gates to religious organizations.

Prison officials hoped that the church and Western missionaries would bring money as well as moral consolation.

Under the law, prisoners must work, but the market reforms introduced in Russia since the fall of communism have destroyed the prison economy that was created during Stalin’s era.

Now, prisoners must rely on the aid they can receive from religious charities.

Jewish inmates watched Christian religious groups visit with other inmates, bringing them religious items and food.

“Books are okay,” an officer with the prison administration said while inspecting brochures on Jewish tradition that Alexeev delivered on a recent afternoon to the colony along with a box of tea.

“But what they need more is someone to take care of them after they got released,” said the officer, who declined to give his name.

The prognosis for these prisoners, Jews and non-Jews alike, does not improve after they are released. Russia has few rehabilitation programs for ex- convicts, many criminals are doomed to become repeat offenders and few employers hire people with criminal backgrounds.

Shteinbak is due to be released later this summer. Rokhinson’s term will expire next May.

The men are awaiting their release with an uneasy feeling. With such odds against them, they know that they will be sorely tempted to turn once again to crime.

A Lubavitch rabbi in Moscow said the Jewish community should do more for former prisoners.

“It’s a shame that these people had not received our adequate attention,” said Rabbi David Karpov, who has been offering spiritual guidance for some Jewish convicts in Russian prisons by correspondence.

He said the Jewish community should forgive and accept former prisoners. “These people cannot adapt to new life unless there is the Jewish community to help.”

Zinovy Kogan, the executive director of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia, said Jewish social service agencies have plenty of jobs for ex-cons.

“Such people can work for the Jewish community as social workers helping needy and elderly Jews,” he said.

“We need to show them that we trust them and that they deserve trust – - regardless of what happened to them in the past.”

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