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American students help boost Jewish life in Belarus

MOSCOW, Dec. 9 (JTA) — An American effort to revive Jewish life in Belarus has received a big boost — despite the grave economic problems and the uncertain future of the Jewish community in the former Soviet republic. More than 300 local Jews and dignitaries, including 20 American guests, participated in the recent dedication of a Torah scroll to a Jewish youth center in Minsk. The ceremony, the first of its kind in Belarus since the Holocaust, took place in the Lauder Lech Lecha Youth Center. The center, housed in a Minsk synagogue, serves as the base of activities for the New York-based Yeshiva and University Students for the Spiritual Revival of Soviet Jewry, which works to develop Jewish identity among youth in the former Soviet Union — particularly in Belarus and Ukraine, where it has mobilized youth groups, organized camps and developed educational programs promoting aliyah to Israel and the spiritual awakening of Jewish youth. The 20 Americans at the ceremony were concluding a weeklong mission throughout Lithuania and Belarus. The mission, organized by YUSSR and led by Rabbi Shnayer Leiman, visited cities once home to large numbers of Jews. The Jewish community of Minsk currently numbers about 20,000, one-fifth of Belarus’ 100,000 Jews. The Torah, donated by Young Israel of Century City, Calif., enabled some Jewish teen-agers to celebrate their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs using a Torah — the first such ceremony since the destruction of the Minsk Jewish community in the Holocaust. For 13-year-old Sergei Frolov, the ceremony was the most unforgettable event in his young life. “I wanted so much to be a Bar Mitzvah and I was so excited as I read my parshah,” he said using the Hebrew word for a Torah portion. “I’m very proud that everything turned out well.” Frolov was one of four teen-agers — three boys and one girl — that had their ceremonies with the newly dedicated scroll. Neither they nor their parents had ever seen a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Since it opened in 1997, the Lech Lecha center has provided YUSSR with a home to organize its activities on behalf of Belarus’ Jews, including Friday night programs, a Sunday school and holiday activities. American volunteers staff many of the projects.