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Russian-born Rabbi Forges Bonds with Family of Dolphinarium Victims

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Nearly a year after a suicide bomber killed 21

teen-agers at the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv, Ella Nelimov stares at

the matching black marble headstones etched with the faces of her two

daughters.

Yelena, 18, and Yulia, 16, were killed in the blast.

The families and friends of the victims, most of whom were Russian

immigrants, have been gathering all morning at the Yarkon Cemetery, a sea

of recently-dug graves off a busy Tel Aviv-bound highway. The mourners

stand in clusters around grave lots, listening quietly to the rabbis who

are memorializing their loved ones.

At one grave site May 15, a few relatives released metallic pink “It’s a

Girl!” balloons into the blue sky.

It is odd to see balloons at a cemetery, but in a sense, no gesture — not

the stuffed teddy bear propped near Yelena Nelimov’s headstone, nor the

silk flowers resting between the two sisters’ graves — is improper. These

are people mourning youngsters whose lives were cut short.

A few of the Nelimovs’ friends are pouring water over the gravestones to

wipe off the dust and grime, moving piles of flowers from one grave to the

other as they sweep their wet hands down the smooth marble.

Ella Nelimov, a short woman with hair hennaed red, is dressed simply in a

black blouse and pants. She stands away from the graves, her hands clasped

together, talking quietly with friends and family.

“I can see in my mind what they looked like just before they went out that

night,” she reminisced. “I can see it like it was yesterday.”

By her side is Rabbi Michael Kovson, also a Russian immigrant. Kovson is a

Conservative rabbi who has been Nelimov’s rabbi, confidante and friend

since that terrible day last June.

It was during Shabbat morning services at his small synagogue in Kiryat

Yovel, a Jerusalem neighborhood, that Kovson heard the details of the

Friday night attack at the Dolphinarium.

A congregant told him that all the victims were teen-agers, and almost all

were Russian speakers.

“I told myself that there aren’t a lot of Russian-speaking rabbis,” Kovson

said.

He went home after services, broke Shabbat and turned on the television to

learn about the bombing. When he understood the scope of the situation, he

called his synagogue president, asked for a ride downtown, caught a cab to

Tel Aviv and then made his way to city hall.

Kovson didn’t know any of the victims or their families, but he told the

municipal social workers to send him to a family, thinking he might be able

to help.

They told him they were sending him to the family hit the hardest — the

Nelimovs, who had lost two girls. As it turned out, Ella Nelimov was the

only one who had asked for a rabbi.

“Michael came in and he spoke Russian,” Ella remembered, smiling. “It was

such a surprise.”

At the time, besides dealing with the shock of losing her two daughters,

Ella wanted guidance about Jewish mourning. She wanted to know how to act,

what to do, what to say.

“We are here in Israel, we’re Jews, and I wanted to do what they do here,”

she said.

Since then, Nelimov, a secular Russian immigrant, and Kovson, a secular Jew

turned Conservative rabbi, have grown close.

They talk regularly, sometimes about “the daily stuff,” Kovson said, other

times about more personal matters, including the process of mourning for

Yelena and Yulia.

Kovson jokes with Sasha, Nelimov’s 15-year-old son, and has gotten to know

all their friends and family.

At the time of the bombing, the Nelimovs were living in a small apartment

in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Ella and Sasha Nelimov since have

moved to Rishon le-Zion — a small city south of Tel Aviv that has been the

site of two recent bombings — and Ella is working in a better-paying,

government job.

The move helped, as did the people who have supported Nelimov through this

difficult time.

When Kovson first arrived in Israel from Kiev in 1991, it was the

realization of a dream he’d had since the end of the 1970s. He knew some

Hebrew at the time, but very little about Judaism.

“The last Jew in my family was my father’s grandmother,” Kovson said. “She

lit Shabbat candles. If I hadn’t returned to Judaism, that would be it for

my family.”

Instead, through a series of coincidences and circumstances, Kovson ended

up learning about Judaism, first at a yeshiva in the West Bank settlement

of Alon Shvut. He then was invited to take part in a learning project at

the Shalom Hartman Institute, and from there made his way to the Schechter

Institute of Jewish Studies, the Conservative movement’s seminary in Israel.

Two years later, he began training for the rabbinate, and was officially

ordained as a Conservative rabbi last spring.

It was Kovson’s position as a rabbi that first brought him to Nelimov, but

since then their relationship has deepened.

“She thinks of me as family and as her rabbi,” Kovson said. “She asks

questions that you ask a rabbi, but formally, I’m not her rabbi. She became

a relative to me.”

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