VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (JTA) — Vladimir Yankelevitch calls the Vladivostok Jewish community his “airplane,” and he leads it as dynamically as would a pilot. He assembled the pieces in 1992 and since then has steadfastly steered the community through a Jewish revival. But even Yankelevitch couldn’t have foreseen that 13 years later he’d be stuck only halfway through the process — a point where it’s impossible to land the “airplane” but harder still to turn it around. “Everything was smooth at first, but now I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t have entered,” laments the rotund Yankelevitch, an electrical radio engineer and submarine captain in Soviet times. “No one else can fly this plane, so I must fly on.” Alas, stubborn problems persist in this former military city in the Far East, out where Russia ends. The mass aliyah of the 1990s robbed Yankelevitch of devout congregants and transformed his spirited creation into what he sees as a charity center serving those “without a Jewish soul.” “For 3,000 years Jews were taught to think critically, to ask why and what for,” Yankelevitch says. “Then the Soviets made us zombies. So we’re looking to wake them up, to make them realize they’re Jews. But it’s harder than ever.” Among his frustrations is the refusal of members to support their community. Many are poor, but if each of the city’s 6,000 Jews donated the cost of one bus ticket — about 16 cents — they could raise nearly $4,000, Yankelevitch says. “It won’t happen,” he says. “The problem isn’t a lack of Jewish businessmen,” but the fact that they’re not familiar with the biblical concept of tithing 10 percent of one’s income. “Poor is in the mind, not in the pocket,” he says. Even worse for Yankelevitch was Jews’ passivity when Russia’s foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, accused Israel of waging a dirty war against the Palestinians. “No one is agitated by these words. It’s not painful for them,” Yankelevitch says. “And that pains me.” In many respects, the troubles of this exotic port city along the Chinese border are a microcosm for all that hinders Russian Jewry. Perhaps the only difference here is Yankelevitch himself, a contemplative father figure who speaks candidly about his failure to overcome Soviet-era assimilation and create a genuine religious community. Among Russian leaders, Yankelevitch, 57, is a different breed. He frequently travels abroad, where he sees Jewish communities built from within. He doesn’t boast about tight relations with local authorities or filling the local theater for Purim — two of the most commonly discussed topics in other Russian Jewish communities. His sole concern is the majority of Jews whose identity, he says, is marked “on passports, but not in the soul.” Fed up with the task of reviving Jewish life, Yankelevitch says he and his wife, Valentina, may soon seek a better life in Israel, where they can “be around people who think like us.” Much is at stake if Yankelevitch abandons his nascent community, which despite its grim spiritual situation remains perhaps Russia’s most independent Jewish community. Here in one of Russia’s mafia capitals, where German luxury vehicles crawl through traffic alongside boxy Ladas, Yankelevitch made a fortune in the early 1990s by patenting a banking system and distributing Israeli cosmetics. Russia’s 1998 economic crisis eroded much of his wealth, however. Unlike other communities in Russia, where international funds helped keep Jewish life alive, Yankelevitch’s personal wealth funded the Vladivostok community until 1997. Since then, he has accepted donations, alongside his own funds. His center, which consists of three rooms in a Soviet-era office building, is referred to as “the community.” Yankelevitch is affiliated with the Federation of Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, main points of reference in other cities, but Vladivostokers speak only of Yankelevitch himself. “Some groups tried to order me around at first,” Yankelevitch says. “But they’re only my sponsors, not my owners, not my chiefs.” If he decides to move to Israel, Yankelevitch says, he will worry about finding a replacement who can lead his most acclaimed activities. No one else, he says, has the knowledge to teach the weekly Torah class sponsored by Bayit LeMidrash, which aims to bring Judaism into homes. Yankelevitch is moderately religious, and he acquired most of his Jewish knowledge by reading, visiting Israel and attending seminars in Russia. No one else, he says, has the money to subsidize the publication of one of Russia’s best Jewish newspapers, whose costs exceed the $300 donated by sponsors. Yankelevitch founded the paper in the early 1990s. “If a man receives food, it’ll be good,” he says. “But if a man receives newspapers and lectures, he’ll be a Jew.” Valentina, a chic woman whom Yankelevitch approached at a restaurant during Soviet times and married weeks later, directs the Federation-sponsored Sunday school, where roughly 15 kids turn up to study about Israel. Next year, if a credible teacher can be found, they’ll learn about the different branches of Judaism. The most endangered activity is Yankelevitch’s klezmer ensemble, which has won international acclaim and which Valentina says Yankelevitch “loves more than me.” Yankelevitch bought many of the band’s instruments and says it’s impossible to find musical scores for all seven parts. Comprised of Jewish and non-Jewish professional musicians, the group listens to CDs and then transcribes the parts for each instrument. “If this music were played mechanically it wouldn’t spark memories. But it’s played with soul, and that’s why people cry,” says violinist Zinaida Bakhareva, 23, who dreads the prospect of Yankelevitch’s departure. Yaneklevitch says he may have to hire three or four leaders to take over his disparate activities if he leaves. Bakhareva, one potential replacement, can’t assume a leadership position because she’s a woman, which is considered problematic by the Chabad-affiliated Federation and Rabbi Menachem Raskin, who arrived in Vladivostok in fall 2002. “He’s the backbone and iron power of our community. He’s not afraid of anything,” says Natalya Zeigert, director of Hesed, a charity program.”I can’t see any such man here. No one wants such responsibility.” Anna Tomilova, 18, one of the few regulars at the community center, is worried that “his replacement will obey the upper sponsors who want to control us,” she says, referring to the federation and the JDC, “and we’ll lose our local initiative.” Yankelevitch currently is trying to persuade Raskin to allow members of the community who aren’t Jewish according to religious law, such as Tomilova, to study at the future Jewish day school. She is convinced no one else will take up that fight if Yankelevitch leaves. Born in Baku and sent to Vladivostok in 1969 for a stint in the Soviet navy, Yankelevitch never thought much of his ethnicity until 1991, when he visited Israel and witnessed the social benefits enjoyed by his disabled father. “He never did anything for Israel” and yet still received benefits — “and that caused an explosion that shook my brain,” Yankelevitch says. Today Yankelevitch seeks to atone for his time in a Soviet military unit that aided Arab terrorists. Though he becomes frustrated with local Jews who don’t seem to care about their ethnicity, he understands them. “When the Iron Curtain came down I was surprised by all the trash in my head. The communist machine was very successful,” he says. “I wasn’t critical enough. That’s my sin. Now I’m trying to fix these crimes.”
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Ezra Nathan is a contributing writer to JTA.
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