Across the Former Soviet Union Chabad Switching Its FSU Focus

Russia’s largest Jewish group has announced new targets for the upcoming year, changing its primary focus from expansion to the quality of services.

Now that its previous policy of expanding the network of Jewish communities in Russia has resulted in more than 190 member communities, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities said in its end-of-the-year report that “it is now becoming more important to increase quality of activities in the existing communities.”

The change in the group’s approach stems from the fact that the Jewish community in Russia has matured since the end of communism and is now demanding a better quality of service, FJC Executive Director Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz said.

Unlike earlier days, today’s local Jewish community in Russia “is not just a rabbi covering the town,” Berkowitz said.

Local communities now have a network of Jewish life that in the larger ones includes a synagogue, a Jewish school, a kindergarten, youth activities, and social and welfare programs.

FJC did not disclose its budget, but Berkowitz said 2006 saw a 15 percent increase compared to the previous year and that the trend would continue into 2007. In 2005, FJC’s budget was estimated at $60 million, with nearly $36 million raised in North America by the Russian group’s U.S. arm.

Most of Chabad’s programs continue to rely on funding from the group’s few major donors in Israel and the Americas.

Only in larger cities does locally raised funding constitute sizable portions of the FJC communities’ budgets. In most smaller communities, Berkowitz said, foreign funding still accounts for an average of 70 percent of the budget.

Of the federation’s corps of rabbinical emissaries, or schluchim — 152 rabbis with their families in Russia and 146 in the rest of the FSU — about half are Russian born. The rest are mostly Israelis and Americans.

Now, the group says, it is time to localize as much of its operation as possible.

One example of such need is the summer camps run by the organization.

“Our summer camp network always relied on staff from the U.S.,” Berkowitz said, referring to the dozens of yeshiva students that travel every summer to the former Soviet Union to work as camp counselors.

“But there was a big disconnect” between young American yeshiva students — most of whom were born to Orthodox families — and largely assimilated and non-observant Russian kids. Over time the group has concluded “it was much better to have local staff” working at camps, Berkowitz said.

With this goal in mind, last summer FJC started a new year-round training program for local counselors.

The program now works in seven cities. Future Chabad camp counselors “are not necessarily Chabadniks,” Berkowitz explained. “They are people with various levels of observance, but they should all be devoted Jews.”

A pioneering project launched this year could significantly influence the essence of Jewish life in the region.

The project, called Stars, is a $10 million enterprise funded by Lev Leviev, the Russian Israeli diamond mogul and federation president, and Elio Horn, a Brazilian Jewish philanthropist.

Its idea is to get Jewish college students involved in a few hours of Jewish studies a week. Participants are paid stipends that differ from city to city but generally are about $100 a month — by local standards a substantial amount for young people.

Berkowitz said the program that started a few months ago already has some 5,000 participants across the former Soviet Union who study at Chabad-run centers five hours a week.

Students will learn for one year, and the budget is enough to operate the project for three years, Berkowitz said.

The program’s aim is not only to educate Jewish students, Berkowitz said.

“If they go through this program,” he said, “hopefully they marry each other and become part of the community.”

The federation is focused on those who are Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law — that is, born of a Jewish mother. This exclusiveness has often become a target of criticism in a community known for a very high level of intermarriage.

Despite that, FJC is billing itself as the voice and umbrella for all Jews living in Russia, and traditionally shuns the image of a fervently Orthodox organization trying to impose its standards on Russian Jewish life.

Berkowitz said his group’s activities in the region are carried out with “Chabad enthusiasm and love for Yiddishkeit without imposing Judaism” as religion.

Not crossing the line into pushing religious observance — a charge some make against Chabad in the region — constitutes an especially challenging task in several dozen of the federation-run schools and kindergartens. The group operates more than three-quarters of some 100 Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union.

“Ninety percent of the 15,000 kids in our schools are secular,” Berkowitz said. “But directors of religious studies are Chabadniks.”

Ideally the schools need to be delicate to avoid creating a conflict at the students’ secular homes.

In part, this goal can be achieved through the group’s extensive network of community centers that run a variety of programs in culture, arts and sports, and can bring participants closer to the Jewish tradition without forcing them into strict observance.

In the past several years, FJC spent millions in mostly foreign donations to build new community centers with synagogues in locations across Russia.

The new FJC Jewish community center opened Dec. 19 in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. Believed to be the largest Jewish facility in Siberia, the Beit Menachem Tabacinic center includes a synagogue, kosher soup kitchen, library, education classes, sports and music facilities.

Of late, the federation has stressed grandeur in its projects, constructing impressive and costly facilities.

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