With unconventional ways, Moscow rabbi seeks to boost Jewish life


MOSCOW (JTA) — The rabbi sits at the head of a conference table in a central Moscow bank and greets its vice president as he walks through the imposing door.

“Come in, Pavel Nikolaevich, I’ve got many bones to pick with you,” the rabbi says.

On the wall hangs a calendar with a Christmas scene titled “Old Testament Scenes,” and on the table rest several small desk calendars bearing the bank’s logo and a quote from Confucius: “What you don’t like done to you, don’t do to others.”

“First, would you please put on a kipah when talking to decent people?” the rabbis says to Pavel Nikolaevich. “Second, what do these ‘Old Testament Scenes’ on the wall mean? Do you really think Christmas is an Old Testament scene? And thirdly, who do you think is the author of the phrase, ‘What you don’t like done to you, don’t do to others?’ ”

“Confucius,” says the bank executive, taking a kipah from the table and putting it on.

“You are totally wrong,” the rabbi says. “This was said by Hillel, a Jewish man of wisdom, and is considered the essence of Judaism.”

Pavel Nikolaevich sighs. The rabbi takes the calendar from the wall and turns it around so the Christmas scene is covered.

“Man is not allowed to study Torah if there is anything unkosher in the room,” he says.

This is the beginning of Rabbi Yosef Hersonski’s weekly “Torah in a bank” lesson.

Held weekly for Jewish businesspeople in Moscow, most of whom are Pavel Nikolaevich’s partners or bank clients, the class is one of the ways Hersonski, the head of the Jewish community in the Russian capital’s Khamovniki neighborhood, is trying to draw the mostly assimilated Jews of Moscow to Jewish life.

Hersonski, 32, was raised in Ukraine, immigrated to Israel with his parents at 13 and came to Moscow in 2002 as an envoy for Chabad-Lubavitch. He supervised a number of Internet projects and was involved in informal Jewish education.

Two years ago, one of his students, Moscow businessman Dmitry Agarunov, head of the Gameland media company, suggested that they organize a synagogue in his home neighborhood of Khamovniki, a central Moscow district with a mix of old Moscow intelligentsia and wealthy newcomers. Hersonski became the rabbi.

“After several years of studying Torah, Dmitry thought it was wrong to drive a car to a synagogue to celebrate Shabbat,” Hersonski said. “Having the synagogue nearby was one of the first ideas. Another was to build this synagogue so it would correspond to its members’ specific interests.

“As for me, I was also looking for some new perspective in my job at that time. So Dmitry’s suggestion fell on fertile ground.”

The synagogue was opened in rented office space in September 2008, right before the economic crisis hit.

“We decided to do this long before the recession, but it turned out that opening a synagogue was kind of an answer to it,” Agarunov told JTA. “It made me feel a bit more relieved. I prayed for the business to survive, and it worked.”

One of the synagogue’s first events was a conference called Torah and Crisis, which brought together rabbis and businessmen to talk about how to do business in the new economic climate. The conference was such a success that it was followed by a seminar, Torah and Money, which became a regular feature.

One of the first questions Hersonski was asked, he recalls, was whether it would be kosher for a manager to forcefully take an employee who had been caught stealing out to the forest to have a “man-to-man talk.” The rabbi reminded him of the Hillel quote that Pavel Nikolaevich had mistaken for Confucius.

While most Moscow synagogues operate with financial aid from major Russian or international Jewish organizations, the synagogue in Khamovniki is run exclusively by the local community. Participants are expected to chip in for synagogue events — something the rabbi says helps participants feel they are building the community together. The synagogue’s slogan is “Among the right guys.”

At the moment, about 30 people regularly participate in synagogue events, but another 100 are occasional visitors. The rabbi is trying to attract newcomers in unconventional ways, including using blogs like Live Journal and online social networks like Facebook. He even has started a site in Russian, www.MoyRabbi.ru, where anyone can ask him questions about Judaism.

“I knew that many Jews in Russia are not registered in any Jewish organizations because they are not interested in Jewish life, and I couldn’t reach them via traditional resources,” Hersonski said. “I wrote a series of provocative posts in my blog trying to make these people show themselves, so that we could at least start a dialogue.”

It worked, the rabbi said, but the results were a bit depressing.

“I discovered that most of these people have not only abandoned Jewish values, such as patriotism and religion, but have cultivated strong dislike for them,” Hersonski said. “They remained Jews, so I felt it was my task to try and convince them that Jewish nationalism is not synonymous to jingoism, and that religion doesn’t mean backwardness but new approaches and upgrade.”

Like other Chabad emissaries around the world, called shluchim, Hersonski sees it as his responsibility to bring assimilated Jews back to religion.

“They all are Jews, and I have to lead them out of their Egypt and save them from assimilation,” he said.

In describing his bid to attract assimilated yuppie Muscovites to his shul, and to Jewish life, Hersonski mixes business-speak with Jewish-speak.

“I can only present myself to them in a hope that as the Lubavitcher rebbe put it, even a bit of light will drive away much darkness,” he said. “Definitely, eight out of 10 won’t come back. But that is natural. We don’t sell souvenirs; we sell the changing of a life. The number of consumers for this service is limited.”

Konstantin Rabinsky, 30, says he joined the synagogue because he knew Hersonski and was looking for the meaning of life. He says that because members are expected to help keep the synagogue going, the level of commitment in the Khamovniki community is high.

“Members of the community are always willing to help each other in any way they can, including assistance in solving business problems,” Rabinsky said. “There are no show-offs, and millionaires and unemployed students are treated on equal terms. And the rabbi is well-educated and open-minded.” 

Back at the bank, the Judaism seminar gets started. The topic this time, chosen by the participants, is family values in Judaism. They talk about matchmaking, marriage and divorce. The rabbi answers questions with Chasidic fable and old Soviet tales, some of which are racy.

The conversation flows naturally, spilling over to different subjects. There is much laughter.

“What exactly can be done to convince children to marry Jewish?” Pavel Nikolaevich asks. “My son lives among his secular Russian friends, and how can I possibly make him follow these principles you tell us about? He is 20, and he has already changed girlfriends a half a dozen times.”

“If you live like a gentile, don’t be surprised if your children marry gentiles,” the rabbi answers. “What you really need to change is your mind and your lifestyle. So just do it.”

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