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Across the Former Soviet Union O.u.’s Concentrated Focus Bears Fruit in Ukrainian City

June 7, 2006
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The Orthodox Union’s kosher symbol — a “U” inside a circle — is probably the best-known kosher food designation in the world. But the Orthodox Union itself is virtually unknown in the former Soviet Union. Unlike Chabad and the Reform movement, the umbrella organization of modern Orthodoxy has not made great efforts to bring its form of Jewish practice to the vast Russian-speaking world.

In fact, in the 16 years that the other two groups have expanded their congregations and trained Russian-speaking rabbis to serve in Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, the Orthodox Union has focused its efforts on just one city: Kharkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city, home of the Joseph K. Miller Torah Center.

Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, says that when the Soviet Union opened its doors to foreign religious activity, a few O.U. lay leaders began pushing the group to start working there. The leadership’s position, he recalls, was rather than launch an all-out effort throughout the former Soviet territory, “we decided we’d do one thing, and we’d do it well.”

The group’s president, Stephen Savitsky, says the Orthodox Union came to Kharkov in 1992 “to rebuild a Jewish community that was once one of the glories of the Jewish world.”

Miller, a lay treasurer for the group, was a key figure in the project before he was killed in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland. The center, which runs religious and educational programs focused on teaching Hebrew and Judaism, is named after him and is supervised by Rabbi Shlomo Asraf, the only O.U. rabbi working in the former Soviet Union. Asraf divides his time between Kharkov and his home in Israel.

Today, the Miller Center is home to the Sha’alavim School, with about 120 girls and boys from first through 11th grade. Those not from Kharkov live in the center’s dormitory, along with three Israeli couples and a handful of counselors who teach in the school and run other educational programs. The couples, who act as dorm parents as well, stay for three years. The husbands, advanced yeshiva students who are not yet rabbis, provide spiritual leadership. An estimated 400 to 600 people — mainly students and their family members — take part in O.U.-organized activities throughout the year.

The school and dorms are free. Students pay only for the bus that transports them to class.

This spring Arik Wolf, the O.U. director in Kharkov, held five seders on the first two nights of Passover; some 600 to 700 people attended each evening. A separate seder was held in a small city near Kharkov.

The Sha’alavim school, which accepts only students with a Jewish mother, teaches Jewish history and practice from an Orthodox perspective.

“All of our students are from totally assimilated families,” said Moshe Rosenbaum, an Israeli who teaches at the school. “But they began to understand and feel what does it mean to be a Jew.”

The students seem to enjoy the balance between religious and secular studies.

“I like learning Hebrew and Jewish tradition here,” said one of the students, 15-year-old Oleg Lesaev. “And I like the teachers’ attitude to us at school.”

While the school offers a full standardized secular curriculum that is similar to what other Ukrainian schools would have, “the main objective for us is to teach students to better understand Judaism,” Wolf said.

While those who go to the school or participate in other O.U. educational programs may indeed understand and appreciate Jewish tradition better than their parents, they hardly consider themselves Orthodox.

“I don’t need this distinction between Orthodox and Reform Judaism,” said Shimon Snurnikov, 21, who attends lectures at the O.U. Torah Center. “The main thing to me is to be a Jew and observe tradition.”

The group’s North American leadership says its goal is not to push young Ukrainian Jews to become more observant, but encourage them to move to Israel.

“The goal is aliyah, not religious indoctrination,” Weinreb told JTA.

Those who work at the Miller Center sometimes feel as if they’re waging a lonely battle. They wonder whether anyone in the larger Jewish world recognizes the efforts they’re making to bring a modern form of Orthodox Judaism to Ukraine.

“The O.U. puts us off to the side,” Wolf told JTA. “They don’t give us publicity. We’re like the black sheep in the O.U. family. I’m sure if they really knew what we do, that would change. We’re doing holy work — these are lost souls here.”

But Wolf estimates that 30 percent of each year’s graduating class goes to Israel on a variety of organized programs, most of them to continue their religious studies. “We help them go to the places we want,” he says. “The boys we send to Kiryat Noar, and the girls to Beit Ulpana, both in Jerusalem.”

Later, many stay on, and are eventually joined by their parents. According to O.U. representatives, some 1,000 young Kharkov Jews have made aliyah through the group’s efforts so far. The group runs a community center in Jerusalem where the ex-Kharkov Jewish youth can get together and preserve their social network.

“In Israel, we keep in contact,” Wolf said. “We meet them at the airport, we get together each holiday, we run activities for them at our center. We are their family in Israel, their mama and papa.”

Some Jewish leaders in Ukraine say the O.U. has not expanded beyond Kharkov because the Orthodox niche has already been successfully filled by Chabad in this part of the world.

But Asraf said this is not so.

“There is no competition with Chabad,” he said. “We work in full cooperation with Chabad.”

Chabad’s leading official in Ukraine agreed.

“We are in cooperation, not in competition with the O.U.,” said Meir Stambler, chairman of the council of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, a Chabad umbrella organization. He added that this year, the two groups will launch a joint educational project in Ukraine.

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