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Across the Former Soviet Union Young People Choose Rabbinate in Region Where There’s a Shortage

August 19, 2005
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Young Jews in the former Soviet Union are being trained by both the Chabad and Reform movements to become rabbis in a region where there is a shortage of Jewish spiritual leaders. Here are a few of their stories:

A Belarus native, Tanya Sakhnovich grew up with Holocaust survivor grandparents who whispered about their Judaism behind closed doors.

The 29-year-old admits that she was embarrassed as a young child when other children teased her because her father was Jewish. Indeed, Sakhnovich, whose mother is not Jewish, says that had a lot to do with her wanting to become a rabbi.

She says she wanted “to show young people that it’s fine to be Jewish, to be proud of it, like I am today.”

Sakhnovich had worked for almost a decade for the Progressive movement in Minsk, Belarus, and Moscow, and she studied at the movement’s Machon training institute for communal workers when she arrived in London last fall to begin her rabbinic studies.

But she still felt ill-equipped to keep up with her classmates at Leo Baeck College.

“At the beginning it was really hard, especially the language,” she says.

Not only is she studying in English — she is a native Russian speaker, although her English is excellent — but her Hebrew background is negligible. “The other students grew up in this environment. I spend all my free time reading, just to catch up.”

She also spends her free time working at three jobs — teaching Hebrew school classes at two London congregations and tutoring privately — just to support herself, since part of her stipend ran out even before her arrival. She had to leave her 4-year-old son behind with her parents and husband, something she feels guilty about “every day,” she says.

After graduating from Minsk University with a degree in music history and theory, she got a job teaching Sunday school classes at the city’s Progressive community in 1999.

She was handpicked by movement leaders in Jerusalem to enter rabbinic school, and she feels the weight of that responsibility.

She knows that four years from now, when she’s ordained as the second female rabbi in the former Soviet Union, people will look to her as a moral example, as well as a teacher, prayer leader and community spokeswoman.

“I know the job will be very hard. I have no illusions about that,” she says. “But being a rabbi gives me the feeling I’m doing something worthwhile. I think of my son, and I want to make the future better for him.”

When Mikhail Kapustin took up his pulpit in Kharkov, Ukraine, this summer, he became his country’s second Reform rabbi.

That doesn’t faze him. Kapustin’s father, an ex-boxer and Soviet naval officer, founded the Jewish community of Kerch, Ukraine, in 1997. He quickly molded it into the city’s Progressive congregation. The younger Kapustin, just a teenager, was at his side learning the ropes.

Whereas his father is more of a Jewish official, the younger Kapustin, 25, is a natural scholar and spiritual seeker. At 17, he spent the summer at both Reform and Chabad camps and wore tzitzit, or prayer fringes, and davened daily for a time before deciding that Reform Judaism best fit his personality and beliefs.

Although he entered college to study law, he quickly switched to a rabbinic program because, like Sakhnovich, he felt he could be “more useful” that way.

He was ordained at the Leo Baeck College in London in July.

For Kapustin, what’s important about Progressive Judaism is not the content of its ideology so much as its embrace of choice.

“I’m not against Orthodoxy,” he emphasizes, noting that he keeps kosher. “But Orthodox Judaism says you must do certain things, while Progressive Judaism says you have a choice.”

Kapustin knows that Chabad has a strong congregation in Kharkov, and he says he’s “not going there to steal their members or fight them but to be an alternative for those who are already in the Progressive congregation, people who want a Judaism that fits their modern reality.”

Ovadia Isakov, 32, is poised to become the first post-Soviet rabbi in his native Dagestan, a largely Muslim republic in southeastern Russia.

Unlike the Ashkenazi Jews in most of the rest of Soviet Russia, the “mountain Jews” of Dagestan always maintained the trappings of Jewish life — bar mitzvahs, circumcisions and the major holidays. But Isakov says his family wasn’t part of the Jewish community.

When violence spilled over from neighboring Chechnya into Dagestan in the late 1990s, Isakov went to Moscow to continue his art studies. In December 1999, he dropped by the city’s Chorale Synagogue for Chanukah, looking for people to buy his paintings.

He ran into a young Lubavitcher who invited him back to the Chabad yeshiva for a lecture: Isakov spent two weeks there, enjoying what he describes as the “warmth and friendliness” of the Chabad community, then went back to his university dorm, packed his things and moved into the yeshiva full time.

For him, the move to Chabad was primarily an intellectual decision.

“I’d always thought that someday I’d take off a few years to study philosophy and the meaning of life, but after those two weeks I understood that only here could I get that knowledge,” Isakov says. “Something inside was guiding me.”

Flexing his Jewish muscle for the first time also had something to do with it. He describes how he walked to services on his first Shabbat with a group of yeshiva students and “felt a strange sense of freedom, walking as a

Jew through the streets of Moscow together with them.”

After two years of intensive study, Isakov spent a year in Israel at Chabad’s yeshiva for Russian speakers, then returned to Moscow to enter Chabad’s newly organized kolel, or rabbinic training institute. Although he won’t be ordained until 2006, he has already taken up his new pulpit at the Chabad-affiliated congregation in Derbent, Dagestan’s second largest city, home to 8,000 Jews.

Meanwhile, he still paints — all his work now has a Chasidic theme — and holds regular exhibitions at Jewish galleries and the Moscow Jewish Community Center.

Ella and Yossi Verzub are part of a small, but growing, group of young Jews who left the Soviet Union as children, moved to Israel, became observant and are now returning to their former homeland as Chabad emissaries.

Ella Verzub, 26, was born in St. Petersburg to refusenik parents who became observant during the eight years they waited for permission to immigrate to Israel.

She remembers attending underground Hebrew school as a young child in rooms with all the blinds shut, while her parents surreptitiously studied Hebrew and Zionist history next door.

In Israel, her parents both worked for the Children of Chernobyl charity project at Kfar Chabad, so Ella grew up in a Lubavitch environment. She spent several summers as a counselor at Chabad camps in Ukraine and Russia, before marrying a man with a similar life story who was as committed as she was to what would become their life’s work.

“I always knew I’d go on shlichus,” she says, using the Hebrew word for the mission of a Chabad emissary.

“My parents kept us speaking Russian in the house. They said it was important for us to help those who came to Israel after us.”

Yossi Verzub’s parents left Ukraine for Israel in 1979, when he was 2 years old. Soon afterward his family became observant. Verzub studied in a Chabad school.

Ten years ago his older sister became a Chabad emissary in Moscow. Verzub followed in her footsteps, running Passover seders in the former Soviet Union as a student, then marrying Ella and moving with her to Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, four years ago, as assistants to Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz, the city’s chief Chabad emissary.

Ella teaches in the Chabad school and is paid jointly by the Moskowitz family and the Israeli Ministry of Education. Yossi, who does not yet have rabbinic ordination, manages the yeshiva boys’ dorm and teaches in the girls’ seminary.

The Verzubs say the fact that they were born in the former Soviet Union was a major factor in their decision to move back to the region.

“There aren’t many Russian speakers doing this,” Yossi says. “It helps so much, and not just because of running activities. We can be an example to the local people. It’s not easy to be Sabbath-observant here, so when they see that someone can be born here and can choose to live this life, it’s very important.”

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