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From Minsk to Pinsk Belarus’ Chief Rabbi Has High Hopes, but Will the Country’s Jews Listen?

March 12, 2004
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Rabbi Sender Uritsky has a dream. Virtually unattainable, even by his own calculations, but a dream nonetheless.

From a tungsten-lit office cluttered with religious texts, paperwork and dirty teacups, the Orthodox chief rabbi of Belarus wants to rebuild a “real Jewish community” — a geographic and spiritual enclave of Jews with shared values of how to live and rear their children — in a land where Jewish life once was as authentically Jewish as it got.

But the Jews of Belarus and elsewhere in the Soviet Union have become assimilated because of repression and intermarriage. Even now, some Jews only discover their religion when the once-hidden background of a parent or grandparent suddenly is revealed.

“During Soviet times, Jews were Jews in name only: Their passports said so,” says the friendly Uritsky, an Orthodox Jew born in Ukraine who has lived in Belarus for six years. “Their attitude toward Jewish life today is they have no sense of being a member of a community, or of communal life. It’s impossible to order them to live a community life, so we have to educate them, to bring them closer to the Jewish values I believe in.”

To those well-versed in Jewish history, the idea of having to re-learn Judaism and Jewish life in a place like Belarus may be difficult to fathom. What is present-day Belarus once was the heart of the Pale of Settlement.

Jewish leaders here like to toss out a remarkable figure — that this land once was almost 60 percent Jewish. The capital, Minsk, was half Jewish before the Holocaust. And Belarus was home to one of the most famous academies of Jewish learning, the Mir yeshiva.

But the Holocaust, which was abetted by local collaborators, killed some 600,000 Jews here — 90 percent of those who lived in what was then know as the Soviet republic of Byelorussia.

Then came communism, which suppressed religion and strove to obliterate ethnic identity in a drive to forge model, uniform Soviet citizens.

After seven decades in the Soviet Union, Jewish life was little more than a memory for the elderly or the domain of a passionate, mostly underground movement, the refuseniks — Jews seeking to make aliyah but prevented from emigrating to Israel.

Belarussian Jewish lay leaders estimate the Jewish population of the country today at 65,000 to 70,000. But that’s using the Israeli Law of Return definition: only one grandparent has to be Jewish.

Uritsky is more stringent: He puts the number of Jews here at 35,000 to 40,000, according to Jewish law. Half are actively Jewish in some way, he reckons.

A decade into Belarussian independence, Uritsky dreams of a local version of the sort of traditional but insular Jewish communities found in places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Bnei Brak, Israel.

But ask Uritsky, 44, about his success rate in winning over adherents here, and the quaint vision dissipates like a smoke ring.

Of thousands who have attended Orthodox programs in 19 communities around Belarus, Uritsky claims “dozens” of disciples who have begun to live as he preaches. Later, he whittles the figure to “20 to 25” — in six years. Of those, several students have moved to more Jewish milieus such as Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, London.

Ten remain in Belarus. Few others are willing or able to match Uritsky’s commitment to Judaism.

Uritsky himself was born in Kharkov, in present-day Ukraine, and studied computer engineering in Kursk, a northern Russian city. He moved to Riga, the Latvian capital, where he specialized in electronics. In 1982, he also became a refusenik.

Uritsky made aliyah in 1989 and decided to become a rabbi. After graduating from yeshiva, he says he wanted to return to the former Soviet Union to reinvigorate Jewish life.

So, from the relative comfort of Israel, he uprooted his Latvian-born wife and six children. They’ve since added a seventh. The five girls and two boys range in age from 5 to 20.

His office is perched directly above his shul, Synagogue Beth Israel, and the 30-student yeshiva he runs, Yeshiva L’Chayim, for students aged 16 to 30. Uritsky also teaches a weekly religion class over at the highly secular Jewish community center, known as The Campus.

Early on, attendance at his shul was predominantly elderly Jews seeking to return to their roots. As they’ve died off, and as some among the youth gradually bought into his ideas, the Shabbat crowd has gotten younger. In Minsk, 100 or so Jews come to his synagogue each week — 60 percent of them young; 35 percent old; about 5 percent are middle-aged.

The latter generation often is referred to throughout the former Soviet Union as the “lost generation” — the one that was indoctrinated by the atheistic dogmas of communism.

In the provinces, which are more heavily elderly, roughly 1,000 attend Shabbat services — 70 percent of them are older; 25 percent, young; and about 5 percent middle-aged.

Winning over Jews here to the notion of a religious community, Uritsky says, is “like trying to change an introvert into an extrovert.”

But Uritsky expresses some optimism.

The embrace of capitalism, he says, suggests that “Russian Jews are very changeable.”

Though it may take generations to alter the mentality, Uritsky says, he cites factors in his favor.

Materialism has eroded values, he says. People are looking for a more gratifying belief system.

Also, he says, “to be an immigrant anywhere in the world is not so good,” he says. “No country in the world is waiting for immigrants with open arms.”

And as opposed to building Jewish life in the United States or New Zealand, the process is more organic in Belarus, he says.

“We’re in a place where we were born,” he says. “If these Jews can learn Jewish values in a natural way, in their home, they’ll accept it more deeply.”

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