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Tales from the Pale in Southern Russian City, Jewish Groups Are Happy Together

September 9, 2004
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In the center of this capital city of southern Russia, stands a historic 130-year-old wooden synagogue that remained open throughout the 70-plus years of Soviet communism. Its original wooden pews and ceiling paintings make the synagogue a rare jewel in Russia’s Jewish communal crown.

The synagogue is unique in another way: Unlike in most cities in the former Soviet Union, where competing Jewish organizations vie for the same population and funding sources, Jewish groups in Rostov work together under one synagogue’s roof.

The Hesed welfare agency, funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, maintains its offices in the basement, while upstairs is the city’s Jewish congregation, part of the Chabad-sponsored Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, known as FEOR.

Services led by the Chabad rabbi are held daily in the synagogue hall, while downstairs Hesed’s dance troupe may be practicing, and up! stairs a Jewish Agency for Israel-sponsored Hebrew class may be taking place. The bulletin board posts notices from Chabad, Hesed, the JDC and the Jewish Agency, an eye-catching cacophony of affiliations.

And over it all presides Rabbi Chaim Friedman, the Israeli-born Lubavitcher sent last year by Chabad headquarters in Moscow to provide religious leadership for Rostov’s 10,000 Jews.

“In most cities in Russia, the Jewish community, Hesed and the Joint work separately,” says Friedman, 27. “Here, thank God, we work together. There’s no ‘Chabad,’ it’s just the Jewish community. And I’m just the rabbi.”

Friedman’s take on it is a little disingenuous — he’s very much the Chabad representative in town, even if he’s also the only rabbi. But the cooperation he describes is true, forced upon the community by the physical reality of shared premises, yet also carefully cultivated by Friedman.

Friedman has had one success after another since his arrival last year. He op! ened a preschool that drew 16 children its first season, and has 90 ch ildren enrolled in his state-accredited elementary and high school.

Hundreds of people attend his holiday celebrations, and more than 100 come to his biweekly Shabbatons, festive — and free — dinners held downstairs in the synagogue after Friday night services. He gives his drashas, or commentaries on the weekly Torah portion, in his still-halting Russian, which endears him beyond measure to the locals.

He’s just opened a kosher meat-processing business, the first in southern Russia, and has architectural plans drawn for a multimillion-dollar Jewish community center.

On June 1, he took possession of a pre-revolutionary Talmud Torah building near the synagogue that state authorities handed back to him, as the representative of the city’s Jewish community, in a formal property restitution ceremony. After renovations, the building will open in winter as the new home for his expanded Ohr Avner school.

“Here’s the computer room,” Friedman announces during a brie! f tour of the synagogue premises, flipping on the light switch in one upstairs room to reveal a dozen shiny new computers set up at immaculately clean desks. “It’s really important that we have Internet all the time; that’s what attracts the young people.

“And here,” he continues, flying into another room, “is where we teach Hebrew. And this is for our genius club, where the young people meet to discuss Jewish topics and to dance afterwards.”

When Friedman says “we” — and he says it a lot — he means the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. And that organization means Chabad.

Even more so than in the rest of Russia, where Federation congregations are by far the dominant Jewish voice, in Rostov there really is no competition.

Local Jewish leaders acknowledge that this has a lot to do with the emotional pull of the historic synagogue, which has always been the center of Jewish life in the city.

The rabbi of that synagogue is the de facto head of the! community, so when Friedman arrived and stepped into the pulpit, the local Jews automatically looked to him for direction. Even Mikhail Gelfer, chair of Rostov’s tiny, barely functioning Reform congregation, says he and his fellow Progressive Jews come to Friedman’s services for “all the holidays.” He calls the building “my synagogue, too.”

But unlike Chabad elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, Rostov’s Lubavitch students participate in programs organized by other Jewish groups. They are among the most active volunteers in Hesed’s Dor le Dor project, where young people visit elderly homebound Jews on Friday afternoons.

“I’m proud that we are the only Hesed in Russia working with yeshiva boys,” says Rostov’s Hesed director, Tatyana Mindjoraya. “No one thought it could work, but it does. The yeshiva boys have different values, they’re more religious, but it’s fine. They know how to light the candles better than we do.”

The close relationship between Chabad and Hesed in Rostov helps avoid the fractious conflicts plaguing many other c! ities with emerging Jewish communities. But it also poses a danger, warns Zvika Timberg, the Rostov-based JDC director for South Russia.

“Chabad exerts considerable influence on Hesed,” he says. “The lines become blurred.”

While that might not seem problematic at first glance, it can be. For example, Chabad only recognizes halachic Jews, yet Hesed, the JDC and the Jewish Agency work with anyone who has one Jewish grandparent. So who can attend the Hebrew School classes in Friedman’s part of the building? Who has the right to use the synagogue, and for what kind of prayers?

“If the rabbi is clever, he understands how it has to be,” says Mindjoraya. “And our rabbi is very clever.”

Indeed, Friedman says, although he restricts admission to his schools to halachic Jews, “when it comes to our classes and clubs, we don’t force the issue. In Russia, you can’t.”

Still, he exerts his authority in some situations that make other local Jews bristle. One Sukkot, for exa! mple, Hesed had to move its festive communal meal indoors due to incle ment weather, and when they started playing music in the synagogue basement, Friedman shut the party down. It was a desecration of the holiday, he announced, according to attendees.

While he may be able to lay down the law now when the Jewish community is still finding its legs, locals say, people won’t necessarily back down forever.

Ilya Gorenshteyn is one of 12 local businessmen comprising the board of directors of both Chabad and Hesed. He says that “we all support the rabbi,” but if the Reform movement would show a little more oomph, it might find fertile ground.

“All of us board members, except one, have non-Jewish wives,” he notes. “So our children, who we raise as Jews, are not considered Jews by Orthodox criteria.

“Still, our rabbi understands the situation and accepts them. We celebrate the festivals in this Chabad synagogue, even those of us who consider themselves members of the Progressive community. Questions of Bar Mitzvahs and weddings can be set! tled. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.”

Timberg, the JDC director, says relations between Chabad, the Progressive movement and the JDC “go up and down.” They are, he remarks wryly, “very good this month.”

And although he would like to see a more pluralistic atmosphere in the community, and he wishes the JCC Friedman is planning wouldn’t carry the Chabad moniker, it’s ultimately about what’s good for the Jews.

“Businessmen are attracted to Chabad all over the FSU, so when Chabad says they want to build a JCC, how can we ask the same businessmen to give money for an independent JCC?” he says. “If Chabad has managed to get it together and build it, then at least there will be one, and that’s good for the community.”

This article is a part of a series of pieces on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. This series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitab! le Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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