“Who would have thought that after 72 years of active oppression of Judaism in Russia, synagogues and community centers are being revived,” remarks Rabbi Elie Abadie, spiritual leader of Congregation Edmund J. Safra in Manhattan, who recently traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg along with 15 other rabbis on a trip supported by UJA-Federation of New York.
The purpose of the four-day mission, says Dru Greenwood, director of SYNERGY: UJA-Federation and Synagogues Together, was to allow New York congregational rabbis across the religious spectrum to experience the renewal of Jewish life taking place in the former Soviet Union, and to see first-hand the critical help extended to 165,000 elderly Jews living in poverty — all work made possible in part by UJA-Federation.A delegation of 16 New York rabbis and spouses visited Moscow and St. Petersburg on a UJA-Federation mission led by John S. Ruskay.
UJA-Federation executive vice president and CEO John S. Ruskay led the mission that also met with the leader of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), Natan Sharansky, who served nine years in Soviet prisons as a refusnik, and his wife Avital, who led the struggle for human rights during the Soviet era.
Rabbi Abadie, who participated in rallies for Soviet Jews during the 1970s, says he was deeply impressed by the abilities of the rabbis in Moscow to handle a multitude of issues around Jewish law regarding whether a person is Jewish by birth or identity.
“If someone has Jewish grandparents but not a Jewish mother and identifies with being Jewish,” he notes, “the rabbis try to bring them closer to the Jewish community with the hope they will become part of the Jewish mainstream, and convert.”
Rabbi Abadie adds that the teens he visited at JAFI summer camp also left him with a vivid memory.
“I met teenagers who had just learned their Jewish identity before they left for camp,” he says. “They were thirsty to learn about their Jewish heritage and Jewish knowledge and are trying to embrace it.”
Rabbi Abadie says he wants to share the enthusiasm of learning about Jewish life, against all odds, with his congregation. “We can learn from the Jewish community in Russia how to value our Jewish identity and tradition with all our minds and all our hearts.”
Redeeming Lost Jewish Souls
The summer camp visit was also a highlight of the mission for Rabbi David A. Schuck, spiritual leader of Pelham Jewish Center.
“These camps take children who have no idea what it means to be Jewish and begin to tell them this magnificent story about the Jewish people, and over time they begin to see themselves in it,” Rabbi Schuck says.
He was inspired as well by the Russian Jewish community’s openness. “In Russia when a person shows up, the door is wide open and she or he is embraced, period,” Rabbi Schuck says. “Redeeming lost Jewish souls trumps everything else, and this generates an openness, warmth, and passion within the Jewish community; judgment and coercion are checked at the door.”
He adds that he sees this spirit as a model to follow. “If my community can emulate the warmth, openness, and creativity that I felt within the Russian Jewish community,” Rabbi Schuck says, “we would move further toward our mandate of holiness.
Jewish renewal efforts in summer camps and schools and outreach to the elderly are supported by UJA-Federation and through the work of two beneficiary agencies, JAFI and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.