The setting was a barbeque on a cool evening in early June on an outdoor patio near the heart of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the center of New York's large Russian-Jewish community.

The young, largely Russian-speaking crowd enjoyed succulent skewers of shashlik (shish kabob), quaffed bottles of Baltika beer, an ale-like beverage produced in Russia that has a considerably higher alcohol content than American brands, and smoked countless cigarettes. As almost invariably happens at Russian gatherings, someone took out a guitar, and there was a group singing of Russian songs; ranging from the latest rock offerings from Moscow to beloved classics from 1970's-era singer-songwriter Vladimir Visotsky.

Overall, the scene appeared as secular a get-together as one could imagine--except that, on closer examination, many of the male attendees wore yarmulkes and the guy on the guitar turned out to be a bearded Orthodox rabbi. The barbeque itself turned out to be a social gathering sponsored by the Sha'arei Emunah Center for Jewish Life, an "outreach" organization founded five years ago by a group of Russian-born rabbis to give Russian-speaking college students and young professionals opportunities to explore Judaism.

Just over a year ago, Shaarei Emunah merged with the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach (JCBB), a sprawling 77-year-old Orthodox synagogue that had dwindled as its mainly elderly American-Jewish membership died off or moved to retirement communities in Florida. Yet thanks to the merger between the two institutions, the survival of JCBB has been assured, and Sha'arei Emunah now has a permanent space-one large enough to accommodate its growth for many years to come.

How JCBB-Shaarei Emunah fares as a predominantly Russian-Jewish synagogue may have important ramifications, not only for the Russian-speaking Jews, but for the larger American-Jewish community as well. Russian Jews began emigrating to the United States in significant numbers during the late 1970's and sent a huge wave of emigrants to our shores after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's.

By conservative estimates, Jews who have arrived from the Former Soviet Union during the past 35 years today compose at least 12 percent of the total American Jewish community, including 20-25 percent of the Jewish population of New York City. If American Jewry, which for years has been beset by an intermarriage rate of about 50 percent, is to hold its own demographically in the years ahead, it clearly needs to find ways to bring larger numbers of Russian-speaking Jews into more active involvement in community life.

Yet despite a strongly held sense of Jewish identity and passionate identification with the cause of Israel, the "Russians," as they are almost universally called by American Jews, have so far largely shunned affiliation with synagogues in America. Rabbi Mordecai Tokarsky, the spiritual leader of JCBB--Shaarei Tefila, believes that only synagogues and outreach programs headed by Russian-Jewish rabbis and educators, as opposed to American-born ones-can change that equation. "A lot of Russian Jews who want to connect with Judaism feel ostracized from the larger Jewish community," said Tokarsky, an engaging 35-year-old who emigrated with his family from Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, at the age of 11.

A matter of trust?
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  • Explaining that Russian Jews who visit American synagogues often feel intimidated by their ignorance of Hebrew and basic Judaic knowledge-the result of growing up in an atheist society where the study of Judaism was illegal-and patronized by American rabbis and congregants alike, Tokarsky said that in the 12 months since the merger of JCBB and Sha'arei Tefila, "hundreds" of new people, nearly all of them Russians, have began pouring into the synagogue. "The buzz in the Russian community today is that there is finally a synagogue in Brighton Beach where they can feel comfortable to go, a place where they will feel fully accepted."

    JCBB-Shaarei Emunah is one of a number of initiatives now under way in New York and other East Coast cities with large Russian populations that are based on the premise that only Russian Jewish rabbis and educators can bring large numbers of Russian Jews to connect to Judaism and Jewish institutions. Among these initiatives are:

  • A Russian-Jewish youth group headed by a charismatic 28-year-old Jewish educator named Roman Shmulenson under the aegis of COJECO, (Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations), the umbrella body of Russian-Jewish grass-roots organizations in New York.
  • In Boston, Rabbi Dan Rotkind, a Russian-born rabbi affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, has created a successful day school called Shaloh House with a predominantly Russian-Jewish student body.
  • In Philadelphia, several stringently Orthodox Russian-Jewish rabbis and educators have over the past year succeeded in attracting growing numbers of Russian Jews to Congregation Beth Solomon, a previously declining Orthodox synagogue, even though 95 percent of the new attendees were previously uninvolved in Jewish religious life.
  • Initiators of these programs stress that their personal understanding of what it was like to live as a Jew in the bitterly anti-Semitic Soviet Union makes it possible for them to connect with other former Soviets-and even American-born children of former Soviets-in a way an American-Jewish rabbi or educator could never do. According to Shmulenson, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine at the age of 16; "Many of the Russian kids with whom I work speak English, not Russian, as their first language, yet they feel separate and distinct from American Jews. Russian Jews have a code of communication that only they can use and understand. So they need to be approached by someone who is svoi [one of us]."

    Rabbi Eliber Kantrowitz, 25, a Jewish educator at Congregation Beth Solomon in Philadelphia, became a religious Jew at post-Soviet yeshiva in Moscow, before coming to America at the age of 18 in 1998. He said, "Many Russian Jews come to this country with a desire to explore Judaism, but feel unable to connect with American-born rabbis. Yet when they meet Russian-born rabbis, they feel immediately that we came from the same circumstances as they did, and lived part of our own lives as non-religious Jews. When they see how far we have come in moving from atheism to embracing Judaism, they realize they too have the capacity to move in that direction. It makes Russian Jews proud that a Russian-born person like myself now dresses in black and lives according to Jewish law. They might not be ready to go as far as I have, but they nevertheless feel a personal connection with me."

    Dr. Sam Kliger, founder and chairman of the Research Institute for New Americans (RINA), a think tank and research organization for the Russian-speaking community in the U.S., says the difficulty many Russian Jews have in connecting to American rabbis and synagogues stems from the chronic mistrust for authority figures they brought with them from the Soviet Union. "Those of us who were involved in the Jewish movement in the Soviet Union avoided the `official' rabbis in the few synagogues the Soviet authorities allowed to function, preferring instead to study Judaism underground with teachers that our friends recommended to us," said Kliger, who spent the 1980's as a refusenik in Moscow. Many Russians in America today tend to see American rabbis as official authorities and feel more comfortable with religious leaders of our own kind, people who speak our language and are part of our culture."

    At the barbeque at JCBB-Shaarei Emunah, 27-year-old Iosif Alpin took time off from cooking duties to explain the attraction of the place for him. Noting that he attended yeshiva after arriving in America from Russia at the age of 14 and came to consider himself observant, Alpin said he drifted away from involvement in Judaism as a young man because he felt "not at home" at several synagogues he visited with a mainly American-born population. Yet when Alpin came to Sha'arei Emunah for the first time, he said, "Something immediately clicked for me. I felt like everyone was just like me. I could relax and be myself."

    Elina Rochkind, 24, who came here from Kishinev, Moldova five years ago, said that thanks to her experiences at Shaarei Emunah, she is moving toward becoming more religiously observant. According to Rochkind, "This is the only synagogue I have found that caters to my needs. I like American Jews, but we come from different worlds and have different outlooks." Contending that she finds among American Jews an overemphasis on career and material success, Rochkind remarked, "Here at Sha'arei Emunah, I have the feeling that life is about more than work, eating, and sleeping, The Russian-Jewish spirit of this place gives me a boost."

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