Social worker mobilizing aid for Russian Jewish inmates

BOROVICHY, Russia — The young and energetic leader of this tiny Jewish community first visited Jewish inmates during the High Holy Days in 1996.

Now Edward Alexeev regularly visits the small number of Jewish men in this leftover from the Soviet gulag.

Believed to be the first local Jewish social service worker to visit Jews in prison in post-Soviet Russia, Alexeev admits that some of the prisoners are not repentant, but, he adds, "if we do not help them, chances are weaker that these people will survive and ever return to normal life."

Alexeev says it is hard to persuade other Jewish groups to help Jewish inmates.

"Many refuse to believe that there are Jews in prison. But there are, and they need the community to support them," said Alexeev, a 29-year-old social worker who heads the Jewish community of 200 in Borovichy, a town of 90,000 people about 300 miles northwest of Moscow.

Alexeev relies mostly on small donations from members of his community to buy food and used clothing for the inmates.

Some inmates are asking for spiritual help as well.

"They ask for books on Judaism, prayer shawls, yarmulkes," Alexeev said.

Borovichy's Jewish community has also sent the prisoners prayer books and matzahs for Passover.

When Mikhail Rokhinson, one of the prisoners whom Alexeev visits, was a year old, a Christian woman helped him and his mother escape from a Jewish ghetto in northern Belarus. Later, during the war, Rokhinson was separated from his mother.

At the age of 3, Rokhinson was placed into an orphanage in Leningrad. As a teen there, Rokhinson later received his first prison sentence — for stealing bread from a street vendor.

Rokhinson, a skinny man with big expressive eyes that contrast sharply with his tanned emaciated face, has spent 25 years of his life in prisons, mostly for minor theft.

He is now serving an 18-month sentence for a similar offense.

Much of Rokhinson's Jewish identity stems from his Borovichy childhood experiences during the anti-Semitic campaign unleashed by Stalin.

"They hated me only because I was Jewish," says Rokhinson, 58.

Recently, however, he has started to read books on Jewish history and the Torah.

"The only dream I have is to go to Israel after I serve my term," he said.

Prisoners in Borovichy live in white brick one- and two-story barracks surrounded by several circles of walls topped with barbed wire. Guards on walls and barking dogs make the picture seem straight out of movies about the Soviet gulag, the infamous prison system created by Stalin 70 years ago.

There are no cells in Borovichy. Metal bunks line the walls of the sleeping quarters. The prison is now home to some 1,600 convicted criminals.

Many of the convicts in Borovichy, including the eight Jews, are repeat offenders.

The prisoners' contact with the outside world is mostly limited to letters from home and to a large television set in the far corner of the barracks.

No pictures of loved ones, postcards or placards decorate the walls. But the wall decorations that are there show that the gulag has changed.

A Russian Orthodox icon and a large Star of David carved from wood hang on the walls of the barrack wall to show respect to the convicts' religious needs.

Alexander Shteinbak, another Jewish prisoner, said a non-Jewish convict made the Jewish star for him when Shteinbak arrived in Borovichy from a prison in central Russia more than two years ago.

Shteinbak, a 32-year-old Muscovite serving a three-year sentence for fraud, wrote the letter to Alexeev in 1996, asking him to visit the Jewish prisoners on the High Holy Days.

After the collapse of communism, Russian prisons opened their gates to religious organizations.

Prison officials hoped that the church and Western missionaries would bring money as well as moral consolation.

Under the law, prisoners must work, but the market reforms introduced in Russia since the fall of communism have destroyed the prison economy that was created during Stalin's era.

Now, prisoners must rely on the aid they receive from religious charities.

Jewish inmates watched Christian religious groups visit with other inmates, bringing them religious items and food.

"Books are OK," an officer with the prison administration said while inspecting brochures on Jewish tradition that Alexeev delivered on a recent afternoon to the colony along with a box of tea.

"But what they need more is someone to take care of them after they got released," said the officer, who declined to give his name.

A Lubavitch rabbi in Moscow said the Jewish community should do more for former prisoners.

"It's a shame that these people had not received our adequate attention," said Rabbi David Karpov, who has been offering spiritual guidance for some Jewish convicts in Russian prisons by correspondence.

He said the Jewish community should forgive and accept former prisoners. "These people cannot adapt to new life unless there is the Jewish community to help."