Borovichi Jews get a boost from Bay Area visitors

The lights of Chanukah shone especially bright for the Jewish community of Borovichi this year, as Jews marked the Festival of Lights together in a new room adjacent to their synagogue. Now named in memory of Rudolph Schwartz, the room underwent a renovation funded by an East Bay Congregation and a San Francisco woman.

Borovichi, a city of 80,000 between Moscow and St. Petersburg, has enjoyed a special relationship with the Bay Area since 1998, when it was the target of a nationalist group, the Russian National Unity Party. At that time, the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal launched a letter and e-mail campaign to Russian officials on behalf of the Jews of Borovichi.

Six months later, the 500-member Jewish community was granted space in a building for a synagogue. Through the Yad L'Yad program, Reform Temple Beth Torah in Fremont was matched as a sister congregation with the Borovichi synagogue, and members of Beth Torah, including Rabbi Steven Kaplan, traveled there for its dedication.

But as the Russian synagogue was really just one room in a larger building, the Jews of Borovichi still had no place to gather for social occasions. They had no classroom, no library, no place to hold an oneg Shabbat.

So when local residents visited Borovichi in November on a mission organized by the Bay Area Council, they were told that the Russian Jews had been offered a second room adjacent to the synagogue, with one caveat — they had to pay to renovate it.

"There was rubbish on the floor and broken windows," said Marion Schwartz, a retired geriatric mental health worker, who lives in San Francisco.

Schwartz asked the Russians if they had received an estimate for the room's renovation. They had. They needed $1,700, they told her.

"I said, 'Sold,'" Schwartz said. "Put a plaque up in my late husband's name, and I'll give you a check, and you can make the renovations."

Although Schwartz had been involved with the Bay Area Council for a number of years, she said visiting the Jews of Borovichi was "really a revelation to me."

In her congregation, Kol Hadash, which is affiliated with the Northern California Society for Humanistic Judaism, Schwartz is involved in a knitting group. "We send warm things to Russian Jews every year," she said. "The [Bay Area] Council has always taken the things when they go."

Schwartz had been to Russia once before, in 1986. She visited China then, too, with a delegation of American mental health counselors, to investigate how those countries treated their elderly populations. But this was the first time she visited a Jewish community there.

"I wanted to make everyone Jewish," she said. "We're bringing such wonderful services to the Russian Jews."

Noting that the communist regime had banned any kind of religious expression for almost a century, Schwartz said, "These are Jews who have been unable to worship in any way. They don't know how to be Jewish."

More help is on the way. The money donated by Schwartz was not the end of the Bay Area's generosity.

When he returned from the mission, Herman Rosenbaum, chair of Beth Torah's social action committee, gave a talk to the congregation about what he had seen.

Now that there is the space for it, Beth Torah agreed to fund audio-visual equipment for the new library and classroom so their Russian partners can have access to Jewish music and films. This contribution is in addition to $3,700 Beth Torah gave last year to furnish the synagogue.

Rosenbaum said that both attending Shabbat services in the synagogue his congregation helped to furnish and meeting the Jews of Borovichi was "an emotional experience."

Pnina Levermore, executive director of the Bay Area Council, said the effect this relationship has had on the Jews of Borovichi becomes more evident with each visit.

"One grandmother cut through the crowd and presented me with her granddaughter," Levermore said, estimating the girl to be about 9 years old.

Levermore recalled that at the dedication the previous year, Kaplan had blessed this little girl.

Now, the grandmother told her, "Please tell the rabbi 'thank you.' She'll remember it for the rest of her life."

Levermore described another memorable encounter. "The oldest Jew in the community came up to me and showed me a picture of graffiti of a Jewish star with the word Jhid painted on his door."

"'They can't scare me,' he told me. 'We have friends; we're protected. Thank you so much.'"

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."