New community launched for Russian Jews &mdash but dont call it a synagogue

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

A new synagogue was launched Sunday, March 7, but shhhh. Don’t call it a synagogue.

“We’re calling it a community or congregation; it’s an easier term for them,” said Rabbi Shimon Margolin, its founder, with the “them” meaning Russian Jewish emigres.

As of now, its working title is the Russian-Speaking Jewish Community. And since Jews who came from the former Soviet Union were mostly raised to believe that religion is unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst, a synagogue might attract more people if it’s called something else, Margolin reasons.

Margolin has long served the needs of the Russian Jewish emigre population in San Francisco. While Rabbi Bentzion Pil already offers religious services for Russian-speaking Jews in San Francisco, Margolin is hoping to draw more of the young adult crowd from emigre circles — for services and more.

“Our vision is to create a venue where Russian Jews will feel comfortable connecting to Judaism,” he said.

Actually, people have been meeting informally for the past year. Margolin led High Holy Days services in Russian, and a group has gathered intermittently in people’s homes, including his own, he said. But now, with an established membership of about 100, he hopes they can begin renting space somewhere in the Richmond district, to start. But in the meantime, they will continue to meet in members’ homes.

Right now a seder is planned, and Margolin hopes to offer Shabbat services at least once a month.

Because of their lack of knowledge, Russian emigres can often feel lost in American synagogues, he said, adding that Reform and Conservative Judaism are only recent arrivals in Russia.

Or, in the case of Yan Kalika, the 33-year-old president of the new community, “it’s difficult to get integrated [into an existing community] because it’s so established.”

Kalika, who came from Moldova in 1989, belongs to Congregation Emanu-El. And while he enjoys it and has no plans to leave, he said there are only a handful of Russian families there.

“It can be difficult when a newcomer comes in,” he said. “You have to be very outgoing to meet people.”

The synagogue will be “traditional,” as Russians themselves call it.

“Orthodox Judaism was the only one they are familiar with,” said Margolin.

In talking about his vision, Margolin said one of his main goals is to better integrate Russian Jews into the Jewish community. To do that, they must have a better Jewish education, he said.

To that end, several courses are being offered on Judaism and Hebrew. Additionally, he said, while Russian Jews see Israel as a focal point in their religious identity, they don’t know much about the rest of the Jewish community locally, or why they should support it.

“They don’t understand all the needs and causes,” he said.

Kalika, who is involved with the emigre community at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, said that when organizations offer programs for the emigre community, it is hard to get young Russian Jews to come.

He is hoping that by offering classes on topics like Kabbalah, it will draw in younger people who might not want to attend services. They’ve also put out holiday guides to help emigres understand more about the major Jewish holidays.

“It’s only through education they can get integrated,” Kalika said. “We want to create a place where they can learn and integrate people earlier.”

To contact the Russian-Speaking Jewish Community, call (415) 221-5280 or e-mail [email protected].

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."