Orphanages, soup kitchens, schools &mdash Chabad in action in Russia

moscow | The mother becomes a hooker to buy food for her children. Her occupation triggers emotional scars despite numbing them to sleep with alcohol “because she doesn’t want them to know what she was doing.”

Her kids are taken away.

Dany Belak, head of a Chabad-Lubavitch live-in shelter for Jewish children here, details the horror story. He has 39 similar tales, one per resident.

One abusive father breaks his kids’ teeth and stabs his wife. Placed in the Beit Yeladin shelter, the two boys won’t talk at first. Stomach ailments make them cringe.

The brothers never smile. Whenever anything falls, they think it their fault. During art exercises, they draw only with thick black markers.

Now, however, they’re learning to speak Russian and Hebrew, and go to regular classes, too. “Now they become normal children — they laugh, they play, they smile,” reports the 29-year-old Ukraine-born Belak, who is on site 24/7 with his wife (whom he met when they both helped Chernobyl kids with radiation sickness).

Also living with them is their own brood of three — ages 3, 2 and 1 — spacing that’s typical for a young Lubavitch family.

Although staffers label it “an orphanage,” they carefully avoid that phrase when residents are around. “We don’t want them to be stigmatized by the word,” explains Avraham Berkowitz, 28-year-old executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities, the Chabad-piloted umbrella group that administers the residence.

Some of the kids are transferred from state orphanages. Many can’t be adopted because a relative who can’t care for them still retains a legal hold.

All are victims of sexual abuse, alcoholism or untold atrocities, indignations and cruelty, Berkowitz indicates.

Beit Yeladin is one of 10 Lubavitch-run orphanages in the former Soviet Union — with 10 more on the movement’s wish list.

A replacement building, which may be finished this winter, will contain 80 beds — double the current number. It’s one of 50 line-item projects in Chabad’s $80 million capital budget for the former Soviet Union. The annual operating budget accounts for $50 million more.

Like all current residents, each kid at the new orphanage will be required to have a halachic stamp of approval — he or she must have a Jewish mother. And each boy will be circumcised if the procedure has not been done.

For now, males live in the nondescript Beit Yeladin until they’re almost 12, females till just before they’re 15. Next step — regular Jewish live-in schools run by Chabad.

These days, a teacher and a counselor are always with them. Women stay all night to deal with nightmares and illnesses. Psychologists fill out the staff roster.

Ask the boys what they like best about life in the residence and they mimic Americans: “Having a Sony PlayStation,” “getting to read Harry Potter books,” “sports — especially football [soccer] and hockey.”

What do the girls — a tad more mature — want to be when they grow up? “A teacher,” says one. “A doctor,” says another. “A veterinarian,” says a third.

Rescuing Jews is hardly a Chabad motif that’s limited to the Russian capital.

The charity center of the Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg sees to it that 150 Jews get special food packs each day. In addition, a daily soup kitchen feeds 180 elderly — half at one seating, half at another. More than three-quarters of them have no families. “And a majority have higher education but have now an inability to make both ends meet,” says an aide.

Occasionally a long-term match is made over dinner, but no weddings are expected: “Couples get together but don’t marry,” explains the aide. “They’d lose part of their meager pensions.”

Schooling, naturally, also ranks high on the agenda of Chabad, whose origins in Russia date back 200 years. The federation claims 15,000 students in 143 kindergartens, day schools, high schools and universities in 65 cities in the former Soviet Union.

Machon Chaya Mushka Women’s College in Moscow is one of those institutions.

It offers 150 girls — many of whom come from broken families — free room, board and tuition.

Sarah Sorina, a first-year student, is what passes for a Russian feminist. She buries herself in economics books because “I want to be sure to earn money myself and not be dependent on anyone else.”

Sorina, who grew up “without Jewish traditions and knew only that I was Jew,” also studies her heritage. She dreams about opening a kosher food business when she graduates.

Jenny Rosensen is the school psychologist. She has an Australian accent, having lived Down Under for years before returning here. It doesn’t get in the way of helping the girls adjust. Eighty percent of them succeed; the rest either make aliyah, flunk out or leave for a cartful of reasons.

“Their biggest adjustment is getting used to dorm life,” she explains. But the biggest problem, she elaborates, is “my being a psychologist. There is still a social stigma in Russia, so I have to convince the girls they can talk to me and not be thought of as being cuckoo.”

Woody Weingarten visited Russia this month on a trip sponsored by Chabad and coordinated by the American Jewish Press Association.


Russia’s Jewish organizations vie for control of those returning to the fold