Smiles &mdash big Chabad contribution to a bleak Russian city

nizhny novgorod, russia | A handful of wizened, silver-haired men and women fill several pews of an unpretentious Orthodox synagogue in this, Russia’s third-largest city. Solemnly, they flaunt their buffed World War II medals, gently unwrapped for public showing on a secular holiday.

Half a dozen cars and a small bus unload 40 twentysomethings for a Jewish-holiday picnic. Within minutes, they break into smiles as they guzzle beer and swig vodka and socialize in a light rain — without physical contact.

Fourteen teenage yeshiva students passionately sing upbeat Hebrew songs during a Shabbat feast, actually shaking the floor of the rabbi’s spacious apartment.

Three celebrations. Three different times. One link: Lubavitch.

If wishes were chickpeas, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shimon Bergman and his wife, Yael, would have all the hummus they could serve.

They’re pleased with their outreach, having touched hundreds of the 15,000 Jews scattered in and around the city limits.

But they want to reach more.

“I’m only afraid I won’t be able to do everything I want to in my lifetime in Nizhny Novgorod,” says the 30-year-old chief (and only) rabbi here.

“Everything” includes dreams of building a girls’ yeshiva, medical clinic, kosher bakery and food shop.

His vision also includes a new Jewish community center with “cafe, library, Internet center, concert hall, sports center and club rooms.”

For now, he delights in his family’s role as “soldiers and pioneers” in a city of 3 million once renamed for a native son, writer Maxim Gorky (“the bitter one”).

One of the key missions for the Bergmans, who are Israeli emigres: to overcome misgivings by critics that Chabad is an ultra-Orthodox fringe group, perhaps even a cult whose women resemble Stepford wives, and is isolated from the rest of the Jewish community.

“We were not the first here,” the black-bearded rabbi says quietly, “but all people now consider us to be the face of the Jewish religion in this city, the center of Judaism, and my main goal is to connect all the Jewish organizations.”

That may be easier than one might guess.

Anna Kobrina, who directs a pilot kids’ project under the auspices of Hesed (sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee and private donors), summarizes what many Jewish leaders feel.

“We prefer pulling together rather than pulling in different directions,” she says. Hesed restarted in Russia a decade ago after having been muffled by the communists since 1920. It supports 3,700 pensioners and 500 children with free kosher food, medication, clothing and haircuts.

Unlike Chabad, “we accept non-halachic Jews,” Kobrina says.

She also notes that the success of the children’s program, which kicked off in October, “is due to the cooperation of the Jewish school and Zvi Girsh,” a local cultural organization.

Marina Pashton, director of that school, started in 2000 by Bergman but funded by the international charity Or-Avner, currently oversees 113 students between ages 6 and 16.

Pashton, who originally connected with the synagogue in pre-Chabad days 10 years ago when there was no rabbi, emphasizes the “good rapport, the good atmosphere between teachers and pupils,” and minimizes the “need to have two security guards 24 hours a day.”

Elena Derechinskaya is one of the rare middle-aged Jewish community leaders in Russia. The 52-year-old directs Zvi Girsh, which was started 15 years ago and whose work the JDC also underwrites.

Zvi Girsh, she says, helped open the synagogue, organized a 4,000-volume library, presents lectures on traditions and customs, runs concerts and sponsors singles groups, a woman’s club and picnics for all ages.

It is Chabad, however, on which all the groups seem to lean for spiritual motivation.

That guidance starts with the 44 toddlers in the Lubavitch kindergarten.

Zharina Vitebskaya directs the classes in which 4-year-olds start to learn Hebrew and about Jewish traditions. “What the children retain,” she says, “depends on their mothers and fathers. Most leave the school knowing more about our traditions than their parents.”

Eighty percent of the kindergarten grads go on to the Jewish school, which will be expanded from two floors to four thanks to a $700,000 grant from “a benefactor.” The rest continue at a public school.

Some of the grads register for two-week Jewish summer camps.

But not everything is perfect in Chabadland. As in the Bay Area — and almost every community in the world where Jews reside — anti-Semitism exists.

The front of the synagogue was desecrated several weeks ago by vandals who tossed black paint at it.

Ina Silver is a TV reporter-producer for “Shalom,” a show that’s been running locally for 10 years. “Non-Jews as well as Jews watch. Maybe they can see that we’re normal,” she says.

“But we also show [that] the anti-Semitism is an example of what bad things happen.”

The few negative incidents make virtually all Jews here a trifle skittish. But the connections fostered by Chabad — and, especially, by the Bergmans as role models — are having a palpable impact.

The Bergmans’ four kids — ranging from 7 months to 5 years — often smile, an affect that seems extremely unusual here outside the Jewish community.

Most people call the rabbi by his first name, and forgive the Bergmans, who learned the fundamentals in a week five years ago, for their still-broken Russian.

Shimon and Yael Bergman have worked hard to adjust. “Having no friends here was the most difficult at first,” the rebbitzen remembers. “And we always had to explain our way of life.

“It’s still difficult because we have to import kosher food by plane, because my kids have friends only in kindergarten, and because we realized this was a one-way trip — we aren’t going anywhere else.”

Nizhny Novgorod, almost an hour and a half by air to Moscow — depending on how hard the cold winds are blowing — is still trying to live down its reputation as the place where Nobel laureate and dissident Andrei Sakharov was imprisoned, and a city of death in which World War II munitions, submarines and planes were manufactured.

And according to Sonya Krivopustova, a 27-year-old native translator and English teacher, the entire city was, in fact, “closed to public scrutiny for many years after the war” because officials feared military secrets could be disclosed.

Walk in any direction and a visitor will find decrepit building after building, most of them partially falling down. But their centuries-old wood outer walls are filled with beautifully ornate carvings. Some date back 400 to 600 years.

Unfortunately, sprinkled between the historic if crumbling homes are the ugly, cube-like 20th-century apartment buildings from the communist era.

Over all, the bleak city hardly reeks of wealth.

But at night, its main promenade is likely to find a trio of squeaky street accordionists, a petite female flutist hauntingly playing “Ave Maria” and a crowd of well-dressed strollers (the older women in long dresses, the younger ones in miniskirts). Beggars are practically non-existent. Well-fed stray dogs and cats appear here and there. Minishops are crammed with inexpensive toys made in China — a wish fulfillment for many Russians who not so long ago could afford few possessions.

But materialism clearly isn’t Chabad’s measure of joy, or its focus.

As if to prove it, Yael Bergman teaches her family how to spread Chabad’s major virus here: happiness. She simply smiles most of the time.

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


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