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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lubavitch Faith Returns to Russia

ROSTOV ON DON, Southern Russia -- Can eight English-speaking 20-year-olds sent from Brooklyn, New York, rekindle ancient traditions of Jewish worship here?

That's what the Lubavitch Hasidim, a fundamentalist Jewish sect, is hoping to achieve by sending the eager lads to southern Russia's largest city, which is most famous for its high crime.

"There are no religious rabbis here for them, so they have to turn to foreigners to really do things right," said Levi Feigenson, who, like other Hasidic males, is bearded and wears a black hat and dark suit when outside.

The irony is that Feigenson and other foreign volunteers are teaching Russian Jews Hasidic traditions that were born in Russia and the Ukraine in the 18th century. Communism and the Holocaust all but extinguished them.

For many liberal Jews, however, the Lubavitchers represent a curious anachronism which misrepresents itself as the true Judaism.

"You don't need to be Hasidic to be a Jew," said Menachem Leibovich, Russia director for the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a Jerusalem-based organization.

Added Sergei Gusev, another official of the same group: "Their option is a certain kind of slavery; you cannot decide for yourself how you should behave."

The stakes for Jewish hearts and minds are significant, for all but 20-25,000 of an estimated 800,000 Russian citizens who call themselves Jews are not religious, according to Alexander Libin-Levav, an immigration officer at the Israeli Embassy.

The Lubavitch, led by the 92-year-old Rabbi Menachem Schneerson in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has become the most visible of the many Hasidic sects. Supported by generous donors, they have spent millions of dollars to bring over 100 volunteers to Russia, according to Yosef Cunin, 22, a Lubavitch rabbi in Moscow from Los Angeles.

Among the Lubavitch lures for Russian Jews are free banquets and religious books, followed by explanations of the faith.

"What attracted me at first was the Pepsi and food at the table," saidDavid Shvedik, a Rostov native who started following the Hasidic lifestyle four years ago. "These people showed me what the Jewish religion is, and I began to believe."

Like a hirsute version of eager Mormon missionaries, the Lubavitch also rely mostly on intelligent and engaging young men to spread their message, although, unlike Mormons, they seek out only Jews by birth.

"It takes a lot of energy to understand the people and to listen," Cunin said when asked about the youth of the sect's representatives in Russia.

In addition to running 15 synagogues in Russia, the Lubavitch Hasidim are setting up educational programs, including a yeshiva, or Orthodox school, in Rostov, run by the eight students trained in a Brooklyn yeshiva. So far, they have yet to attract any full-time local students.

Many Lubavitchers whose movement started in the Russian village of Lubavitch in the 18th century are hoping that both the synagogues and schools will help foster a revival of orthodox Jewish religion.

Yet others say that a higher force will prevent the rebirth of the old shtetls, or small Jewish village, full of Hasidic Jews.

"I don't predict a big spread of Hasidism because people are already leaving for Israel, and because we believe the arrival of the messiah is imminent," said Rostov's Lubavitch rabbi, Elyashiv Kaploun.

When or if the messiah does come, Lubavitchers plan to move to Israel, including their Ukrainian-born leader Schneerson, who has never set foot in the country.