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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rabbi Puts Tolerance on the CIS Map

MTRabbi Avraham Berkowitz standing in front of a map showing the hundreds of Jewish communities across the CIS.
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz sits before a wall-length map dotted with small glowing lights. Each of the hundreds of bulbs on the display in the offices of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS represents a Jewish community that has been re-established since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Jewish life in the CIS, Berkowitz said in an interview last month at the headquarters in northern Moscow, is enjoying a big revival. He is the federation's executive director, and at the center of this cultural and religious blossoming.

Fourteen years ago, the situation was very different. Judaism was suppressed during communism, and most religious buildings were confiscated. Berkowitz credits the late head of the international orthodox group Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, with spurring the resurgence. "He always kept in touch secretly with the Jews," Berkowitz said. "After the fall of communism, he sent dozens of rabbis and their families to move in and rebuild Jewish life together with the local communities."

Today, Berkowitz can reel off statistics testifying to the success of these efforts. From a void in 1991, there are now 482 registered communities, with 80 synagogues restored and 30 newly built. A total of 14,000 children attend 70 Jewish day schools across the CIS, and 130,000 attend programs for seniors.

Russian Jews are rediscovering their heritage slowly but surely, he said.

"I recently met a Jew while waiting in a Moscow hotel lobby," Berkowitz said, adding that the man recognized him as a rabbi due to his traditional garb. "He whispered in my ear, 'My mother taught me, Ich bin a Yid, or I am a Jew, in Yiddish. But that is all I know.' I invited him to a synagogue, but he said he wasn't ready. A few months later he called and said he was. It takes time for this long separation from Jewish culture to be bridged, but there is an amazing return."

Berkowitz, 29, was born in South Field, Michigan. He ministered to Jews in Alaska, Uruguay and Argentina before he was recruited for his current position by Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar and federation president Lev Leviev. His base in Moscow is the gleaming new synagogue and cultural center at Marina Roshcha, near Savyolovsky station. The federation estimates there may be as many as 500,000 Jews in the city and plans to open 40 satellite synagogues to cater to them over the next few years.

Despite his organization's dramatic achievements, Berkowitz said that recent apparently anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine were a cause for concern. But he said the only way forward was with confidence, toward a more tolerant CIS.

"I was once walking in Red Square with a friend who was anxious about my skullcap, and asked me to remove it," Berkowitz said. "But I pointed at a dark-skinned fellow from the Caucasus and said, 'As soon as he changes the color of his skin, I'll take off my skullcap.'

"Being a Jew is not a convenience we can hide in our pockets one time so that the haters won't hate us. We have to show the kaleidoscope of nationalities in these countries," he said.

For more information about the federation, go to www.fjc.ru or call 737-8275.