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Sunday, June 5, 2011

matches made in Russia Hamodia May 2011

Matches Made in Russia

By Debbie Shapiro

In August, 2007, when Rabbi Shimon Levin, Rosh Kollel of Saratov, Russia (see In the Merit of our Fathers—Returning the Children of Saratov to their Jewish Roots, December 2010), convinced Chaim and Tzippy Blumenfeld join his Kollel and work in outreach, they thought it would be nothing more than a one-year adventure. Little did they imagine that it would turn into their life's calling.

“We were a typical yeshiva couple. I grew up in Bnei Brak, my wife in Beit Chelkiya, an Agudah Moshav between Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim. Both of us thought it would be fun to spend a couple of years in outreach, and planned on teaching in some small, secular Israeli town. Instead, we ended up in Saratov, Russia, a university town with almost no Yiddishkeit. It was our job to create a community and do outreach with the university students. We were only twenty-three years old at the time.”

A Bit of History

Located on the Volga River in southern Russia, Saratov is a major metropolis with close to a million residents. An important cultural and scientific center, the city boasts six institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences in addition to it twenty-one research institutes, nineteen project institutes and three large universities. Students – including many Jewish students – flock to Saratov from the entire region, which is why, among the locals, it's often referred to as "student town."

Interesting enough, the Jewish community originally consisted of former Cantonists, Jews who were forced as young children to join the Czar's army and reject their religion. After serving a minimum of twenty-five years, many of them, in an incredible display of Jewish fortitude, returned to the faith of their fathers.  Although I wasn't able to find any conclusive information as to why the Cantonists chose to settle in Saratov, I did learn that in the early eighteen hundreds the city was a center for Sabbatarians, Russian Christians who secretly embraced Judaism, and who were extremely kind to these Jewish recruits. I read one story of two Cantonists on leave from the Army who ended up spending a wonderful Pesach with this underground Jewish community, and were showered with presents, and even more important, encouraging words, before returning to their arm base. I assume that this was not an isolated incident, and that that was the reason that many of these Cantonists eventually settled there, to create a vibrant Jewish community founded on mesirus nefesh.

Today, two synagogues serves Saratov's 5000 Jews. When the Blumenfelds arrived four years ago, there were only four religious families in the city. Today, there are twelve.

@A New Life

The Blumenfeld's found themselves in a completely different world from the one they had been used to. “In Israel, we would go to the local supermarket and pile the shopping cart with tons of processed foods and readymade snacks. Here, except for a few Osem products, we couldn't find the stuff. So we ate lots of fresh vegetables and legumes, baked our own bread and cakes, and felt much, much healthier than we had ever felt in Israel.

"Today, we don't even miss it, and our kids don't want it. We're presently visiting Israel with our children, and this last Erev Shabbos my mother asked my four year old daughter what treat she would like for her Shabbos pekalah. But she wasn't interested in some sugary coated candy bar. Instead, she requested a bright red apple, like we buy her in Russia l'kavod Shabbos kodesh. My mother was flabbergasted!”

But the Blumenfelds had to deal with much more than just than a lack of ready-to-eat convenience foods. "Our chicken and meat was sent from Moscow, eighteen hours by train from Saratov. But sometimes, it just didn't come; and don't forget, the reason we were living in Saratov was to do outreach, so our Shabbos table was always crowded with at least a dozen young people interested in learning more about their heritage. One time, I realized Thursday evening that the chickens would not be arriving before Shabbos, and I phoned a friend of mine, another outreach worker living in Volgograd (formerly called Stalingrad and St. Petersburg),which is some eight hundred kilometers (approximately 500 miles) from Sarotov and asked him to send me chickens. He immediately slaughtered a dozen chickens, kashered them, and put them on a bus to Saratov. Friday morning, I was up at the crack of dawn to get to the bus station on time to pick up the chickens l'kavod Shabbos kodesh."

@At Least it was Interesting

Rabbi Blumenfeld continues, "After living in Saratov for over a year without eating any milchigs, I decided that I was going to find a cow and watch it be milked so that I could have chalav Yisrael. So I went to the marketplace and asked all the old ladies selling their produce if any of them had a cow. When I found one, I proceeded to ask her if I could come to her village to watch her milk it. Although she looked at me as if I had just walked in from outer-space, she agreed. She gave me directions to her house and added, 'Just make sure to be there very, very early in the morning.'

"The next day my friend and I left in the predawn darkness so that we could make it to the farm by six. We spent three hours bumping across dirt roads, and by the time we arrived, our kishkes were knocked out and we were completely exhausted. But we returned home with several buckets of fresh milk, which we later pasteurized and made into cheese." With a mischievous grin, Rabbi Blumenfeld adds, "It wasn't very tasty, but it sure was interesting!"  

@Outreach in Saratov

Rabbi Blumenfeld and his wife succeeded in drawing close a small nucleus of Jewish students to Judaism. "Together with the other members of the Kollel, we opened a yeshiva-type program for the boys, where they studied at university during the day and learned Torah at night, and a similar seminary type of setup for the girls. Over the four years that we were there, some sixty-seventy students were involved in our programs. Many were really excited about Yiddishkiet and determined to live a Jewish life."

But then they discovered a serious problem, one with disastrous repercussions.

"We had one girl who was mamash a bas bayis in our home. She was such a fine, aidel young woman that the kollel families took her to be the nursery school teacher for our children – in other words, we trusted her with our kinderlachs' chinuch, something that all of us take very, very seriously.

"This sweet young woman dreamed of settling down and building a Jewish home. Although she often requested that we introduce her to a fine Jewish man with similar aspirations, none of the dozen or so young men in our baal teshuvah community were suitable for her, and the closest Jewish community was some seven hundred kilometers away. Of course whenever an outreach worker came to visit, I would make sure to ask if he knew of any eligible boys, but none of them really took my request seriously.

"To make a long story short, this lovely, frum Jewish girl met a 'nice' Muslim boy and wanted to marry him. We tried everything to prevent it: we got the girl's family involved, we threatened the boy, but nothing worked. In the end, she married him."

But this was far from an isolated case. "Like everyone else doing outreach in the FSU, we were so busy learning, organizing the community and doing outreach work that we couldn't devote ourselves wholeheartedly to helping our success stories find shidduchim, which, of course, is crucial to their remaining within the Jewish community. We had one student who was so dedicated to shmiras Shabbos that on Shabbos she would walk one and a half hours each way to attend the required university courses. The university punished her for refusing to take notes on Shabbos, and she was extremely careful to never eat anything that wasn't strictly kosher. (It's important to understand that we could not suggest that these young people leave university as they viewed it as the key to their future.)

@Guidance from a Gadol

"In the summer, while we were in Israel, visiting our families, my wife received a call from this girl to let us know that she was dating a lovely student, who had promised her that he would come to Moscow to convert! My wife almost fainted on the spot! The next morning I went to speak with Rav Steinman, shlita. When I told him about these two girls and asked him for his advice, he responded: 'I'm in Bnei Brak. You're there, and since you're there, you must do everything in your power to prevent intermarriage. If you bring someone close to Yiddishkiet and then that person marries out, what have you accomplished?'

"Baruch Hashem, that story ended on a positive note. We were able to break up the relationship, and today, this girl is a true bas Yisrael, studying in a Jerusalem seminary, and hoping to find her beshert."

@Ksharim is Born

These words, "You must do everything in your power to prevent intermarriage," were the catalyst that impelled Rabbi Blumenfeld to create an organization for the sole purpose of helping Russian speaking Jews find Jewish partners.

After discussing the idea with Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, head of Ner L'Elef, and Rabbi Yaakov Baum, Rosh Yeshiva of Shvut Ami and spiritual advisor for Ner L'elef's FSU communities, Rabbi Blumenfeld returned to Saratov and started making phone calls.

"It was the beginning of the year, and I was very busy organizing my regular outreach activities. But every couple of days I'd make a phone call to another community to ask if they had any young people who wanted to get married, and then hear the details. Although in the back of my mind I had this idea of creating an organization that would help Russian speakers throughout the world, at the time I was only concerned about the young people of my community.

"Our first shidduch was between one of my wife's students and a young man from Kiev. Like a father, I traveled to Kiev to meet him and see if he was suitable for our (spiritual) 'daughter.' There were lots of phone calls and long conversations, because in this case, as in all the shidduchim that we make, we were the shadchanim, the parents and the rabbonim, all rolled into one.

"For the first meeting, the girl traveled sixteen hours by train to Kiev. The second meeting, the boy traveled to Saratov. Just like parents, we covered all the transportation costs. Both my wife and I went to the vort in Kiev, and again, four months later, for the wedding. Throughout the entire time that the couple was meeting and later on, during their engagement, we were in constant contact with both of them, guiding them in making their decisions and teaching them the basics of keeping a kosher Jewish home.

“My wife walked our 'daughter' to the chupah. My wife broke into tears at sheva brachos the next evening when she saw her wearing a shaitel for the first time. This young woman had come to as a secular college student, and now here, standing before her, was a true eishes chayil! Today, our 'daughter and son-in-law' are active members of Kiev's frum community, and a true asset to Am Yisrael.

@Ksharim Reaches Out

"The organization's turning point was when I traveled to Volgograd to meet a group of frum girls, hoping to find a shidduch for one of our students in Saratov. Although I wasn't successful, I looked through my computerized list and ended up making a shidduch between one of these girls and a boy from a different community! But it wasn't just suggesting a match. It involved a lot more than just getting the two people together. I spent hours talking with the rabbonim involved, arranging long-distant meetings, counseling the couple through the dating process, engagement period and shana rishona. But again, we had the tremendous satisfaction of helping to create a mikdash me'at, strong roots for future generations of ehrlicher Yidden.

The following year we divided our time between our outreach work in Saratov and making shidduchim for Russian speaking young Jews. Slowly but surely our 'organization' expanded. We developed a large datebase of clients, employed a field worker to meet clients and Rabbonim across the FSU, as well as an extremely intuitive and experienced shadchen to interview our clients, and come up with possible matches.

@Ksharim Becomes Official

"Last year, at a Ner L'elef retreat for their outreach workers in Eastern Europe, most of the sessions focused on the problem of intermarriage and the importance of creating strong Jewish homes to assure Jewish continuity in Eastern Europe. My wife and I decided to devote ourselves solely to this project, and founded an official organization, Ksharim.

"Today, one year later, we've made dozens of shidduchim, and provided thousands of hours of hadracha. All of our young couples continue their Torah learning, and a large percentage take off a year from their university studies to learn full time. Through strengthening their Yiddishkeit, we are creating strong, committed families; families who will become the future leaders of the Russian speaking Jewish community."

To find out more about helping stop intermarriage among Russian Jews, please contact       ksharim2020@gmail.com     www.ksharim.org

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