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From Yeshiva Nights…
…to Rabbi Days
"Warming Up Siberia with the Light of Torah"
In this edition we continue an excit- ing new feature: As we speak with leading Jewish personalities with a Manchester connection. The spotlight in this issue is on rabbi Meir Kirsh of chelyabinsk, russia.
Transformed from a small town to a city of more than 1 million by Stalin’s tank and Katyusha factories, Chelyabinsk, Russia, is today known for producing an explosion of an entirely different nature- an explosion in Jewish life and learning.
The Chabad House in Chelyabinsk first opened its doors 12 years ago under the leadership of Manchester yeshiva alumnus Rabbi Meir Kirsh and his wife Devora Leah. Within their first year there, they had opened a branch of the Ohr Avner Jewish Day Schools.
A Women’s Club, Gan Israel Summer Camps, youth clubs, a kosher mikvah and a community library all soon followed. All of this was in addition to organiz- ing a regular minyan, hosting guests for Shabbos meals, as many as 500 guests for Chagim and the long list of other ‘regular’ activities of Chabad shluchim.
When the Kirshs first came to Che- lyabinsk, situated in the Ural Mountains of Russia near the border of Kazakhstan, they had only been married for 2 years and neither of them spoke Russian. What they did bring with them was the unique spirit and dedication that Lubavitchers are known for.
Says Rabbi Kirsh: “I definitely see the time spent in the [Manchester] yeshiva as an important stage of preparation [towards] fulfilling the Rebbe’s mission of kindling the souls of all the Jews that we are in contact with.”
For nearly four decades, the entire Chelybinsk region had been closed off to foreign visitors following a nuclear ac- cident. The isolation was especially dev- astating for the Jewish population who, unlike Jews elsewhere in Russia, could not benefit from even the occasional visit by a Jew from abroad- together with the Jewish books and the information about Jewish life that these foreign visitors often smuggled in to Russia’s Jews.
In 1994, shortly after the Russian government opened the region to foreign visitors once again, Chabad bochurim began visting Chelybinsk. Staying for a few months at a time, these revolving groups of bochurim managed to establish a minyan in Chelybinsk that met and prayed together every Monday, Thursday and Shabbos. They also started a small Sunday school program, in addition to hosting celebrations at Passover, Purim and other Jewish Holidays.
Yet the local Jewish community (at
roughly 10,000 people it makes up less
than 1% of Chelybinsk’s total popula-
tion) on the one hand was still struggling
against assimilation and fears of anti-
Semitism on the other.|
To help combat the threat of assimi- lation, the Kirshs have made education a top priority from the moment they ar- rived. The Ohr Avner Day School, which began with just 17 students, today in- cludes 60 students in grades Kindergar- ten through 11th grade (the final year of high school in Russia). At times, student enrollment has been over 100. Students at Ohr Avner have truly absorbed the les- sons of the ahavas yisroel (love of one’s fellow Jew) exemplified by the shluchim- doing chesed projects of their own and spreading simcha in the Jewish commu- nity. One year on Purim, they delivered over 100 shaloch manos packages to home-bound local residents!
For those students who live outside of Chelybinsk, or whose parents are not ready to commit to a full time day school program for their children, the Kirshs operate a Gan Isreal summer program next to one of the region’s scenic moun- tain lakes, Lake Turgoyak.
Through hands on activities, includ- ing arts and crafts, and classes on Juda- ism and Jewish life, these young people gain a deep and lasting appreciation for what it means to be a Jew. Once their interest is sparked by the summer camp, many young people continue to pursue Jewish learning through the Ohr Avner Day School or through the variety of learning programs conducted by Chabad.
Rabbi Kirsh speaks proudly of one such student, a young man from the community of Kurgan. Kurgan, which is a two hour drive away from Chely- binsk, has no rabbi of its own and the opportunities for Jewish learning are few. This particular young boy came to Rabbi Kirsh’s Gan Israel program for 2 summers. Afterwards, he began emailing Rabbi Kirsh with questions on emunah and on Judaism in general.
Slowly, the boy became more observant. Eventually, he left to go to Mesivta (yeshiva high school) and Yeshiva Gadol in Mos- cow and even spent a year afterwards studying in Israel. Today, he is married to a young woman who had previ- ously worked as a counselor in the girls’ division of the Gan Israel run by the Kirshs. They live in Moscow, where the husband learns in a Chabad Kollel, and they recently celebrated the birth of their firstborn son. Another ten students from Chelybinsk region are currently learning at Chabad yeshivas.
Other students who have been touched by their experiences at Gan Israel, as well as students from Ohr Avner, participate in twice weekly classes with Rabbi Kirsh. Currently, 28 students meet for 5 hours of learning in halacha, parsha and Chassiudus followed by lively discussion sessions. Students receive a small stipend for participation in the learning program, which has chapters throughout Russia.
While not every camper at Gan Israel elects to go on to study in yeshiva, the camp has had a tremendous impact on all who participate. Evidence of this can be seen in the yearly visits to the camp made by a Moscow based mohel who each year provides a bris milah for Jews whose families were unable to perform this mitzvah when they were born.
In one summer alone, 13 men entered the covenant of Abraham. These included both students, who made the decision af- ter consulting with their parents, and the fathers and grandfathers of the students. Another unique aspect of shluchus in Russia is the opportunity to perform weddings for those who were denied the chance to have a religious wedding ceremony under Communist rule. Like the bris ceremonies, these are sometimes organized on a large scale with the cel- ebrations of several families taking place on one day.
Rabbi Kirsh has performed traditional Jewish weddings for as many as 11 couples in a single day. Needless to say, the weddings were followed by a kosher reception for all of the couples. The legacy of communist rule and Russian anti-Semitism once threatened to overshadow some of the Kirshs’ pro- gramming ideas. Instead, these gave way to a triumph rich in symbolism.
A few months after their arrival, Rab- bi Kirsh had set out to organize a public menorah lighting- one of Chabad’s trade- mark celebrations. He met with a great deal of resistance from the local Jewish community. Many feared the reaction of the city’s non-Jewish majority- they were certain that anti-Semites would shut it down. The fears expressed were so strong that the Kirshs weren’t sure if any Jews would come, so they set aside - their plans for that year.
One year later, with Chanukah approaching, Rabbi Kirsh found a local Jewish businessman who was able to help get the permits to put up a menorah 9 meters tall- the maxi- mum height allowed by Jewish law.
Not only did people come- they danced in the streets filled with the sim- cha (joy) of being able to celebrate Cha- nukah and their Jewish identity in such a way.
The celebration was announced on radio stations in Israel, where many still remember the Communist persecutions of anyone “caught” practicing Juda- ism. In an historic turn around more reminiscent of Purim than Chanukah, the Russian Army’s official band came to the Menorah lighting in Chelybinsk, in full uniform, and played music for the Jewish community. The army band has played at the menorah lighting every year since, and they now play in the Lag B’Omer parade as well.
The Chanukah celebration isn’t the only sign of changing times in Chely- binsk.The Russian government, and in particular the government of the city and region of Chelybinsk, played a role in the restoration of the city’s 103 year old synagogue.
Soon after, the Governor of the Chel- yabinsk Region, Peter Sumin, announced a grant of 400,000 rubles towards reno- vating the Synagogue in Chelyabinsk.
The Synagogue in Chelyabinsk was
built in 1905 with funds collected from
the local Jewish community, but in 1930
the building was taken over by the
Soviet government. It was first turned
into a concert hall, then later used as a
storage room for a local factory. Owner-
ship was returned to the Jewish com-
munity in 1992, but the building had
suffered neglect. |
Today, there are once again prayers in the shul each day. It is also home to the Jewish library founded by the Kirshs as well as many of their evening programs. Thanks to the Kirsh’s efforts, by the time repairs were finished and the community celebrated the shul’s 100th anniversary they were celebrating a building which not only had historical significance, but had once again become the center of Jewish life in Chelybinsk.
It is also serving as a center for Jewish life in much of the surrounding region. There are 12 communities in the surrounding area which have small Jew- ish
“I have the best impressions from the lectures, and many positive emotions from spending this day visiting the home of Rabbi Meir Kirsh” said one participant. It is hoped that with the learning and inspiration gained at the seminar, partici- pants will be able to lead each of their com- munities in celebrating Shabbos even during the time when Rabbi Kashaev is visiting other communities.
From Bar/Bas Mitzvah and wedding celebrations to evenings spent pouring over volumes of Talmud and Chassidic discours- es. From Women’s clubs to youth groups, the Kirshs have designed an array of programs to meet the spiritual, intellectual and social needs of Chelybinsk’s Jews. Yet, in true Chassidishe fashion- they haven’t stopped there.
For eight years, they have also operated a much needed kosher soup kitchen supply- ing nutritious hot meals to 40 elderly Jews each day. In addition, they prepare Kosher meals for homebound Jews. These meals are delivered with the assistance of the Ameri- can Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
They have also helped to organize a medical assistance program, with the help of local resident Dr Vyacheslav Levit, a geriatric specialist. Dr. Levit meets with patients 3 times a week in a room at the shul, free of charge. Like the soup kitchen, this program is vital for elderly Jews who are living on small pensions.
How do the Kirshs manage so many programs without burning out?
“The years I spent in Manchester Yeshivah gave me much inspiration in living [up to what] the Rebbe expects from us,” recalls Rabbi Kirsh. “I especial- ly have fond memories of Rabbis Akiva Cohen and Yitchok Klein whose shiurim, farbrengens and general guidance helped much in my development.”
Lubavitch, which originated in Rus- sia, is known worldwide for its adher- ents’ tremendous love of their fellow Jews and their concern for both their physical and spiritual well being. This is the spirit that the Lubavitch Yeshiva of Manchester has imbued its students with. Today, as Rabbi Kirsh and his wife reach out to Chelybinsk’s Jews, the legacy of Chabad has come full circle from Russia to Manchester and back again.