As cocktails and hors d’oeuvres made the rounds last night on a Tel Aviv terrace overlooking the Mediterranean sea, guests greeted one another with the kind of warmth that suggests common interests of a deep and binding quality.
It was the Bar Mitzvah celebration of Machon Chomesh, a women’s institute of higher learning in Moscow, Russia, and a cause that brought Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger, Russia’s Chief Rabbi Lazar, Nathan Scharansky, Knesset Member Leah Ness, together with some of Israel’s most prominent developers, lawyers and business moguls.
They didn’t come for the photo opportunities. They came because they were enamored by a treasure they discovered on a business or official visit they had made to Moscow, and wanted the privilege of participating in its milestone celebration.
Since its opening, Machon Chomesh—a board-of-education accredited institution providing degrees in a wide range of disciplines, as well as training in Judaic studies—has become home and hearth to hundreds of Jewish women.
Speaking to the guests, Rabbi Berel Lazar noted that many of the women come from totally assimilated backgrounds. “There is no question,” he said, “that without Machon Chomesh, they would be lost to the Jewish people for good.” Indeed, several graduates of Machon Chomesh took to the podium to confirm this. One student, speaking in a faltering Hebrew, described the background she had come from, which was far removed from anything Jewish.
“I had no idea that I was Jewish, and when I learned—after tracing my ancestry on my maternal side—that I was, I didn’t know why it should even matter.” Questions such as this and others, gnawed at her until she began a quest for answers, which would find satisfaction in the form of enrollment at Machon Chomesh.
At Machon Chomesh, the women unearth a Jewish heritage and develop a surrogate family that creates a new context for their lives as active Jews who choose to marry Jewish and raise Jewish families. Weddings have become an integral feature at the Machon, which has helped numerous young women find suitable life-partners, and has acted as parents to the young students, worrying about their material needs as much as their spiritual wellbeing.
Over an elaborate five-course dinner at a trendy Tel Aviv party hall, guests learned about Machon Chomesh, its achievements and the lifelong impact the school has, not only on the personal lives of its students, but for the benefit of Jewish continuity.
Mr. David Zeira, a prominent attorney in Israel who, moved by the phenomenon, sponsored the weddings of several of Machon Chomesh’s students, spoke of how deeply affected he was when he received a phone call to Israel, from a bride and groom as they stood under their wedding canopy in Machon Chomesh. “They wanted to bless me at this auspicious moment in their lives,” he said. Mr. Zeira continued to say that the Machon’s devotion in marrying off these girls is one of Judaism’s greatest acts of Jewish responsibility.
According to Rabbi Yakov Fridman, Administrative Director of Machon Chomesh who works hand-in-hand with the Machon’s spiritual director, Rabbi Avremi Bekerman, the 150 women currently enrolled in the school hail from places throughout the Former Soviet Union, including Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. “I think that what makes the Machon unique is that the girls here really do feel that this is their home. In my work, I always ask myself whether they are getting what I would want my own daughter to be getting if she was a student here.”
Mr. Zecharia Druker, a major developer in Israel and in Russia, flew in for the event from Moscow. “I had to be here,” he told Lubavitch.com. “The work of Machon, the work of Rabbi Fridman and his wife Shoshi—not only at the Machon, but in reaching out to me and other Jews who come to Russia, is enormous. I am deeply grateful for their work, and must admit that I have never seen a Seder as spirited and warm as I had this year with the Fridmans.”
Former Knesset Member Natan Scharansky recalled his own early efforts under the forbidding communist regime, to educate himself and others about Judaism, and hailed the accomplishments of Machon Chomesh as a symbol of Jewish pride and Jewish perseverance.
Echoing similar sentiments as a former ex-patriot was Mrs. Leviev, wife of philanthropist Mr. Lev Leviev of the Ohr Avner Chabad institutions in the FSU. Mrs. Leviev admitted that growing up in communist times, “we took great pains to hide our Jewish identity. We were terrified to be recognized as Jews.” Machon Chomesh represents a miracle that deserves all the support of the Jewish community, she said.