In the attempt to beef up its number of native Russian-speaking rabbis in the former Soviet Union, Chabad has opened a rabbinic seminary in Moscow sponsored by the Or Avner Foundation.
But that’s not the only pool Chabad can draw from. Russian-speaking Chabad emissaries are arriving from Israel, young people born in the former Soviet Union who immigrated to Israel as children, became observant either on their own or through their parents, and are now returning to their former homeland to spread the Rebbe’s message.
Ella and Yossi Verzub are one such couple. Born in Russia and Ukraine respectively, they grew up in Israel, married, and moved to Kharkov, Ukraine four years ago as assistants to the Moskowitzes, the city’s long-time Chabad emissaries.
Ella teaches in the Chabad school, and is paid jointly by the Rohr family Foundation and the Israeli ministry of education, which gave her a five-year grant. Yossi, who does not yet have rabbinic ordination, manages the yeshiva boy’s dorm and teaches in the girls’ seminary.
Although both worked in Chabad summer camps in the former Soviet Union before their marriage, neither had been to Kharkov. They accepted the job via a phone interview with Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz, and moved to Kharkov four days after Yossi’s release from the Israeli army.
“Many young couples come first to look around for a week, but we didn’t,” Yossi says. “We knew we’d manage. We’re here to work.”
Ella was born in S. Petersburg in 1979 to refusenik parents who became religiously observant during the eight years they waited for permission to leave for Israel. She remembers attending underground Hebrew school as a young child in rooms with all the blinds shut, while her parents surreptitiously studied Hebrew and Zionist history next door. Her father was arrested once in a police raid, but his prison term was shortened because of ill health.
In Israel, her parents worked with the Children of Chernobyl project at Kfar Chabad, so Ella spent her teen years in a Lubavitch environment, then worked several summers at Chabad camps in Ukraine and Russia.
“I always knew I’d go on shlichus,” she says, using the Hebrew word for the lifetime mission of a Chabad emissary. “My parents kept us speaking Russian in the house, they said it was important for us to help those who came to Israel after us.”
Yossi also grew up with the same sense of mission instilled in him by his parents, who emigrated from Chernivitzy, Ukraine to Israel in 1979, when he was two years old. Soon after arriving in Israel his parents became observant and moved to Kiryat Malachi, where Yossi studied in a Chabad Cheder and where his father began lecturing to other newly-arrived Soviet Jews about his experiences as a baal teshuva in Israel.
Ten years ago Yossi’s older sister returned to Moscow, where her husband teaches in the Chabad yeshiva. Yossi soon followed, first helping run Passover Seders in Kazan, Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk, then deciding to make it his life’s work.
Yossi’s Russian isn’t as strong as Ella’s—he was younger when he moved to Israel—but both are completely conversant in both languages, and say it was a major factor in their decision to move back to the former Soviet Union as Chabad emissaries.
“There aren’t many Russian speakers doing this,” Yossi says. “It helps so much, and not just because of running activities. We can be an example to the local people that one can be a religious Jew here. It’s not easy to be Sabbath-observant, so when they see that someone can be born here and can choose to live this life, it’s very important.”
Like all good Chabad emissaries, the Verzubs say they’re not trying to impose observance on local Jews. “We’re here to show them Judaism,” Ella says, adding that local Jews “can choose” what they wish.
“People really want to know about Judaism,” Yossi says. “As long as there are Jews in Ukraine, there’s work for us. This is the job the Rebbe sent us to do.”