Situated at the western foothills of the Ural Mountains in Russia, Perm’s local occupation can best be described as unearthing treasure. Rich in natural deposits, the region owes its relative economic success to the gold, diamonds, and minerals buried deep below its surface, and the bustling industry created to dig for them.
So when Rabbi Zalman Deutsch and his wife Sara arrived from Israel in 2001, they were, as he puts it, “only taking up the local occupation.” Of course, as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, the treasures they set out to dig are of a very different kind.
Perm–the region’s capital city and namesake–is home to about one million people, approximately 8000 of whom are Jewish. But somewhat isolated from larger Jewish centers, the Jewish population was unorganized, and on the surface, seemed to have altogether very little interest in religion.
So Deutsch and his wife began to dig. They set up a Jewish infrastructure– Shabbat services, classes, a day-camp, school, soup kitchen for the needy, and holiday programming–and began reaching out to the Jewish community, one person at a time.
Svetlana, a graduate of Chabad’s Or Avner school, is one of the Deutsch’s unearthed treasures. Bright, talented, but not very interested in Judaism, Svetlana spent several years there largely unaffected by the school’s Jewish message. In her final year, she won first prize for a history project submitted to a local contest. The project was so good, people predicted it would take the prize in a country-wide contest taking place in Moscow. Only one problem: The contest was on a Saturday. “We didn’t think she would care,” Deutsch admits. But Svetlana did care- on her own initiative, she forfeited the contest and committed herself to a Judaism that all of a sudden began to hold deep meaning for her. Today a student at a Chabad school in Moscow, Svetlana claims she owes her vibrant Jewish identity to the Deutschs and Chabad of Perm.
The best tool at his disposal, Deutsch says, is Judaism’s unique emphasis on the individual. “When people realize their presence matters to the Jewish community, it’s that much easier to inspire them toward further commitment,” he explains. Taking the idea a step further, Deutsch hit upon Chabad’s overwhelmingly successful Birthday initiative, where he invites people to join Chabad for services and a “l’chaim” on the Shabbat before their birthday. “There are now hundreds of Jews in Perm whose connection to Judaism began with a birthday celebration at Chabad,” he says.
With more and more people involved, Chabad’s operation in Perm is thriving and even extending out to nearby towns. Deutsch, his wife, and an assistant Rabbi currently conduct 11 weekly Torah classes for adults in Perm and the surrounding areas. A popular Jewish monthly magazine reaches thousands of readers, the synagogue is growing, and Chabad is about to double its humanitarian assistance program with the addition of a new soup kitchen for the elderly and needy. But most central to the growth of the Jewish community in Perm, says Deutsch, is the incredible success of Chabad’s Or Avner Jewish Day School.
Last week, Or Avner began a new school year, with over 150 children ages 2-16 in attendance. For a school with an initial enrollment of 25 just three years ago, it’s a significant achievement. With local dignitaries and supporters on hand, the first school bell opened the new term. “For Jewish children in Perm and the surrounding areas, the continued growth of Or Avner is a guarantee for a Jewish future,” Deutsch said. He has the evidence to prove it: Of approximately 300 students graduated thus far, most have gone on to continue their Jewish studies in centers like Moscow and Israel. To the Deutschs’ delight, many of them expect to return to Perm after completing their studies abroad, and further their involvement in the Jewish community.