On each of the seven floors of Marina Roscha, Moscow’s hulking, modern Jewish Community Center, Chabad-Lubavitch hosted a communal Seder, each catering to a specific segment of Russia’s Jewish community. Among the various Seders, including the senior Seder, the Passover program for young professionals, and the Israeli businessmen and families, some 3,000 guests were present.
Across the CIS, huge numbers–500 communal Seders, 1,000 children in Passover camps, a half million families served at the 437 soup kitchens–were the norm, but a closer look reveals the changing face of the CIS Jewish community there, and Chabad’s ability to keep pace with new realities.
“There was a time when we had to get everything from the U.S.,” said Sara Chana Mondshine, a Chabad representative in Moscow for the past eleven years. Now her household’s handmade matzah arrived fresh from Ukraine. A mechanized matzah factory opened in S. Petersburg this year and churned out a chunk of the 1,000,000 pounds Chabad distributes across fifteen countries of the former Soviet Union. Modernity emerges unevenly and Mondshine still misses heavy-duty American aluminum foil, and brings it in for her Passover preparations.
Imported, too, among young people in the CIS, are western expectations that have compelled the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS to up the sophistication of their programs. A Passover website run by the FJC has sold more than 10,000 pounds of matzah at subsidized prices and has attracted inquiries from Russian Jews living in countries like New Zealand, Iraq, Vatican City–far from the motherland.
Glam websites are matched with upscale marketing campaigns to attract the attention of the CIS’s ever more savvy Jewish community. “Once upon a time people were so thirsty” for Jewish life, and pulling in high numbers during registration for camps and such “was no big deal,” said Mondshine. The invisible hand of the market means Chabad’s programs have to satisfy those in need and new niches–from nouveau riche to the budding Israeli ex-pat community.
Cheap three-and-a-half hour flights regularly plying the Tel Aviv-Moscow route bring Israeli businesspeople, diplomats and tourists to the former Soviet Union by the planeload. “There are big opportunities in Russia now,” said Chabad representative Rabbi Yakov Fridman. Most deal makers, investors, real estate speculators stay for a week or two at a time and commute home, but a good number of them are settling in with their families. Chabad’s Jewish schools, the availability of kosher food, and a government friendly to growth-oriented immigrants have made Jewish life possible in Russia. “It’s an open miracle,” said Rabbi Fridman, whose congregation for Israelis welcomes about 60 worshippers each week. There are even some Russians who fled to Israel during the Glasnost era that have returned.
Chabad’s saturation throughout the CIS is a mash up of pioneering bravery and reclamation of historical roots. Chabad-Lubavitch derives its name from Lubavitch, a townlet in Imperial Russia where the movement was headquartered. Yeshivas and Chabad communities coated the Soviet bloc before there were Soviets. New Jewish schools and communities are springing up in towns familiar to Chabad Chassidim through family lore. Mondshine’s great grandfather, a secretary of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn (1860-1920) was shot by government agents for spreading Judaism. Her family maintains a habit of ringing doorbells twice, to distinguish their presence at the door from KGB operatives who announced themselves with one loud, long, ominous buzz.
But Chabad is not content with dusting off old sites of Jewish life. Two days before Passover, Mondshine’s husband, Rabbi Dovid Mondshine, Executive Director of Ohr Avner-Chabad, was off in the hinterlands with Ohr Avner Foundation President Lev Leviev. They were meeting with Azerbaijani officials in Baku to negotiate the creation of a large Jewish education complex.