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(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Rabbi Gustavo, 35 and Karina Surazski, 30
'I like to tell jokes," admits Rabbi Gustavo Surazski, and tells one about a rabbi who put his congregation to sleep.
But it's most unlikely that anyone will tell a similar story about him! His lessons and short sermons are often enlivened by humor and include surprising, thought-provoking messages relevant to life in Israel today.
Whether they are young couples discussing marriage plans, families with children or mourners making funeral arrangements, people warm to his empathy and non-judgmental approach and feel inspired, encouraged or comforted by his words of wisdom.
"He really listens," his congregation says. "Really listens."
"I always intended to make aliya one day," says Karina Surazski, the rabbi's wife. "I had been to Israel on youth programs and family visits and wanted to return."
"I studied in Israel and intended to return on aliya after fulfilling my obligations in Buenos Aires," says Gustavo.
Seeing that each separately had made the same decision, it is not surprising that Rabbi Gustavo and Karina Surazski ade aliya after their marriage.
"We arrived in July 2002 and our daughter, Ma'ayan, was born here - a sabra," says her father.
The couple met at the Latin-American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Gustavo studied and later lectured and Karina worked as a secretary.
As a rabbinical student, Gustavo spent two years in Israel studying scriptures and Jewish philosophy at Haifa University and continued post-graduate studies and studies towards rabbinic ordination at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. The Buenos Aires seminary requires students to spend their final year of study in Jerusalem, after which they are expected to return and lecture at the seminary. During his studies in Israel, Rabbi Gustavo decided that he would back to live after doing his lecture stint. Upon his return to Buenos Aires, he met Karina.
Both come from secular Zionist families who they say were supportive of their decision to make aliya. Gustavo's father emigrated from Poland before World War II, but his mother and both Karina's parents were born in Argentina.
Gustavo's parents still live in Argentina. Karina's parents, brother, sister and grandfather have lived here since 2000, so her aliya has brought her closer to family.
The young couple were met by Karina's family and went directly to the mercaz klita in Ra'anana. Having attended Jewish day schools, both Gustavo and Karina knew Hebrew, so neither needed to attend ulpan. In Ra'anana, a job was waiting for Gustavo as rabbi of the local Spanish-speaking Masorti congregation. Many former friends and acquaintances welcomed them to their new home.
The Ra'anana contract was for two years; after that, in October 2004, the Surazski family, now including Ma'ayan, moved to Ashkelon.
Gustavo is the rabbi of Netzah Israel, a Masorti congregation, and as such is involved in many aspects of the members' lives. He visits the sick and comforts mourners, conducts services and officiates at funerals and memorial services. "A rabbi is a teacher," he says, and he loves teaching, whether it be children preparing for bar/bat mitzvas or children of all ages in schools affiliated with the Tali program.
Gustavo also meets with whole families, parents and 8-10-year-old children in sessions that discuss subjects related to family life, such as respect for parents, the rights of children in the family, relations between siblings and truth in the family.
Karina works in the full-day nursery school and also teaches mentally impaired children preparing for a bar mitzva ceremony. She uses music and a computer to teach and the children learn according to their abilities.
"It is not a question of their taking responsibility, as we usually think of bar mitzva obligations," she explains. "In this case, it is helping them learn about and feel part of a Jewish community, to know the Beit Knesset and experience prayer services. It is important for them and for their parents."
The rabbi's words on the Torah portion are translated every week by members of the congregation and sent to Baltimore, Maryland, in the US to a congregation that has links with Ashkelon.
Five months ago, the Surazskis bought their own apartment in Ashkelon.
"That is a big step for an immigrant," says Gustavo. "We are pleased with the apartment, our neighbors and the surroundings."
It has exposed them to various aspects of culture shock - dealing with workmen and coping with aggressive attitudes and rudeness that they are unaccustomed to.
"We know the language, have work and a home, so our integration process is supposed to be easy, but I think that getting used to a new culture is never easy," Gustavo admits.
"Obviously one gives up certain things when one comes on aliya. No one can replace the old friends we left behind," says Karina.
"We haven't really made new friends, but we belong to a pleasant and friendly congregation," adds Gustavo.
The congregation, in turn, has warmly accepted this engaging young family. Toddlers usually elicit smiles, and Ma'ayan Surazski is no exception as she sits with her mother or follows her father around the synagogue. More young families have been attracted to the synagogue and there is an atmosphere of renewal in the congregation.
"We speak Spanish to each other and to Ma'ayan, but at two years and five months she is already bilingual. She goes to a nursery school for her age group and speaks Hebrew there."
"That is a hard question," says Gustavo. "We are Jewish, first of all," he answers, while Karina nods agreement. "Also, we are Israeli citizens of Argentinian origin."
"My plan is to continue and complete my education," says Karina. "I studied psychology in Argentina but didn't finish. I don't know yet how or where or when I will manage to continue."
"My aim is to get more young families to belong to the congregation," says Gustavo. "I would like to involve parents of the nursery school children, those families who come to the family sessions and parents of children in the Tali program. It is a long-term project which requires patience. Like a gardener, I am planting seedlings. I hope they will grow and bear fruit."
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