Brighton Beach Revisited (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The Brooklyn neighborhood made famous by Neil Simon is now the site of a battle for the hearts and minds of young Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union Hope of Israel, the new missionary church in Brighton Beach, its 30-foot banner boldly announcing its presence, is far more striking than the 80-year-old synagogue next door. The second-story church looks down on the synagogue tucked between the commercial center and a row of houses. The faded gray walls almost camouflage the house of worship, drawing only those who seek it out. Opened last May, the church overtly seeks to bring Jews to Jesus and Jesus to Jews. It targets predominantly secular, unaffiliated Russian Jews, who have been settling in this south Brooklyn neighborhood since the 1970s, giving it the nickname "Little Russia." Pastor Jan Birkmans says he hopes to fulfill the words of the Apostle Paul, who instructed Christians to bring the light of Jesus Christ "to the Jew first." A 38-year-old native of Rwanda, Birkmans is married to a Russian Jew, Yekaterina, whom he met while studying chemistry in Moscow, where he worshiped with an underground Pentecostal church. They came to the United States in 1999. The church has made marginal inroads in the Jewish community, and the synagogue has not succeeded in bringing immigrant members to revitalize the shul, either. From his pulpit in the New Brighton Jewish Center, the Orthodox synagogue next door to Hope of Israel, Rabbi Faivel Rimler had also hoped to win the souls of the secular Russian Jews of Brighton Beach. Rimler has served as rabbi there since 1971. He has seen successive waves of Soviet Jews settle in the neighborhood, and his disappointment with their secularism has grown with each passing decade. "The immigration changed the face of the community radically," Rimler, 73, laments to The Report. "They came from a repressive land, raised without religion. Through no fault of their own, they don't know what it means to be Jewish." The 250,000 Soviet Jews who settled in Brighton and the New York area did not replenish the dwindling membership of Rimler's synagogue, as he had hoped. Today he feels lucky if 20 of his congregants, mostly retirees, come for Saturday morning services. The synagogue has no membership index, doesn't require dues, and only survives through donations from longtime members and other philanthropies. Attendance at weekday prayers rarely reaches the required minyan (quorum) of 10 men. "Most of the members of our congregation have moved away or passed away," he sighs. Synagogue members say they're surprised when secular Russians do show up for yizkor (memorial) services on High Holy Days, then disappear for the rest of the year. This bustling, colorful neighborhood, located between the honky-tonk amusement park of Coney Island and the rich estates of Manhattan Beach, was first settled at the beginning of the 20th century by Italian and East European Jewish immigrants. It was the setting for Neil Simon's play, "Brighton Beach Memoirs," a coming of age tale about a young Jewish man growing up in the years just before World War II. With the immigration that began in the 70s, the neighborhood acquired a distinct Russian flavor, with exotic furriers, pirogi restaurants and bars serving Baltika beer. Yet although more than 80 percent of the immigrants to Brighton Beach are Jewish, they have established no new synagogues. The new missionary church hoped to make up for this spiritual dearth - so far with limited success. Pastor Birkmans says the church has approximately 100 members, about half of whom have at least one Jewish parent, but only 20 to 30 show up for Saturday morning services. One of them is Katya Shakhtmeyster, a lithe 21-year-old, who was born in Siberia and immigrated with her secular Jewish family at the age of 5. She found Hope of Israel to be a welcoming, Russian-speaking community and, last year, underwent baptism there - a decision that left her parents indifferent, she says. Shakhtmeyster became the betrothed of Jesus Christ and then of the assistant pastor, Alex Arabadzhi, a non-Jewish Russian-American. They married in January in a ceremony performed by Pastor Berkmans. Shakhtmeyster's conversion is disturbing and perplexing to Darla Stone and her husband, who is one of the co-presidents of the New Brighton Jewish Center synagogue next door. "If they're looking for religious connection, why don't they come into our shul, instead?" wonders Stone. "I thought that place closed," says 19-year-old Jenny Andreyeva, referring to Darla Stone's synagogue. Andreyeva, daughter of Russian immigrants, says it's not realistic for veteran members to expect youth to just walk into a traditional synagogue. "They expect a bolt of lightening to hit people in the head and make them say, 'Wow, I'm Jewish,'" says Andreyeva, who is vice president of Hillel at Borough College and has worked at recruiting youth to Jewish student programs. It just doesn't work that way. While both the Orthodox synagogue and the missionary church have had limited success in winning the souls of these young Jews, another organization is making far greater inroads. For the past few months, over 300 Jewish college-age men and women, the children of Soviet immigrants, have been gathering on Sunday nights in the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach, located about a mile away from the Orthodox house of worship and the missionary church. The Center was an aging synagogue not unlike Rimler's, before a Jewish outreach organization leased the building and renovated it, adding an expansive rec room, lounge and study center. It is now a hub of activity where young Jews gather to discuss Bible stories, learn about Jewish rituals and hear about Israeli politics. Between sessions they flirt, drink soda and smoke cigarettes outside the building. They aren't told to recite ritual blessings. Men don't have to cover their heads, and women may wear as much or as little as they like. Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.