Sharing Judaism and Jewish fellowship in Moscow

Congregation doesn't have a rabbi, and the Orthodox man who helps it conduct Jewish rituals can't travel three-hour walk from downtown Moscow.

mow (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Anatoliy Vladov dreams of the day his congregation will celebrate Shabbat on the Jewish day of rest and not on Sundays, as it does now. "I would very much want to have a real Shabbat," said Vladov, chairman of the Severnaya Jewish community on the northern outskirts of Moscow. "After all, we are a religious community." The congregation doesn't have a rabbi, and the Orthodox man who helps it conduct Jewish rituals can't travel to this remote neighborhood on Shabbat: It's a three-hour walk from his home in downtown Moscow. But most Severnaya congregants don't seem concerned about having their weekly get-togethers the day after Shabbat. "Most of our members are Soviet atheists," said Vladov, a retired scientist with a trimmed white beard. "But I do want them to learn something about their tradition, history. Then they can make a choice for themselves." Vladov leads a community of some 200 dues-paying members and another 900 Jews who are occasionally involved in its activities. They all live within walking distance of his home in the Severnaya neighborhood; all are pensioners. At 66, Vladov is the youngest member of the congregation. Among its most active members are two men aged 98 and 99. The elderly members come to the weekly gatherings inside a small classroom in the Youth Computer and Intellectual Center as much for the social component as for the religious one. Communicating with fellow Jews is what draws them. "This is my second home," said Nonna Gorfina, who volunteers as a bookkeeper for the congregation. "My children have their own things to do in life, and I have none. Here I feel I'm still needed." Vladov believes his mission is to get Jews who had been denied access to their heritage, like himself, at least a taste of Jewish tradition. He was raised in a non-observant Soviet Jewish home and had little knowledge of Judaism until his mid-50s. During the communist era, Vladov led the comfortable life of a successful Moscow scientist. But something was missing, he said, and after communism collapsed he tried to fill the void by attending the first legal Jewish seminars in Moscow. At age 53, much to the surprise of his family and colleagues, Vladov left his job and became a full-time student at the Moscow branch of New York's Touro College. He graduated in four years with a degree in Jewish studies. "I just realized that I'm Jewish," he said, "and I finally got this chance to find out what it means and to start living like a Jew." Vladov said he did not become observant, but wanted to apply his newly acquired knowledge. Unable to find a home in any of the new Jewish organizations that sprang up in post-Soviet Russia, he launched a new one. Seven years ago, the local office of a government social welfare agency allowed Vladov to go through its database in search of people with Jewish-sounding names. His community is officially registered as a Reform Jewish congregation, but he thinks that, given the reality of Russian Jewry today, divisions in the streams of Judaism are artificial. "Most Jews have come out of the Soviet times and don't really see any difference," Vladov said. That's why he's trying to give members a taste of everything in Judaism. On a recent Sunday, Artyom 'Avram' Vitkin, 27, a Moscow film director and Orthodox yeshiva student, spoke to the congregation about Jewish burial traditions. Vitkin, whom the congregants call "Reb Avram," is the Orthodox man who cannot make the trek on Shabbat. Each week he shares his teaching duties with a Reform student - a requirement set by Vladov. So Mark Polyakov, a young Reform Jew, was on hand in the same room to answer questions from community members. "I feel somewhat awkward that a young man has to explain something to the people who are much more experienced," said Polyakov, 17, a freshman at the Machon, the Reform movement's Moscow college, during the tea break at a recent meeting of community members. Congregants don't seem to mind being taught the basics of Judaism by someone the age of their great-grandchildren. The community "is a treasure trove," said Froim Beider, a 98-year-old member of the congregation who tries not to miss any of the weekly meetings. Born in what was a Jewish shtetl in Ukraine in 1909, Beider was a typically assimilated Soviet Jew all his life. Seven years ago, for the first time, he joined a Jewish community. "I cannot say I have become a religious Jew, but this is not about that," said Beider, a retired engineer who writes short stories and poems for the congregation's hand-written magazine. "Here I can communicate with a group of very good people." Vladov is aware that his elderly congregation is missing younger members, and he hopes one day to attract some of the members' children or grandchildren. But for now, he says, his group is also performing an important function as a social club and aid network. "They come here because they want to be needed, not to feel like forgotten," Vladov said. "At least here they can talk to other Jews, to someone like themselves."