Torah-Study Program Changing Jewish Life in the Former Soviet Union - The Jewish Voice
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Torah-Study Program Changing Jewish Life in the Former Soviet Union

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Kollel Torah opened its doors in 10 cities in October and hopes to expand to dozens of cities across the former Soviet Union.

Adult study to expand after $1.3 million online matching grant challenge is met

It’s evening in synagogue, and 16 Jewish men sit studying intricate laws of prayer. A 30-year-old young professional asks a question, spurring a complex halachic discussion among the participants. The rabbi weighs in with the final ruling as stated in Jewish law, but notes multiple differences in opinion among the rabbis.

The synagogue is not in Brooklyn, N.Y., but in Bryansk, Russia, and in the last six months, similar scenarios have played out in 35 Jewish communities throughout the former Soviet Union. These cities are all part of the “Kollel Torah” program, a groundbreaking effort to establish academies of higher Jewish learning throughout the former Communist world. The effect, say rabbis and participants, has been nothing short of revolutionary.

“There are many programs that we do, and they’re all important, but who would have dreamed we could successfully gather 15, 16, working men to come every day and study Torah?” asks Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zaklas, the chief rabbi and Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Bryansk, about a six-hour drive southwest of Moscow. “We have never had something like this. Grown men who have never studied Torah in-depth before are coming every day and opening the Shulchan Aruch, ‘Code of Jewish Law,’ or the Talmud, and studying the original texts. It really has changed our community.”

The idea of a Kollel—an institute for advanced Jewish studies—is an ancient one, and many such institutions dot the Jewish world. Participants are typically Torah scholars with many years of advanced study under their belts, who receive financial stipends to pursue their studies. And yet, while Jewish life in the former Soviet bloc—including Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus and the Baltics—has grown exponentially since the fall of communism in 1991, the idea of having daily group Torah learning in cities like Cherkassy, Ukraine, or Baku, Azerbaijan, seemed a longshot.

That’s even what the program’s founder, Rabbi Bentzi Lipsker, thought when Kollel Torah opened its doors in 10 cities in October. Lipsker serves as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in a neighborhood in northern St. Petersburg, Russia, and is also a director of the Meromim Fund, a philanthropy that sponsors the Kollel.

“We started with the qualification that every city had to have a minimum of 10 students coming every day, where they will study Mishnah, halachah andchassidut,” explains Lipsker. “Those who come at least 10 times a month receive a stipend, which begins at the equivalent of $100 a month and grows each additional time they come.

“In the beginning we thought, will people come every day? Will people really come so often? And we’ve been gratified to see that it is the case. From an initial 10 cities, we’ve now grown to 35.”

Lipsker, who runs the program at his own Chabad Maor Center, says no participants come solely for the stipend, although the amount is always appreciated, and in some countries—such as Ukraine—counts as significant financial aid. But beyond the resulting daily study schedule, Lipsker and other rabbis insist that the regular hum of activity and the sounds of Torah learning have a way of permeating the entire community, affecting far more than those who attend. He counts dozens of circumcisions that have come as a result of the study, and increased levels of knowledge and observance program-wide.

“People come, they learn, they grow—and the whole community sees the difference,” says Zaklas. “It’s truly amazing.”

‘Our City Has Changed’

David Rifkind is a doctor who has been a member of Zaklas’ community in Bryansk for years. The Kollel, of which he is an active member, has enlivened the community in a way he couldn’t have imagined.

“People may receive a stipend, but as they learn and understand more, and appreciate more, they start coming to synagogue on Shabbat as well,” notes Rifkind. “Its effect has been that people look at what goes on in the synagogue differently. When you understand the concepts and see how different ideas within Judaism relate to each other, your participation necessarily increases. That’s just what has happened.”

The excitement of joining with others has also prompted more people to attend, ask questions and gain knowledge. “A lot of people ideally want to know this information they were never taught. But we work; who has time? The Kollel has given us the ability to find that time and do it consistently.”

Russian-speaking Jews are known for their intellectual curiosity, but decades of Soviet repression of religion means that most Jewish adults there have extremely limited Jewish literacy, despite the fact that they may be academics or professionals. “To do this study alone is possible, but to do it together with others, and not feel embarrassed and have discussions, that’s another thing,” says Rifkind.

In Tallinn, Estonia, a former Soviet republic that has grown into a modern Internet start-up mecca, the Kollel has had a similar effect as in Russia, according to Rabbi Shmuel Kot, the Baltic state’s chief rabbi and Chabad-Lubavitch emissary.

During a recent class, says Kot, a discussion about the pidyon haben—a ceremony wherein a first-born Jewish son is redeemed from a Kohen—turned into an actual pidyon haben. “We have a 21-year-old who comes to the Kollel Torah. He’s a first-born, and after we learned about it, we did the ceremony right there and then. Things like this are happening on a daily basis.”

Gathering a regular minyan, or prayer quorum can be a difficult task even in developed Jewish communities, not to mention for the distant synagogues of Eastern Europe.

“The Kollel takes place at night, so now you have cities where they might have only had a minyan once a day, or even once a week, with a regular prayer quorum for afternoon prayers and evening prayers,” explains Lipsker. “There is excitement in the communities.”

“We built a beautiful building here in 2007; it really is one of the most gorgeous synagogues in the world,” attests Kot. “But a regular minyan is an even harder thing to achieve. The Kollel brings a regular group of adult working men, who pray and study here, and this building is buzzing with life in a way it never did before.”

Zaklas in Bryansk agrees with Lipsker and Kot, estimating that it is the first time his city of 600,000 has had prayers held three times a day since before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Much More Than a Stipend

The financial help of the Kollel is not felt anywhere more than in Ukraine, which has been in economic turmoil since war erupted in its eastern regions more than a year ago. There, the monthly $100 or more that attendees receive is more than a stipend—it can serve as the equivalent of a monthly wage for some.

“Sumy is a very small city and to see working people—and I mean some people who really are working very hard to make ends meet—come every day to study and daven [pray], it’s unbelievable,” he says. “No one could have predicted how much of an effect this could have on a community.”

Levitansky concurs with his colleagues on the larger influences the program has, adding that participants in Sumy now also show up on Shabbat and on Sunday—days when they’re not required to come to earn the stipend.

Kollel Torah is an expensive program to run, and its budget has grown since its initial founding of approximately $25,000 a month to some than $87,000. Today, Kollel Torah is in 35 cities with more than 700 students, but by September, the hope is that it will incorporate more than 54 cities, raising its expected budget to $135,000 a month, or $1.6 million a year.

It’s a daunting financial task, for which a campaign to help was launched Wednesday night on the crowd-funding site Charidy.com.

“This program is expensive, of course,” acknowledges Lipsker, “but the Meromim Fund is dedicated to expanding it and adding more cities. Today, there is an effort for individual communities to raise 25 percent of their $24,000 Kollel budget for it, and we will fund the other 75 percent.

“That Kollel Torah has changed Jewish life in the former Soviet Union through Torah study is for certain. With help from friends and partners around the world, we hope to continue growing this unbelievable project. This is really a revolution.” (Chabad.org)

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