Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik leads an active community of 3,000 in Tyumen
By: Menachem Posner
When most think of the quintessential faraway locale—a place where life is different and distant—many of us think of Siberia, the winter wasteland that never seems to end.
Since I began writing about what Jewish life is like in various places, I’ve wanted to interview Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik, who together with his wife, Sterni, leads an active Jewish community in Tyumen, a major city in Siberia with a population of 800,000.
Having chronicled the trials and triumphs of leading a relatively small, isolated community in the Hebrew-language bestseller, “Shatz Lelo Minyan” (“A Cantor Without a Prayer Quorum”), Rabbi Gorelik was a must-have interviewee, and despite the time difference, I knew that eventually I would pin him down for a long-distance conversation.
Q: Who are the Jews in Tyumen, and where did they come from?
Tyumen is the oldest Russian settlement in Siberia, and Jews have been here since the mid-19th century, in the times of the Czar. In those days, Jews were generally not allowed to live outside of the Pale of Jewish Settlement, an area that covers parts of what is now Ukraine, Poland and Belarus.
But some Jews did go “beyond the Pale”—all the way to Siberia.
The migrants included Cantonists, Jewish children who were forcibly conscripted into the Russian military for 25 years. Once discharged, they could live wherever they wanted, and many chose to remain near the bases where they had served.
A stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Tyumen was a major business center, connected to both America and the Far East, and some Jewish people were issued special permits to come here for business purposes. At times, even American Jews came here to do business.
And, of course, there were those who were sent to Siberia as punishments for crimes, real or imagined, criminal or political. In fact, there were some people who would get arrested for petty crimes just so that they could get permission to live and do business here.
Some members of our community are descendants of these longtime residents of Siberia.
But others came later, during the Communist era. In those years, unofficial anti-Semitism made it virtually impossible for Jewish people to get into certain university courses in the major cities like Moscow, Leningrad or Kiev, but things were much freer here.
In fact, Siberia is amazingly diverse, and there is very little anti-Semitism here.
During the Holocaust, some Jews fled here and never left.
In the 1970s, gas was discovered in this region, and that has brought many more people to the area as well.
As you can see, there have been many waves of Jewish migration with people coming and going throughout the years.
Today, there are approximately 3,000 Jewish people in Tyumen, and my wife and I make connections with more and more people all the time.
Q: What is Jewish life like in Tyumen?
When we came to Tyumen in 2011, we started small. We started prayer services in our home, and then started a small kindergarten and an after-school educational program for children.
Things grew, and more and more people got involved. We started youth groups and programs for all ages and all stages. We have Torah classes for men and women, and Jewish life has really advanced here.
Our community has celebrated many Jewish weddings, bar mitzvahs and so much more together.
Thank G d, we purchased a property and have built a beautiful mikvah, which will soon be complete. This is a very important building block of Jewish life, and we are so excited about what it will mean for Jewish families in town.
We also have plans for a full-service community center, which will have room for our school, synagogue, humanitarian program, cultural events and everything else a community needs.
Q: Is yours the only Chabad center in Siberia?
By no means! Siberia is a vast place. We are pretty much 2,000 kilometers due east of Moscow. If you continue traveling east, you will get to Omsk, Novosibirsk, Novokuznetsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Birobidzhan, Khabarovks, and Vladivostok, which borders North Korea. Each of these cities, spanning 8,000 kilometers, has active communities led by Chabad rabbis and rebbitzens.
Q: Can you share a bit about your family?
Sterni and I grew up next door to each other in Nachlat Har Chabad, a neighborhood that the Rebbe had founded for Russian immigrants in the Israeli city of Kiryat Malachi.
Both of our fathers had grown up in the Chabad underground community in the Soviet Union and had been friends ever since.
After we married, we began exploring where we could best serve as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries. I knew some basic Russian from home, and when we heard about Tyumen, we felt it was right for us.
In fact, my own grandfather, R. Mendel Garelik, was exiled to perform forced labor in this very region twice.
The first time he was arrested was even before he and my grandmother married. He was convicted of the crime of teaching Jewish children Torah, and he served here for three years.
The second time was after World War II, when he was among those who undertook to spirit hundreds of fellow Chassidim out of the Soviet Union. The operation was wildly successful, but my grandfather paid for his efforts with more years of hard labor.
I often think about him and wonder if he ever dreamed that we would one day live here, openly and freely teaching Torah and Judaism.
Q: How about your children? What is life like for them in Siberia?
We are blessed with seven children, the oldest of whom is 13. They attend the Or Menachem online shluchim school and study secular studies with local teachers. They each have a few friends in town, as well as their online school friends. Whenever we travel to other cities, we try to take a child or two along with us so they can socialize.
Q: We got this far without mentioning the weather. What is it like in Siberia?
What can I say? It is cold here. In the winter, it gets as cold as 40 degrees below (which is the same in both Celcius and Farenheit). But in the summer, it is very nice and pleasant, not too hot and not too cold.
But like we always say here, even when it’s cold outside, it’s warm in our hearts.