On Lag Ba'omer, a group of merrymakers squeezed around a traditional holiday campfire in a patch of garden between two buildings in Rishon Letzion. They roasted potatoes, like everyone else, and burned an effigy of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, like everyone else. David Schechter, who served as an advisor to former minister Natan Sharansky, said he can't remember what else went up in smoke, because "the vodka flowed like water."
The guests at this campfire were all immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have become observant Jews and wear skullcaps. They are doctors and lawyers, journalists and businesspeople, and fathers and sons who meet regularly at the local synagogue, where about a quarter of the congregation is Russian-speaking. Every couple of months, they are joined by a new worshipper with the same background.
Schechter, who became religiously observant while still living in Moscow, before immigrating to Israel in 1987, is called the "rabbi of the brigade." This is a slight exaggeration, although Schechter occupies a significant role in encouraging the phenomenon of returning to religion among immigrants. And even if the trend is no tidal wave, it contradicts a stereotype.
"There are no exact data, but according to my research, about one-fourth of these immigrants will become religious," says Dr. Ze'ev Hanin, a Tel Aviv University sociologist, who is himself an immigrant and wears a skullcap. "As is customary among Russians, it's reasonable to assume that some of them will go to extremes."
Although there are no exact figures on the number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who define themselves as traditional or strictly observant Jews, Hanin estimates their number at 50,000, not counting Jews from Bukhara and the Caucasus, who are nearly all religious anyway.
It's hard to know just where Menahem Tschotschopaka's private journey will end. Right now he's teetering on the edge, donning a large black skullcap, but still listening to Pink Floyd blaring in his car. His father was a Cossack descended from an ataman, a Cossack chieftain. His mother was a Jew. He was born in Ukraine, became a veteran tennis coach, married a beautiful Ukrainian woman, and fathered Roman and Natasha.
He immigrated to Israel five years ago and later became religious, while his wife did not. Natasha became Nehama and married the ultra-Orthodox Aviezer, also of Russian background; they live in Beitar Illit, a Haredi settlement in the West Bank. Roman remained Roman, and right after being discharged from the army, married the young Ukrainian woman whom he took along with him to Israel.
In Israel, Tschotschopaka was pushed out of his profession. He earns his livelihood by working in a phyllo dough factory, and finds comfort in religion. His close friends are Russians who have also turned to religion. "I have something to tell you all," he says. "My Cossack grandfather was an non-believer," he laughs. "We need to go back to God, and spread [faith] among all nations. That's our task in Israel."
Vadim and Lev Leibman couldn't agree more, except for the matter of "all nations." They only want to attract Jews - in particular Russian Jews - to the small Chabad center they've opened in the heart of Rishon Letzion. Until not so long ago, they led completely different lives. Vadim, 51, worked at a high-level job in high-tech, and his wife, an eye doctor, enjoyed a good income, too.
In Moscow they lived in an exclusive neighborhood, close to the president's residence. They knew nothing about Judaism. They decided to immigrate to Israel in 1990, when Lev was eight years old. The men in the family underwent circumcision, but they didn't start down the road to ultra-Orthodoxy until the preparations for Lev's bar mitzvah.
By that time, many friends from Russia had joined them in Israel. Thanks to his high-tech job, Vadim had a car at his disposal. On Saturdays, friends would ask him for help moving from one apartment to another, until he became tired of it. "I told everyone that I was no longer traveling on Shabbat, and stopped working in the moving business," Vadim says.
Shortly afterward, signs of his becoming more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) began to show in his dress: First he wore a knitted skullcap, then switched to a black one, and later added a caftan, too. Meanwhile, Yossi was born; today he studies in a heder, an ultra-Orthodox elementary school.
Lev attended the secular Shevah Mofet school but upon completing 10th grade, he decided to transfer to a yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, where, he was nicknamed "the Russian." A flute-player, he was also the first Russian Haredi to attend the Tel Aviv Music Conservatory, and is now working on a book about the place of music in Chabad life. Lev completed his studies in a Brooklyn yeshiva, was ordained a rabbi and appointed a Chabad representative in Rishon Letzion. One of the common jokes of Vadim and Lev is that "Chabad and Coca Cola are everywhere."
Drawn to the extreme
Truthfully, the job of being a Chabad emissary in Rishon Letzion sounds tougher than being sent to a remote African tribe - in part because immigrants from the former Soviet Union loathe brainwashing above all. "They are afraid," Lev sighs.
Still, 20 families have already been enlisted in the rebbe's army. Boris, a historian by profession and once an enthusiastic communist, enters the room where Vadim and Lev spend many hours. A skullcap on his head, he avidly listens to Lev, who shows him sources from a Chabad book on Jewish history. Late at night, Boris-Benjamin Malkhozov visits the center. Malkhozov has only recently become observant and now wears a stiff black beret of the kind once worn by Bolsheviks. The outfit is a reminder that Chabad originated in Russia, and so, after all, the movement is being restored to its former status.
Researchers studying the phenomenon agree that due to their mentality, immigrants from the former Soviet Union who become religious are drawn toward religion's more extreme manifestations. It's a fact: in Rishon Letzion they are already calling Schechter a "shaygetz," the Yiddish term for a non-Jewish man. He responds, with some contempt, that the others are "messianic." Lev says it's not a matter of fanaticism, but rather a search for the truth by people who were raised in an atmosphere of lies.
"Russians and Israelis who become religious are not coming from the same place," he explains. "The Russians I know are better educated, so the process comes from a deeper place."
Which just goes to show that Russian-born immigrants, whether secular or religious, may not be so willing to let go of their inner feeling of cultural superiority.
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