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Rabbis reach out to next generation of FSU Jews

By Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff

October 6th, 2006

In 1982, in the Former Soviet Union, Yaacov Elman was in a friend’s studio apartment, crowded with about 80 people, to hear a lecture about Shabbat.

“Suddenly a bunch of KGB guys came in and said that everybody was under arrest,” Elman said.

“The lecturer was holding a Torah and the KGB agent asked him what it was and where he got it. He said ‘It is a Torah and I got it from Moses.’

“‘Moses who?’ the agent asked.

“‘Moshe Rabeinu (Moses, our teacher),’ the lecturer answered. “Misunderstanding rabeinu to be a family name, the agent asked. ‘Where did you get it?’

“‘At Mt. Sinai,’ the lecturer answered.”

Then the agent understood. “And for all of us in that room, it was such an encouragement that [the lecturer] could talk to this KBG guy without any fear. It gave us such moral encouragement,” said Elman, a St. Petersburg native.

Today, Rabbi Yaacov Elman, 44, is director of Jewish REACH Synagogue for Russian Jews at 3510 N. Oakland Ave. on Milwaukee’s East Side.

“When I officiate in the synagogue, I hear unbelievable stories about what people had to go through; such difficult and dangerous things, as Jews, and I tell the young people to listen,” he said.

“Now, you are here in the free world where you can choose anything you want. You must learn about Judaism and you must pass it on to the next generations.”

Russian rabbis

With the help of three other Russian rabbis he has brought in to help him at various times, Elman has served as a spiritual leader to the Russian-speaking Jews of Milwaukee in a program underwritten by Lubavitch of Wisconsin since 1991.

Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin, the founder of Lubavitch of Wisconsin said in a telephone interview that the Lubavitch movement was always active, underground, in the FSU.
“Our interest is in every Jewish person everywhere in the world,” he said. “So when the Russian Jews came to Milwaukee we were right there trying to provide them with their rightful Jewishness, in the most warm way,” Shmotkin said.

But, as the numbers of immigrants grew — close to 500 per year during the peak of 1989-91, according to Jewish Family Services Resettlement Program Director Lena Vusiker — it became too much for Shmotkin alone.

So he brought Elman to Milwaukee to help with the religious and general needs of the swelling Russian community.

Elman and his parents came to California in 1985. Two years later, he went to Morristown, N.J., where he spent four years at a rabbinical school.

Elman’s older brother, who lost his job after the KGB arrest, is living as an observant Jew is Israel, Elman said.

Their parents, residents of San Francisco, also study about and practice Judaism, he said.

In describing their goals for Milwaukee’s Russian Jews, both Shmotkin and Elman agreed that connecting with their Jewishness is primary.

“We don’t want them to forget that they are Jewish. Our goal is that they should be involved in Lubavitch or someplace else.” Elman said. “The idea is to give them some Jewish education, and [help them] integrate into the [wider] Jewish community.”

For the younger adults, Elman explained, it is important to learn about Judaism so that they can explain it to their children when they are small.

“We want them to remember they are part of the Jewish community and participate and support the community and be actively involved in Judaism,” he said. “If we don’t, it’s hard to explain to our kids why they should marry someone Jewish. And [if they don’t] then we will die out.”

Elman pointed out that “now we have people who’ve got jobs and have become part of the larger community. When they were in Russia there were enough American Jews to help them. Now money is being raised in the Russian community for charity and Israel.”

When Israel was at war this summer, “everyone basically opened their wallets and gave,” he said. “They are willing to take something from themselves and give it to a good cause,” which is not something they learned in Russia.

“We are not focusing so much on [having people come to REACH to services],” Elman said. “We try to invite them on any given occasion to [The Joseph and Rebecca Peltz Center for Jewish Life in] Mequon, or Lubavitch House [also called The Shul East] on Lake Drive or [The Shul in] Bayside, for the children.”

On Passover, last spring, there were four seders, at REACH, at a private house, at a senior residential facility and at The Shul East, Elman said. About 180 people came from the Russian community, he said.

At REACH, he said, where donations are requested but membership fees are not required, services are conducted in Hebrew and Russian. “We discuss prayers and their meanings and the significance of different holidays in Russian. It’s important that people understand,” Elman said.

Giving to the children

Michael Lotman, 41, born in the Ukraine and raised in Moscow, said he came to the U.S., to Boston, in 1990, and also lived in Chicago for a time before moving to Milwaukee.

Speaking of discrimination against Jews in Russia, he said, “I knew who I [was] in Russia. Even if you want to forget, people around you don’t let you.”

A chemical engineer, Lotman is operations director for an adhesive company and is married with two sons, age three and 13.

“Our involvement in Judaism [which began after coming to the U.S.] was gradual. Obviously, we had some help [getting settled in the U.S.] and there were people, particularly in Chicago,” who assisted the Lotmans with getting involved in Judaism.
In Milwaukee, Lotman and his family connected to the community via Elman. Now they attend services at The Shul in Bayside. His older son became a bar mitzvah and his younger son received his first ritual haircut there.

“We have very strong beliefs, he said. It’s very important to us to give [Judaism], something we didn’t have, to our sons,” Lotman said.

Lev Talyansky, 46, born and raised in Kiev, came to Milwaukee in 1989 less than a year after arriving in the U.S. He is the father of an adult daughter and owns an audio and video business in the Third Ward.

“I was first interested in Jewish culture and it turns out you can’t separate culture and religion. I tried several different approaches, [to the Jewish religion],” Talyansky said.
He attended several different synagogues but felt that something was missing until, via Elman, he found The Shul East.

“I went to Lubavitch and figured [I] might as well do it right. They are very warm. They don’t make any distinction between Jews whether they are learned or not. To them we are all Jews,” he said.

Elman said that in the last several years there were several religious weddings in the Russian community. “It was so nice to see the fruits of [our] labor materialize.”

Three rabbis

Of the three rabbis Elman brought in, only Rabbi Yerachmiel Kittner is still part of REACH, Elman said.

Rabbi Abraham Ustoniacov relocated to Vienna, Austria, his wife’s native city, and is doing good work there, Elman said.

Former Lubavitch rabbi, Alexander Milchtein, 36, whom Elman hired to assist primarily with education at REACH in the 1990s, was formally denounced for apostasy by Shmotkin, Rabbi Michel Twerski of Congregation Beth Jehudah, several other local Orthodox rabbis and the Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe in letters printed in the Nov. 20, 1998, issue of the Chronicle.

One week later, the Central Committee of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis in the United States and Canada sent a similar letter “To the Jewish Community of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

Milchstein has since directed an organization called Milwaukee Synagogue for Russian Jews-Congregation Moshiach Now that allegedly propagates beliefs considered by most rabbis to be antithetical to Judaism.

That organization recently purchased a building at 3213 N. Oakland Ave., according to Milchtein, who spoke with The Chronicle by telephone.

There are conflicting accounts about the number of local Russian Jews participating in that organization’s religious services and other programs (a recent fundraising letter listed 15 programs including adult education classes, after school activities for teens, anti-missionary/anti-cult work, summer camp and a weekly food pantry, among others).

Milchtein, a Moscow native who came to the U.S. 16 years ago to continue a rabbinical education he began in Moscow, said, “We don’t have official membership because we want everyone to come, but a couple of hundred people come for holidays.”

Forty or 50 people usually attend Shabbat services, he said, and “there are 516 families that have participated in lifecycle events and/or have given donations” listed in his database.

However, Elman and Shmotkin said that Milchtein’s organization serves far fewer members of the community, with Elman estimating the number at 20.