Rabbi Pinchas Goldshmidt
Jewish Religious Education In The CIS: History and Development Trends
R. Pinchas Goldschmidt
Jewish religious education began its renaissance in Russia and neighboring states at the decline of the Soviet era – in the late 1980s. The first Jewish education center in the USSR was the legendary Mekor Chayim (Source of Life) yeshiva, also known as the yeshiva of Kuntsevo. It was officially named the Institute of Judaic Studies by the Academy of World Civilizations, led by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. It was ironically located in the environs of Kuntsevskaya metro station at the former dacha of Moscow’s official leader of many years, Promyslov. The curious and unique establishment bore little resemblance to a traditional yeshiva. Merging an educational, communal, and cultural center, it held classes and lectures in Torah and Talmud for different level male and female students, Hebrew classes, seminars, and cultural events, hardly possible under the same roof today. The teachers arrived from Israel and other countries and belonged to different movements in Judaism: there were Lithuanian Orthodox people (Ashkenazi non-Hasidim), Chabad followers, and religious Zionists. Among both teachers and students there were many Moscow Jews who had emerged from their underground studies of Judaism during Gorbachev’s perestroika. The yeshiva of Kuntsevo united a multitude of more and less religious people with different goals: from mere Hebrew studies for consequent emigration to Israel, to a serious level of Talmud learning. Most were intelligentsia from Moscow and other major cities, educated and creative. Mekor Chayim was a fruit of its time, permeated with a joy of unusual freedom, a sincere (to the point of naïveté) idealism, a priority of spiritual renaissance, all of which preceded the sudden commercialization of the Russian public conscience in the mid-90s. The yeshiva building perished in a fire in 1994, and the educational center ceased to exist in its original form.
Torat Chayim – Birkat Yitzhak
At the same time, the first real “specialized” yeshiva opened in Moscow, currently known as the Torat Chayim (Teaching of Life) yeshiva, the largest Jewish religious educational institution in the CIS. It was initiated by the great Jewish religious authority of the 20th century, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik (b. 1915, Minsk, d. 1995, Zurich), with the help from Rabbi Yitzhak Zilber (b. 1917, d. 2004), founder of the Russian speaking religious community of Israel and leader of the movement for the return to the Torah of former USSR Jews. As opposed to the Mekor Chayim, which was more of a community center, Torat Chayim was initially created as a traditional “Lithuanian” yeshiva (a type formed in Lithuania, Belarus and eastern Poland in the 18th and 19th centuries).
The word yeshiva itself means “sitting” in Hebrew. It is an educational institution where Jewish youngsters and men learn Talmud in depth with rabbi teachers. The first yeshivas appeared in Babylon in the first centuries AD. They remain to this day places where traditional Jewish thought is preserved and developed. The global Jewish society and psychology have forever been imprinted with the image of a learned wise man leading a Jewish community, the ideal of Torah study as a major value, and reverence for learning and books. The yeshiva learning process and approach is very different from the usual secular universities and colleges: the students spend all day studying Talmud; there are no secular subjects in the traditional ye-shiva. Whereas the goal of secular studies is the diploma, no diploma as such is awarded for learning Torah in a yeshiva; whoever wants to receive m smicha, a rabbi’s ordination, may take a special study course. There are no exams in yeshivas, or they are unimportant. The learning is based on the Torah li-shmah principle – studying Torah for the sake of the Divine commandment to learn and comprehend God’s Teaching. Yeshivas are restricted to men; religious Jewish girls attend special women’s seminaries where instead of the Talmud the learning is focused on the Halacha (especially the parts pertaining to women), the Tanach, the philosophical and ideological aspects of Judaism, and the issues of child-rearing, cooking, and handicrafts which a future mater familiae must master. Once married, a Jewish man may continue his education in kollel – a yeshiva for married men, where the school day is shortened so that the avrech (kollel student) can have some family time.
The ground for the Moscow Torat Chayim yeshiva was laid in the late 1989, when Rabbi Yitzhak Zilber arrived to Moscow from Israel with Rabbi Alexander Aizenshtat, to this day the general director of the Torat Chayim-Birkat Yitzhak learning complex. For a brief spell, the new yeshiva lived in a small rented apartment by the Sokol metro station, where Jews of different ages flocked by the dozen to classes, especially those given by Rabbi Zilber. Several people stayed in the apartment permanently despite the crowdedness. In 1990, before Sukkoth, the yeshiva moved to a holiday center building in Valentinovka, a holiday village in the environs of Moscow. It was there that the image of the yeshiva as it is today began to form. Among the first teachers of the yeshiva were: R. David Krueger, R. Yaakov Sakovan, R. Shimon Posner; R. Eliyahu Tavger, R. Tzvi Patlas, R. Mordechai Kulvyanski and others got involved with the yeshiva for many years to come; R. Moshe Lebel, who first arrived in 1991, later became the rector.
It is important to note that this yeshiva, like all religious educational institutions formed in the USSR in the context of mass aliyah in the early 1990s, was initially treated as a transit point of sorts, where Soviet Jews could be introduced to traditional Jewish values before inevitably leaving for Israel or other countries. A stable Jewish community remaining in the country was apparently not considered an option at the time. Indeed, the absolute majority of the first wave of students (until the mid-1990s) are now in Israel; a small part are in the USA. Most of them have become serious Torah scholars and visit their alma mater in Moscow as teachers. These are usually descendants of refined Jewish families from Moscow and other major cities, or from Ukraine and other USSR republics. Typically, they had a high level of culture and education, were idealists, and absolutely rejected the values of Soviet culture. All of them intended to continue their education in yeshivas in Israel, and the very air of the yeshiva helped instill in them a mentality of true bnei-yeshiva, such as comprise a significant part of the Israeli religious society. Between 1992 and 2002 the yeshiva lived in a holiday hotel in Udelnaya Township, close to Moscow.
The mid-1990s marked rapid development in private entrepreneurship which attracted many people’s ambitions. This era induced a dramatic shift in the life priorities of most Russian citizens, Jews included. Idealism was replaced by pragmatism, exaggerated at times. Young Jews turned to business, and education became a means to a successful career. Spirituality was removed to the background of life, and at that time many of the students of the yeshiva were people of low social mobility and education level who had not found a place for themselves in the new reality.
However, as the Russian society stabilized to some extent at the end of the 1990s and a middle class formed, the number of Jews interested in learning Torah saw a new increase. Today’s process is different from that of the early 1990s. Young people returning to the Jewish tradition are not as eager to “burn the bridges” to the outside world as were the idealistic baalei-tshuva of the first wave. Most of them hang on to their prestigious educations and socially desirable professions; many are intelligent and quite successful. Some of them come to Torah classes in addition to their main activities – work or higher education; some spend most of their time in the yeshiva and obtain higher education by correspondence. Israel is no longer a popular destination for emigration, but many choose to spend a few months or a longer period of time in Israeli yeshivas to get charged with their special spiritual atmosphere. A search of ways to combine a full-fledged religious way of life with a professional occupation to ensure a reasonable income is probably the main tendency in the life of today’s religious Jewry in Russia and the CIS.
In 2002 the Torat Chayim yeshiva purchased a boarding house in the environs of the Chripan station in the Ramenskiy district of the Moscow oblast. The building provides maximum possible comfort for the Torah students. There are about 50 resident students from different Russian, Ukrainian, and CIS cities, aged on average 18 to 25. Annual seminars are held which attract many young Jews to the Torah, famous Israeli and North American rabbis come along. Torat Chayim is now the largest religious school in Eastern Europe.
The same educational structure as the Torat Chayim includes the Birkat Yitzhak (Isaac’s Blessing) kollel in Luchnikov Lane in downtown Moscow, named after the great spiritual leader of Russian-speaking Jews, Rabbi Yitzhak Zilber. It is led by a former Torat Chayim student, now a rabbi, R. Benzion Melamed. The kollel has over 20 permanent students – married yeshiva graduates who spend the day learning Talmud, Halacha, and other religious subjects. The kollel’s activity is not limited to the above, featuring also the exceptionally popular Havruta program, where several dozen Jews (on average 20 to 40) come to study in pairs with the kollel’s rabbis or students at a convenient time (morning, afternoon, or evening), gaining religious knowledge during their leisure time. The program involves students, entrepreneurs, and various professionals.
A women’s seminary of the same name, Birkat Yitzhak, is located in Maroseyka Street close to the Choral Synagogue. Over 30 Jewish girls learn religious subjects with experienced teachers, following a universally accepted special “female” curriculum. Many girls combine their seminary studies with university or work, many are non-resident students. Most graduates eventually marry the students of the Torat Chayim yeshiva.
Another important center of Jewish traditional education in Moscow is the Ohaley Yaakov (Tents of Jacob) yeshiva, established in the early 1990s. R. Joseph Amsel of Lakewood (USA) was its first rosh yeshiva (rector). Initially the yeshiva operated on the premises of the Choral Syna-gogue and was intended as a rabbinical training center for Russian city communities, but later the classical paradigm of Torah li-shma prevailed. The Ohaley Yaakov is located in downtown Moscow in Barashevsky lane. It has always been smaller than the Torat Chayim, the maximum number of its students (in the late 1990s) never exceeding 25-30. The yeshiva flourished as a “classical” yeshiva (whose students are on full board and spend the entire day learning) in the mid- and late 1990s, under the leadership of R. Chagai Preschel (originally from the USA, now living in Jerusalem). He managed to assemble exceptionally gifted, creative, and brilliant students. Like Torat Chayim, most of the students went on to study in the USA and Israel, the only exception being R. Yisroel Zelman, who managed to pass a full course of religious education and obtain ordination without leaving Russia.
On the brink of the 2000s the number of students began decreasing and some stagnation became evident in the work of the yeshiva, but when the new rosh yeshiva R. Akiva Yosovich arrived in 2003 from the UK, Ohaley Yaakov reinvented itself as an open educational center, preserving the image of a traditional yeshiva. The yeshiva has a kollel where avrechim from Israel, the USA, and Canada combine personal Torah studies with teaching a wide audience of Moscow Jews. Dozens of young men, both students and professionals, attend afternoon and evening classes at the kollel and lectures by R. Shmuel Shapiro, R. Aryeh Aminov, R. Shimon Anetdinov, and other students. Visiting students study in hevrutas (pairs) with resident kollel students. The Sephardic community which has formed on the basis of the yeshiva (consisting of Georgian, Mountain, and Bukharian Jews) partakes in the learning as well. Famous rabbis come to visit; major Torah scholar R. Yosef Kamenetsky teaches on a permanent basis. In general the work of the Ohaley Yaakov yeshiva is visibly veering to-wards an open beit-midrash (house of study) as the most popular form of learning.
Torah mi-Tzion kollel
One of the most successful projects of religious education in Russia, the Torah mi-Tzion (Torah from Zion) kollel, has been operating on the basis of Moscow Choral Synagogue since 1998. Throughout this time, the rector and head teacher has been David Yushuvaev, who was born in Tashkent and emigrated for Israel with his family at the age of 11. He began teaching in Russia in the early 1990s at R.A. Steinsaltz’s Mekor Chayim yeshiva.
The kollel is structured in several directions. The afternoon kollel has 20 to 30 people daily learning Talmud, Halacha, the Pentateuch, and the philosophical and ideological foundations of Judaism. Besides, dozens of men and women attend evening and weekend classes. There is both a professional and a popular level. The kollel offers different age and social groups a range of study programs and events, developed with the particular audience in mind, with study times tailored for everyone.
The Lev Yehudi (Jewish Heart) educational project for students attracts many young people; there are also programs for young families, children, and
pensioners. There is wide educational work with up to several hundred participants involved in different programs. The Torah mi-Tzion kollel collaborates closely with the Moscow Jewish Religious Society (MERO) in all of its communal and educational endeavors. IDT – Dor Revi’i This institution combines professional training with the studies of Judaism and religious atmosphere. Approximately 20 young people aged 18 to 30 study programming and computer science alongside Torah and Talmud classes. There is also a course for girls, combining Judaic learning with training in web design. After finishing the course and passing their exams, the graduates receive diplomas from the American Touro College, which secures them good employment opportunities. The rector is R. Gedalya Shestak.
This is a relatively innovative project which takes into account the de-sire of modern Jewish youths for prestigious education. It is a dormitory for foreign Jewish students of Moscow universities, where the young people are offered Torah and Talmud classes in their free time, as well as an opportunity to observe Shabbat and kashrut, and to enjoy an air of a Jewish community. Israeli teachers give classes, led by the rector, R. Shlomo Zlotski. Jewish Cam-pus also offers business trainings and professional motivation courses. This way, the Jewish students involved (currently about 10–12 people), are guided toward both religious lifestyles and professional fulfillment.
S A N K T -P E T E R S B U R G
After the Migdal Or Jewish gymnasium closed in 2008, the community that had always surrounded it, survived. It includes, among others, the former students of the school. The community has a beit-midrash and a kollel, holding classes for men and women in the afternoons and evenings. There are approximately 25 to 30 students in all. Virtually all of them are enrolled in universities or employed and study Torah in their leisure time. The rabbis of the community who teach at the kollel are R. Elazar Nezdatny and R. Meir Fomichev.
The largest and most successful Jewish community in Russia outside Moscow, Saratov has a wide range of educational activities and is spiritually centered around a kollel opened in 2005 by the chief rabbi of Saratov R. Mikhoel Frumin. Rabbi Shimon Levin is the head of the kollel. Several families from Israel are learning Torah in the kollel and teaching in the numerous educational programs. There is a yeshiva with up to 30 young students (most of them university students as well), and a girls’ seminary where about the same number of girls (also mostly students) attend Torah classes. Also, there are educational programs for youth and students not engaged at the yeshiva full-time, programs for young families, schoolchildren, senior, and intelligentsia. There is a Relevant Judaism course on keeping the Jewish laws in the conditions of modern Russia. The warm atmosphere of the classes makes them very popular, with at least 500 participants of all ages currently involved.
The chief rabbi of Ukraine R. Yaakov Dov Bleich initiated a large educational complex called Orach Chayim (Way of Life) in the Ukrainian capital in the 1990s. It includes a kindergarten, male and female boarding schools teaching elementary Judaism, a yeshiva, a kollel, and religious courses for women. Most of the yeshiva students are graduates of the boarding school.
There are 20 to 30 young men from different Ukrainian cities studying there under teachers from the USA and Israel. Many students of the Orach Chayim yeshiva have gone on to study in Israel, the U.S., the UK, Canada, or even the Moscow Torat Chayim yeshiva. Torah classes are offered for men and women of different ages.
The Midrasha Tzionit is a learning center established in Kiev by the Jewish Agency as part of the Jewish Identity project in 2002. The center is based in the Beit Yaakov Synagogue and features afternoon and evening courses on key aspects of Jewish history, tradition, and ideology, including Hebrew and Tanakh classes. The classes are taught by Israeli teachers who represent the Religious Zionist movement. The courses, seminars, and video conferences offered are customized for people of different ages and Jewish traditional knowledge levels.
The Or Sameach (Happy Light) educational complex has been operating under Odessa’s chief rabbi R. Shlomo Baksht since 1994. It includes male and female comprehensive Jewish gymnasiums which teach Jewish tradition, a Jewish university which offers a full-fledged higher education, a yeshiva, a kollel, and a women’s religious seminary whose students may combine Torah studies with a secular education at the university, which gives them the opportunity to find gainful employment. Several teaching families from Israel reside permanently in Odessa. Many Torah classes and lectures are offered to the widest range of Jewish citizens, making Odessa one of the leading cities in the CIS in Jewish involvement in community life.
As we can see, it is possible for religious Jewish education to exist and develop successfully in the FSU. Yeshivas (especially Torat Chayim) are functioning properly with a stable number of students. The need for such educational facilities in Russia and neighboring states currently seems to be satisfied. Nevertheless, as the Jewish religious identity grows, the numbers of yeshiva and kollel students may increase as well. At the same time, more and more people choose to study Judaism in religious educational programs of the “open beit-midrash” kind, in order to combine Torah studies and religious lifestyle with a secular education and employment in business, industry, or science. Traditionally, Jews in Russia and neighboring countries have been among the most educated citizens. Therefore, there is a need for teachers who combine religiosity and thorough knowledge of Judaism with extreme intelligence and a high cultural level, and will be able to build an effective and interesting dialogue with the students, position Judaism as a relevant and highly intellectual teaching, and destroy the stereotype sometimes enforced by secular Jewish organizations of religious Jews as “fanatics and obscurants.” Combined yeshiva and university studies may cause certain difficulties to do with learning or taking exams on Shabbat or Jewish holidays. Despite the Constitution of the Russian Federation proclaiming religious freedom for every citizen, observant Jewish students often face a lack of understanding on the part of university offices. This is hardly caused by anti-Semitism, rather by a lack of education on the sanctity of Shabbat and the holidays un-matched by any other religion, which is caused by the fact that there are very few precedents among the Jews themselves. As is well-known, in Tsarist Rus-sia, despite a state-enforced discrimination of Jews, Jewish students of gymnasiums, secondary and commercial schools, and universities, were relieved from attendance during Shabbat and Jewish holidays, because at the time it was common knowledge that these were an inseparable part of Jewish life which commanded respect. Today there is no more discrimination, and the Jews must merely take matters into their own hands for their legal rights to be restored. Hopefully, as the number of observing students grows, this issue will become easier to resolve. Rabbis and influential Jewish community lead-ers should show initiative by carrying out explanatory work at the top level. This may help many young Jews to realize that Jewish religious lifestyle is not incompatible with an education and a career.
Another issue the Jewish religious educational structures face is a lack of communication with the wider Jewish society. For example, very few have quality Internet resources which could bridge the gap between them and the many Jews who are yet to embrace the spiritual heritage of their nation. Insufficient financing poses a natural problem, especially evident in recent years as the global recession continues. Many wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs in Russia are now prepared to extend support to Jewish communities. However, oftentimes people who are willing to donate the means to renovate a synagogue, write a Torah scroll, or support various charities, are unable to comprehend what use may come from people who spend their day deciphering Talmud texts. They do not understand the importance of forming a religious intellectual elite, which is a definitive prerequisite for the existence of communities and the Jewish nation in general. Our sages have said: Talmud Torah k’neged kulam – the commandment of Torah study is as important as all the other commandments combined, because it is impossible to observe the commandments fully without knowing their original sources: the Written and Oral Torah. It has been a tradition to extend material support to Torah scholars for thousands of years, and we must find effective ways to motivate sponsors to finance facilities and programs for religious education.