Rostov Jewish Community Rebuilds With Focus on Youth

The Jewish community of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, celebrated the arrival of new Torah scroll donated by Hong Kong businessman Isaac Kamhin last year; courtesy

by Tamar Runyan

In the city where almost 70 years ago, Nazi forces committed the biggest single atrocity associated with the Holocaust in Russia, the local Jewish community is building programming models aimed at uniting Jewish youth across the country.

Rostov-on-Don, near Russia’s southern border with Ukraine, is home to an estimated 10,000 Jews, a far cry from the 27,000 who were murdered during a single massacre in World War II. But while the story of its community mirrors those of other locations whose Jewish populations were decimated by the Nazis, perhaps unique to Rostov is the level of communal involvement of Jewish teenagers and young professionals.

It’s the same youthful energy that attracted Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Chaim and Kaila Danzinger to move from their home in California three years ago to head up communal initiatives.

“We saw a nice group of young people who came to synagogue,” said Kaila Danzinger. “We were very excited. That inspired us to come here.”

Now the couple offers an abundance of classes to a solid group of regulars.

David Faynberg, 22, is one such regular. After high school, the Rostov native attended the Lauder School for Business in Vienna and stayed an extra year to work in Austria after he graduated. But when he came back a year ago, he was surprised to find that a very close friend had intermarried.

“Many good people come to synagogue, but slowly, slowly, some are beginning to assimilate,” he said “I’m worried that in months, years, we won’t have any chuppah at all.”

So Faynberg is on a mission to keep Judaism alive in Russia. With the backing of the Danzingers, he launched a project to enable Jewish youth all over Russia to connect and learn more about their heritage and traditions.

“We are preparing the program here in Rostov,” said Faynberg. “If it is good, we’ll apply it to other locations.”

While he acknowledged that there are many other Jewish youth programs all over Russia, he said that instead of providing a social atmosphere, he’s looking to focus on core Jewish principles as a way to unite Jewish youth. He’s meeting with other people involved in the project in Moscow this week.

“We’re going to make a very big website with separate forums for youth and the rabbis,” he said, adding that the project will use a variety of social networking tools as well. “Everything is possible.”

Aside from organizing its youth, the Jewish community of Rostov continues to rise from the ashes in other ways. Its central synagogue, which was built with donations from Jewish Cantonist soldiers in 1872 and is the sole synagogue to survive the Holocaust and the years of Soviet oppressions, was refurbished seven years ago and now draws in excess of 100 people to its Sabbath services.

“It is very impressive,” said Chaim Danzinger, who serves as Rostov’s chief rabbi.

The rabbi noted that the city recently gave the community a plot of land adjacent to the synagogue on which to build.

“We’re hoping to build a community center now,” he said.

The city also boasts a Jewish social welfare organization called Chesed Sholom Ber devoted to helping those people most in need. Named for the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneerson, who spent the final years of his life in the city, the organization’s 300 volunteers visit the elderly and needy, providing them with daily hot meals, clothing and laundry services.

Meanwhile, the local Ohr Avner Chabad elementary school enrolls about 100 students who come from all over the city.

For Chana Stolin, who directs the Judaic curriculum at the school, one of her biggest goals is to instill a love of Judaism in the children and encourage them to want to grow up and have a Jewish home.

“We really try to have all the families over for the Sabbath at least once a year,” said Stolin, whose husband, Rabbi Shmuel Stolin, also gives classes to community members.

The school’s pupils are now working on a big project about the atrocity that took place in August 1942 when German soldiers forced about 27,000 Jews to an area known as Zmiyevskaya Balka at the edge of the city and slaughtered them. Many of those killed remain nameless in history.

“There is an urgent need to gather names, stories, and historical information while we still have an opportunity to hear about it from survivors of the war and the relatives of those killed at Zmiyevskaya Balka,” stated Chaim Danzinger.

To that end, Moscow businessman and Rostov native Yuri Dombrovsky is working on identifying those murdered as part of the Remembering Rostov project. So far, the 62-year-old’s list has 2,463 names. He’s asked city authorities to add them to a plaque at the site.

Stated Dombrovsky: “I feel this is probably one of the most important things in my life.”

courtesy News