Giving Voice To Russian Jews
aving served for more than
40 years in an active con-
gregation rich in tradition
and programming, it was a
stark contrast to be in St. Petersburg,
Russia, and experience a new religious
fervor under the most primitive of cir-
Buds of religion are poking through the
Russian soil, allowed to blossom only since
1991. Jews are looking to pray with other
Jews and are doing so without the basic
tools of Jewish worship.
The congregation's small facility was
not large enough to house the expected
attendance for a "cantorial visitor," so
they rented a restaurant and trans-
formed it into a makeshift sanctuary. I
placed my Russian Hebrew prayer book
on top of a cardboard box covered with
a taut balanced on a cafe table. Behind
me, taped to the wall was the flag of
The event was covered by the local
newspapers. The vice mayor of St.
Petersburg attended and spoke at the
service. He related that he was a Russian
Orthodox and was thrilled to be at a
Jewish service where he could hear a
cantor in his natural environment. In
his youth, he remembered
talk about cantors singing
for the czar and entertaining
the Russian troops.
Natasha, the wife of Rabbi
Eliezer (Sasha) Lyskovoy,
accompanied me on an elec-
tronic keyboard far from the
we are used to in America.
Born in Kiev, Natasha is an
accomplished pianist and
In St. Petersburg, there are
approximately the same
number of Jews as in greater
Detroit — about 100,000,
though 98 percent of them
are secular and not religious-
After the service, three
challahs appeared from
behind the bimah. A large
spread of fruit, vegetables,
cheeses and cakes were
brought forth, together with
generous servings of
schnapps. In what I was told
was a Georgian tradition,
people stood in a large circle
Harold Orbach is the retired cantor of
Temple Israel in West Bloomfield
around the table making toasts, reciting
original poetry and singing ballads as
they ate and drank.
These Jews are vital poets, authors
and intellectuals, singing with fervor
about their hope for the future. At the
urging of the group, I led in the singing
of zn2irot (holiday songs). People joined
arm in arm, swaying to the music. They
did not want to stop and we sang late
into the night.
We watched as the taped Israeli flag
loosened and began to droop, as I real-
ized the fragility of Russian Jewry and
their need for support. Thirty-three new
progressive congregations have been
organized in Russia, with only two pro-
fessionally trained rabbis, with a third to
These congregations urgently need
financial support, books, music, etc.
Rabbi Gregory Kotlyar of Moscow told
me one of his dreams — to have a year-
ly seminar led by an American cantor to
train their cantorial soloists. I pledged to
do all in my power to see to it that his
dream becomes a reality.
As I concluded the evening with a
nigun (a prayer to God without words),
I realized that some doors to heaven
can only be opened by a melody.
Rabbi Lyskovoy and Cantor Orbach in
ter of defense and sees the pain
n Sept. 13, 1993,
of the families of the IDF
three men stood on
[Israel Defense Forces] soldiers.
a podium and
For them, for our children, in
promised to work
my case for our grandchildren,
I want this government to
Yitzhak Rabin, prime minis-
exhaust every opening, every
ter of Israel, Yasser Arafat, rep-
possibility, to promote and
resenting the Palestinians, and
achieve a comprehensive
U.S. President Bill Clinton
shook hands, made speeches
about peaceful co-existence in
two countries living side by
side. Finally, the world
Arafat also promised to work
watched as two adversaries in war took
toward a peaceful solution. Well, he did
a step toward peace.
when he spoke in English.
Over the next two years, plans were
On that lovely fall day in 1993, as he
made, meetings were held at the high-
signed the Declaration of Principles
est levels of politics and the three lead-
with Rabin and Clinton, he agreed to
ers continued the rhetoric of peace.
free, direct, political elections in the
Well, most of them did.
Palestinian areas. Arafat agreed to reign
Israel promised to help the
in terror and work toward peaceful co-
Palestinian people reach self-governance existence with a secure State of Israel
by trusting them, in stages, to keep
their communities safe and policed, to
Other promises were made by Arafat
reign in terrorists and begin to build a
on that day. First, Arafat was elected
president of the Palestinian Authority.
Israel withdrew security forces from
He had no opposition. His Fatah youth
Palestinian communities. Israel sup-
terrorist supporters ensured that Arafat
ported and helped Palestinian security
won whatever he ran for. No one dared
forces, within the framework of the
to suggest that someone other than
agreement, secure arms for their police
Arafat spoke for the Palestinian people.
to keep their communities safe for all
Then, over the next two years, more
who reside and travel in them.
than 10 terror events, more than 75
Israel entered into negotiations with
innocent men, women and children
Palestinian leaders regarding improve-
were murdered by terrorists who blew
ments in infrastructure. Israel expressed
themselves up on buses, in the street
the desire to help the Palestinian people and in public areas, sponsored by
build a safe, secure land to exist beside
Palestinian groups associated with
a safe, secure Israel.
Arafat promised, over and over again,
to work toward peace. In interview
after interview and in speeches to the
There were no illusions by Rabin that
Western media, Arafat intoned peaceful
these two lands would be friends. There rhetoric.
was no need for the two countries to be
At the 1993 Oslo signing on the
friends. The promises made were for
White House lawn, Arafat referred to
the two countries to exist side by side
establishing a "Palestinian Authority"
on any piece of land that Israel with-
On Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin was gunned drew from, a reference to the 1974
down, assassinated after a peace rally.
Palestinian National Committee (PNC)
Rabin had begun living up to his
endorsement of the "strategy of stages"
promises made two years earlier when
for the liberation of Palestine that
he shook hands with Arafat in the pres- called for slowly taking all the land
ence of Clinton.
between the "river and the sea."
Minutes before a bullet ended his
As we see when Arafat shows up in
life, Rabin remarked, "The path of
his uniform, his patch shows the entire
peace is preferable to the path of war. I
country of Israel under the name
say this to you as one who was a mili-
tary man, someone who is today minis-
When speaking to the Western
media, Arafat promises to work toward
peace. To his people, he promises some-
Neal Elyakin, a Washtenaw County
thing else. He says, "The rifle is aimed
educator, is vice president of the
and ready" to take on the Zionists if his
Michigan Jewish Conference and a
people are "prevented from praying in
founder of the Michigan Friends of the
He says to his people to
Israel Defense Forces.
fight with intifida (uprising), with