Former Detroiter brings Yiddishkeit to 'house
of children' in Moscow.
Special to the Jewish News
efore Vita, 5, began a new life in Moscow,
childhood was dangerous and sad. The girl
and her older brother, Natan, received night-
ly doses of vodka before bedtime from their
mother, a single parent who worked in the local sex
trade. The family often foraged for food in the woods
surrounding their dilapidated home.
Now Vita is recovering from years of neglect in a
newly opened facility staffed by attentive directors, doc-
tors and social workers who specialize in catering to
troubled youths. Natan is thriving with a new adoptive
family in Moscow.
Variations of Vita's early upbringing are tragically
common among the children who populate Russian
orphanages, but the facility where Vita lives exists to
care for Jewish children from broken families and, in
many cases, its staff introduces Judaism into their lives.
Moscow's Beit Yeladim (House for Children) is under
the umbrella of the Federation of Jewish Communities
of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)
and Baltic States, an organization formed by Chabad-
Lubavitch in 1998 to coordinate dozens of charitable
agencies, now serving more than 400 Jewish communi-
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, an energetic 27-year-old
native Detroiter who relocated from the United States
to Moscow only four years ago, heads this sprawling
He and his wife, Leah, have three children: Rachel,
4; Moyssia, 2; and Menachem Mendel, 4 months. An
active father, Rabbi Berkowitz enjoys spending time at
Beit Yeladim with the 45 or so children.
Being at Beit Yeladim is like being transported to a
yeshivah in Oak Park or Brooklyn. Children ages 3-14
speak openly of a camaraderie forged through Hebrew
studies, kosher diets and strict observance of Shabbat.
Young boys wearing yarmulkes and fringes streaming
from prayer shawls beneath their shirts traverse hall-
ways decorated with colorful Hebrew banners. Girls
dressed in modest floor-length skirts — and sometimes
fashionable Russian sweaters — break from their stud-
ies for walks along wide neighborhood streets lined
with faceless Soviet-era apartment buildings.
This trace of Jewish life growing between the cracks
of -shifting Russian attitudes toward independent reli-
gious expression is part of a larger effort aimed at reviv-
ing communities that went underground after the
Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Many of the children
here, participating in Jewish traditions for the first
time, symbolize the regeneration of a battered commu-
nity that is regaining the strength to care for its needi-
Eric Baum, formerly of Detroit, lives in Moscow.
Erin E. Arvedlund contributed to this article.
Similar facilities for
youths have since opened
in nine Ukrainian cities ---
including Zhitomir and
Kharkov — and
Approximately 10 more
youth homes are under
construction in other for-
mer Soviet republics, with
500 children in the federa-
tion's youth care system.
The enormous task of
revitalizing more than 400
throughout Russia and
Eastern Europe largely falls
to the federation, the
largest in Eastern Europe.
During a recent lunch
at a kosher restaurant in
Moscow's newly remod-
eled Marina Roscha Jewish
Community Center, Rabbi Berkowitz looked more the
part of an energetic father than a savvy nonprofit exec-
utive who rubs shoulders with the likes of United
Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Israeli Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon and Russian President Vladimir
But the rabbi is also an unmistakably shrewd politi-
cian with quick and decisive responses for difficult
Asked whether his age and lack of professional expe-
rience is a potential liability in dealings with govern-
ment leaders nearly twice his age, he simply notes that
"Martin Luther King Jr. was only 28 years old when he
changed race relations forever in America, and he was
only a year older than me."
In Eastern Europe, successful Jewish federations dou-
ble as executive headquarters for nonprofit organiza-
tions and social centers. Rabbi Berkowitz effortlessly
slides between the roles by leveraging the beguiling
charm of a young man who maintains a natural sense
of wonder and curiosity. His personal office, the small-
est at his insistence in a nearby administrative building,
barely holds two chairs, a small desk and a set of filing
The bulk of his days are spent in the back seat of a
white Volga sedan en route to meetings and personal
appointments. Telephone calls pour in from European
journalists inquiring about new outreach projects for
upcoming Jewish communities digging out from
decades of repression under Communist governments.
A friend in the local expatriate journalism community
affectionately calls him "the rabbi on speed."
There are also frequent stops at Moscow's diverse
Jewish service centers. In the span of an hour one after-
noon, Rabbi Berkowitz meets with volunteers handing
out boxes of matzah for Passover at a local community
center and looks in on a brit milah (ritual circumcision)
being performed on a 9-week-old boy at the city's
Jewish medical center. The surgery is complicated by
the boy's advanced age and relatives prepare a feast in
an adjacent waiting room, which smells of potatoes
The rabbi's youthful age, however, is more than com-
pensated for by enthusiasm and life experience. The
circuitous route that ultimately led Rabbi Berkowitz to
Russia includes lengthy stops in numerous American
cities, Latin America and Europe. From an early age,
he exhibited the unusually gregarious traits commonly
found in civil leaders and followed an urge soon after
his bar mitzvah to perform community services in
remote cities far from Detroit.
A few pivotal events and serendipitous moments dur-
ing his childhood fueled a desire to help Jews in remote
communities reconnect with their faith, and subse-
quently paved the way for his current destination.
His parents, Rabbi Dov and Leah Berkowitz, respec-