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May 14, 2004 - Image 51

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-05-14

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ASP"Vh tty


million Jews in the former Soviet Union <,
1 million in Russia alone
Jewish Federations of the CIS and Baltic States serves more than
400 communities and has opened-facilities to care for 1,500 children.

Opposite page:
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz with
Ilyusha, 7, from Chechnya.

determination to meet a visiting rabbi
named Mendel Futerfas, who reportedly
spent 14 years in a Soviet prison for sup-
porting Jewish education in the former
This page, top left:
Soviet Union.
Levi ;Lazar, 5, son of Rabbi
"When he was a kid, Rabbi Futerfas
Berel Lazar works on his piece
came to our synagogue, Mishkan Israel,
of matzah.
and spoke to the students about how he
had survived Stalinist Russia," she said.
Below: Daniel Belyak, co-super- "He told the students how they had secret
visor of Moscow's Jewish
synagogues, and Avraham hung onto his
orphanage, with Yakov, 9, from every word."
Caucuses; Levi, 11, from
By age14, Rabbi Berkowitz was ready to
Rechisa, Belarus; Artyom, 10,
test the limits of his convictions. Detroit
from Gomel, Belarus; Sator, 9,
had plenty of need for conscientious vol-
refugee from Tajikistan.
unteers, but it also maintained a mature
Jewish philanthropic community.
"It's a nice suburban life," he said of
Detroit. "It's also one of the most charita-
ble communities in America."
Other U.S. cities offered challenges of
starting something new to benefit Jews
with fewer immediate resources.
In 1990, he left for Seattle to study at a
school affiliated with the Lubavitcher
movement in Portland. Armed with the
loquacious demeanor of a Midwesterner who could
strike up a conversation with a stranger in an elevator,
he began to organize study sessions for Jews living near
the city's limits.
"If I stayed in the East Coast, nobody would need a
14-year old boy to lead a service and read from the
Torah. I knew that I was making a difference," he said.
Two years later, he transferred to the Lubavitcher
headquarters in New York to be closer to Rabbi
Schneerson, who had become his main source of inspi-
ration to become a Jewish community leader. In
return, the Rebbe fueled his confidence by responding
to letters and offering support in person.
Their correspondence continued during the follow-
ing year Rabbi Berkowitz spent abroad studying in
Manchester, England, and after his return, in
Morristown, N.J.
During the summer of 1995, Rabbi Berkowitz and a
fellow yeshivah student named Shneur Paris traveled
across Alaska on a mission to visit Jews in the remote
wilderness. Their exploits were picked up by a string of
local newspapers, ranging from the Ketchikan Daily
News. to the Juneau Empire, which ran a story with the
cheeky headline "Visiting Rabbis Minister to Alaska's
the late 1980s.
Frozen Chosen."
Yosef Begun, political activist and author who
One spectacular leg of the trip to meet a lone Jew led
endured a 16-year internment in the Soviet gulag as
to a minyan on a glacier with a ranger who had lost his
punishment for involvement with Jewish underground
father a few months earlier and had not yet said
activities, awakened Rabbi Berkowitz at the age of 11
Kaddish for him.
to the heroism of Jews who faced down anti-Semitic
"It was an experience that helped shape my passion
governments. Today, the two men are friends and occa- for reconnecting Jews in isolated places," Rabbi
sionally collaborate on humanitarian projects.
Berkowitz said, while reminiscing over old photos in
"There was always some mystical connection I felt
his Moscow office.
towards Soviet Jews," Rabbi Berkowitz said. "I was
By the time the Argentine real estate magnate
always fascinated by Yosef Begun."
Eduardo Elsztain recruited Rabbi Berkowitz from a
Leah Berkowitz also remembers her young son's
BEIT on page 52


tively from Philadelphia and Detroit, became observant
later in life and settled in Oak Park. They now live in
Southfield. Rabbi Dov Berkowitz, who was ordained in
Israel and later taught elementary students at
Southfield-based Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, took his young
son to view closed-circuit broadcasts of the Lubavitcher
spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, at
Congregation Mishkan Israel on Nine Mile Road.
Rabbi Berkowitz's life was also molded by a handful
of Jewish Russian dissidents who visited metropolitan
Detroit during the era of former Soviet President
Mikhail Gorbachev's "Perestroika," or political thaw, in





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