In the Spring, 1993, I attended a conference where I heard a friend of mine describe an amazing event he participated in St. Petersburg, Russia. A former rabbi of a Messianic Jewish congregation in New York, Jonathan Bernis, had organized a musical outreach to the Jews of St. Petersburg. This was just two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Thousands of Jewish people came to faith in Yeshua the Messiah over a three day period. As I heard my friend speak of this, the Lord spoke to me that our congregation in Richmond would be involved with Russian Jews. The problem, however, was that I didn’t know any Russian Jews.
The following Shabbat I told our congregation what I felt the Lord spoke to me. Several months went by before one day meeting a Russian locksmith. I asked him about the Russian community. He explained about it, which was still fairly new to our city. In February, 1994, we organized a Sunday bagel brunch at a local hotel, inviting the Russian community. Just a few days prior to the event an arsonist set fire to our synagogue, causing significant damage. As a result, we couldn’t do much advertising, so we weren’t sure what to expect. We planned for lox and bagels, fruit and vegetable platters and the like. We invited the Judah Dancers, our congregation’s dance troupe to perform. We prepared a few remarks. We weren’t sure if anyone would show up.
As the hour of the bagel brunch arrived, Russians started pouring into the room, probably 25-30, far more than we imagined. We got to meet them. We introduced ourselves and said we wanted to assist their community. We hastily organized a Bible study discussion for the following week. While most of the Russians were highly educated, few knew much about Judaism, the Messiah or religion in general due to being under the atheistic Soviet system. Some of them from that first meeting remain friends to this day, 20 years later, and one of them served as our Russian attorney for many years.
After a few meetings we realized that many of the Russians had never participated in a Passover Seder. The problem was the fire in our synagogue was set and did the most damage in our fellowship area, where we would hold annual community Seders. We asked the contractors to repair that area first since the Seder would be held only two months after the fire. The contractors didn’t fully complete the room until the day of the Seder itself! We could hold up to 250 people for Passover. This time we had a whole section devoted to the Russian community. At least 30 attended. We used a Russian translator, which made the Seder especially long. Yet, it was an amazing event, as many of these Russian Jews participated in their first Seder, and a Messianic one at that.
Over the following months we organized ourselves into a separate organization called Russian Immigration Services. Our goal was to provide a whole array of social and legal services to the Russian community. We sought for and received grant funding from two very generous foundations, God’s Grace International and the Parker Foundation. From there we began to build. We opened a food bank, clothing and furniture warehouse, a Russian library (the largest in Central Virginia), Russian TV, English language classes, computer classes, job placement service, translation service, legal service, citizenship classes. We established a Russian cultural center where various musical performances were held. We were able to hire some of the Russians to fill the positions. It was amazing.
Our still fairly young congregation (Stacy, the family and I had only arrived in Richmond four years earlier) enthusiastically supported the work, and many of our members mentored the new Russian immigrants. We eventually started three separate weekly services for the Russian community where the Bible was taught, and Yeshua was presented as the Messiah. About 10% of the community attended the services.
Our outreach to the Russian community caused significant opposition within the mainstream Jewish community. But the event that won the hearts of the Russians was Victory Day, 1995. Victory Day was the most celebrated holiday in the Soviet Union and marked the victory over the Nazis in World War II where up to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed. It was annually held on May 9, and 1995 was the 50th anniversary of the Soviet victory over the Nazis. Some of the Russians had asked the Jewish Community Center to hold a special ceremony, but they refused. So, one of the Russians close to us asked if we could hold an event. Honestly, I didn’t know anything about it, but I said sure. I did some quick research and found out about how significant this day was, and now it was to be the 50th anniversary.
We decided to replicate what most of the Russians experienced in their homeland. Primarily, the day was to honor Russian World War II veterans. First, we prepared special wedding like invitations sent to all the Russian homes. Then, we discovered the Jewish Community decided to hold its own celebration, mainly in response to what we were trying to do. We didn’t want to compete with them and cause a split in the Russian community. I called a local rabbi, who had become friendly with me and our work. We met, and I asked for advice. I explained we didn’t intend to create an uproar, and maybe there was a way to work together with the larger Jewish community. He said the mainstream community would never work with us on this, and then he spoke almost prophetically when he said, “you need to do your own, only bigger and better.” That became the theme.
We changed the day in order to avoid the conflict with the mainstream community celebration. We had special uniform medals made with a small American flag, declaring in English and Russian, the 50th anniversary of Russian Victory Day. We invited some of our congregation’s military members to dress up in their military studs to be able to pin the medals on the Russian veterans and give them gifts. We invited in a bugle player to play taps in honor of the moment of silence for all the fallen. We helped to organize a Russian band that could play music from the War period. We prepared a couple of short speeches and had a few of the Russians share some reflections.
Then, afterwards we had everyone move downstairs for refreshments, dancing and partying led by the Russian band. It was an amazing and life changing event. 300-350 Russians attended. Of those there were 35-40 Russian veterans, all arrayed in their medals from the War. Interestingly, in subsequent Russian Victory celebrations, many of the veterans wore the medal we gave them at the 50th anniversary. We heard from many that it was one of the most moving and special celebrations of their lives. I would say that of all the things we did at Tikvat Israel over the 22 years I was rabbi, this was the most significant.
After that the Russian community considered us close friends, and many came to our defense when our congregation was criticized and condemned by Jewish communal leaders. In later years the Jewish community began referring Russians to us for help. By the early 2000’s the immigration of Russians into the US waned. The Russian community assimilated more into the American mainstream and didn’t need our services as much. Finally, in 2008, we formally closed Russian Immigration Services. I have always been a firm believer in hearing and responding to the voice of the Lord. I can say without a doubt that God called Russian Immigration Services into being. Many people assisted this work from within and from without our congregation. I thank God that He allowed me to participate and witness this great event. I believe it helped to change our city.