Rabbi Juggles Community, Work, Family, and Fun
At 27, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz is having a ball in every court.
By Eric Baum
Itís an overcast Sunday afternoon when nearly two dozen expatriate weekend athletes steam onto a tree-lined field of weeds and dirt to warm up for the first softball game of the season. In typical softball-in-Russia fashion, the game is held up: a woman angrily orders the Westerners to stop playing catch near a temporary oval-shaped dog track while the dogs get their race over with.
But the game does begin, and soon after the opening pitch a bearded man wearing a polo-style shirt and blue cap enthusiastically jogs out to cover left field. This is a side of Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, 27, who is the hub of Moscowís fast-growing Jewish community and executive director of Eastern Europeís largest Jewish Federation, that few expatriates have the opportunity to witness. As a key representative of the former Soviet Unionís Jewish communities, Berkowitzís schedule is typically packed with back-to-back business meetings and diplomatic events rather than sports events. Today, though, he gets on base twice and scores one run against the opposing Canadian team.
The game is a chance for Berkowitz to shed his customary black and white attire - the fashion signature of an orthodox rabbi - and connect with members of Moscowís expatriate community on a personal level. The young rabbi has set a course to become a successful philanthropic executive, making himself available one-on-one for the fast-growing expatriate community in Moscow - a practice that also keeps him apprised of changing social demands in Russia and abroad. "Iím not very different than someone at a large corporation who has a lot of responsibilities," the rabbi said. "Working on a local and international level is invigorating, and when youíre part of a community it all blends together."
That community includes a diverse confederation of Jews and expatriates of different religious persuasions who long for a sense of home in a foreign place -- particularly in Moscow, where even simple things, like an afternoon of softball, become sublime.
Some members of this group find a common denominator in supporting his goal of helping more than 400 Jewish communities scattered throughout the former Soviet Union dig out from more than 70 years of authoritarian Communist governments. It is a fascinating process that involves rekindling Jewish traditions in remote areas like Khadarozsk, a Russian city near Japan with 20,000 Jews who are looking forward to the opening of a $2 million community center and synagogue in September.
In Moscow, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS and Baltic States maintains a lesser-known orphanage inhabited by 40 Jewish children between the ages of three and 14. The orphanage, known as Beit Yeladim, or House of Children, provides children from broken or abusive Jewish families with care and an opportunity to reclaim their faithís traditions. The Federation, Berkowitzís employer, aims to open 10 more Jewish orphanages - in addition to the nine existing orphanages - to accommodate 500 children. Only 10 years ago this goal would have been impossible under the watch of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Since moving to Moscow in 2000, Berkowitz has adopted a system to allow him to cater to the Russian expatriate community, fulfill his duties as the Federationís executive director, and be a parent: Weekday evenings between 6-8 p.m. are spent with his wife, Leah, and their three children. The Sabbath, from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown, is reserved for family and friends, who gather at his home or another expatriateís apartment.
But the community mainly comes together through Jewish holidays and a Sunday school for expatriate families near Pokrovsky Hills, an expatriate residential center. Each of these hearts in Moscowís Jewish community brings together a wide swath of individuals from a multitude of countries -- including England, South Africa, and France -- into settings that are described as welcoming and cohesive. "The fact that weíre united as a common religious community is very heartwarming because we always find a way to celebrate the holidays together," Berkowitz said. "It gives you a unique perspective on being a Jew and part of a unique community."
Jo-Anne and Ari Mervis became more involved with other Jewish families after enrolling their two daughters as founding members of the Federationís Sunday school, which now has 40 students between the ages of three and eight. Ms. Mervis, who keeps a kosher kitchen at home, said the school has helped provide a social base since the family relocated to Moscow two years ago. "If it wasnít for [Rabbi] Avraham Berkowitz and the community we would have found it a lot harder," she said. "We donít have our family here but we have the community and thatís a good feeling."
Holiday services celebrated at the Marian Roscha Center, which offers free Hebrew courses, concerts and gym memberships to all Moscow residents, are the other epicenters of the Jewish expatriate community. Berkowitz is credited with orchestrating services that reach out to expatriates by incorporating traditions from around the world into services held in Moscow. For example, last year Berkowitz and a colleague translated an entire Yom Kippur service into English from Hebrew, as a means of engaging mainstream Jews who feel lost in orthodox services.
Beth Knobel, who is CBS Newsí Moscow bureau chief, notes that the expatriate services are carefully engineered to uphold Jewish traditions and bring Jews from diverse backgrounds together in a welcoming forum. "Avrahamís events are about sharing an experience instead of being Orthodox," she said. "It doesnít matter where youíre from or what kind of Jewish traditions you follow, he always makes it homey and inclusive."
Berkowitz also aims to have the Jewish Federation open up to expatriate volunteers who want to participate in charitable work. Most of the federationís local community outreach services, such as food delivery to inbound seniors and soup kitchens, are staffed by Russian employees, but Olga Goldman, director of the federationís central office in Moscow, said she expects to introduce an English-speaking volunteer center by the fall. "We want to involve expats in charity projects in Moscow," she said. "We would like to get them involved because many have expressed their wishes to help."
Berkowitz draws a parallel between his objectives as the Federationís director and separate efforts aimed at creating an expatriate community that is willing to involve itself in the affairs of Russiaís needy. In a speech last month at the Conference of European Jewry in Budapest, the rabbi said he underscored the need to incorporate a wide variety of individuals - in addition to clergy and politicians - into the daunting task of rebuilding the former Soviet Unionís newly awakened Jewish communities. Even music teachers, he said, are needed to volunteer their time to help in the process. "Itís not only about the role of a rabbi," he said. "Everyone has to be an active participant. You have to pull resources together on every single level."