Birobidzhan - New Rabbi, New Synagogue

In 1995, I found myself wondering whether the Jewish community in Birobidzhan could survive. Most Jews here seemed to be clamoring to leave. Unemployment was rampant and those who had jobs often weren't paid on time, if at all. For economic, personal or religious reasons, as many as 10,000 Jews had left the city in the previous six years, with most heading for Israel. A few holdouts insisted they'd never leave Birobidzhan, but it seemed like attrition would surely win out in the end.

So when I heard a few weeks ago that a new synagogue had been built here, I could hardly believe it. And after seeing it today, I'm even more astonished. Not only is there a beautiful new synagogue, there is a complex housing Sunday School classrooms, a library, a small museum and administrative offices. The buildings were officially opened a year ago, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Autonomous Region.

Birobidzhan's new synagogue opened in 2004, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Autonomous Region. (David Hillegas)

The administrative offices are spacious and comfortable. The library is small but comprehensive, with hundreds of publications relating to Jewish life in the region. The synagogue has a beautiful old Torah, comfortable vinyl-covered chairs and specially-designed ceiling lights that form a Star of David. And the Sunday school has a computer classroom outfitted with 10 brand-new computers -- with flat-screen monitors.

There is also, at long last, an official rabbi, an energetic young Israeli named Mordechai Sheiner who came here in 2002. He'd never been to Birobidzhan before, but spoke Russian thanks to two years he spent in Ukraine, working at another synagogue. Numerous people in town have raved about him, telling us he's the best thing to happen to Birobidzhan's Jewish community in a very long while.

Rabbi Mordechai Sheiner came to Birobidzhan from Israel in 2002. He's the city's first official rabbi in decades. (David Hillegas)

With so many of the region's Jewish residents having left, how did this seeming resurgence come about? Where did the money come from for the new buildings? And is this a cosmetic change, or does it signal a real turnaround in the fortunes of the Jewish Autonomous Region?

At least one of those questions has an easy answer. The money for the new synagogue complex came from several sources, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia and local private donors. With funding assured for now, the synagogue and its associated activities will continue.

But whether this truly signals a turnaround or not is a question that remains to be answered. We're still digging for information and we will report back more fully in a Road Story by the end of the week. In the meantime, tomorrow I'll give an update on what's happened to the people I met back in 1995, including Alexander Yakubson, Maria Shokhtova and Yakov Sherman.

By Lisa Dickey |  September 13, 2005; 6:04 AM ET
Previous: Birobidzhan - Back to the Synagogue | Next: Birobidzhan: Tracking Down Faces From 1995


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Most interesting! We look forward to hearing more about the people you met in 1995. The photo of the rabbi was very good.

Posted by: SJ | September 13, 2005 09:56 PM

I've been interested in reading your dispatches because we're leaving Tuesday for 2 weeks in Moscow, doing "rehab" on an orphanage with a Volunteers in Mission team from Western Pennsylvania & West Virginia.
You haven't mentioned much about David's background. A number of years ago I had a student named David Hillegas at Southmoreland Junior High in Pennsylvania. I can't tell from the ADULT picture if it might be the same "David Hillegas."

Posted by: Wesley Boots | September 14, 2005 10:29 PM

There's a short bio for David linked from the left-hand sidebar of this page. If you need more info, email us at

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | September 15, 2005 04:47 AM

What a wonderful blog..
It is important to point out that Rabbi Scheiner was sent and is supported by Chabad Lubavitch and the Rohr family foundation.
Chabad is a wonderful Jewish Organization that has literally revived hundreds of Jewish communities around the world.

Chabad Rabbis work hand in hand with the Federation of Jewish communites of Russia of which the freud Jewish community of birobijan is a member.

Posted by: Abraham | September 27, 2005 02:22 PM

It's important to remember that Chabad is a cult. It is the perfect place for lost souls who are afraid of thinking and finding their own path in life. It is also imperative to remember that Chabad is a misogynistic, patriarchial view of what Judiasm is about. They will manipulate language and backpedal in every means possible to convince the questioner that women simply have "their own" place in society, but its a ruse. In the end, it is an excuse for not allowing women their full and equal place in Judaism. What a tragedy that this is the only version of being Jewish that the Jews of Birobidjan and Russia in general are being introduced to. What an even greater tragedy that Reconstructionist, Reform or Conservative Jews can't get their act 2gether to spread an egalitarian version of religion the way the Born Again Jews can.
Just remember: The Moral Majority is Neither!

Posted by: SEW | October 13, 2005 01:44 AM

"SEW", knowing G-D is really about knowing yourself and being honest. It is like a 12 step program, admitting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery. While I agree that Chabad doesn't nearly represent the entirety of the treasure house full of Jewish religious, cultural and traditional inheritance, however it is the only Jewish community willing to personally bear the many burdens associated with bringing other Jews all over the world closer to the G-D of Torah. With that in mind, someone has got to tell you: "SEW", G-D is not your bi*ch, stop using him for your egotistic agendas. The tragic REALITY of pejoratively speaking open-minded Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative cult communities is that they lack equality, quality, integrity and fortitude. Unabashedly with much focus on serving the desire for money and prestige, the focus on serving the will of G-D gets lost - just where you want it [how true!]. Those diluted versions of Judaism are ensnaring traps for same lost souls who are afraid of thinking and finding their own path in life. It is easier to find justification for anything under the sun, just as long as you FEEL it's OK with you. While there are plenty among the Orthodox who fail to achieve the status of a "SAINT", they don't lack the valor to keep on trying. Intellectual fight and agony over complex moral issues brings a person closer to understanding the truth. That fight must be with ONESELF, not with G-D so that you continue to justify your laziness. Fighting religion is part of the self absorbed, shallow, instant gratification driven culture of the modern world. War against G-D is what Reconstructionist, Reform or Conservative Jews have to offer, not religion itself. Stop the exercise in self gratification or grow up and stop calling it religion. It is all about becoming mature and facing the reality.

Posted by: Mirror Image | March 2, 2006 02:25 AM

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