First Jewish Youth Center Opened in Russia’s Far East

by Mussi Sharfstein

250 members of the Jewish community of Birobidzhan, Russia, celebrated the opening this month of Chabad’s 25 million ruble ($400,000), 6,500 square feet Jewish youth center. The region is more than 5,000 km (approx. 3,000 mi) in distance from Russia’s capital and shares land borders with Mongolia and Japan, among other countries. The vastly different geographical and cultural landscape also services its own unique historic Jewish communities, many of which are over 100 years old.

“This is the first such center in Russia,” said the country’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar who flew in for the event from Moscow, “but by no means will it be the last.”

The center will host young adults aged seventeen to twenty-seven as a place to learn about their Jewish heritage in formal and informal settings. The 6,500 square foot space houses classrooms, event halls and a library and will host gatherings and club meetings for Yahad and EnerJew, two Jewish youth movements in the Former Soviet Union. “It’s a place that will attract young Jews to come learn and experience at any time,” says Rabbi Eliyahu Riss, who directs the Birobidzhan Chabad center with his wife Anna.

The center is also home to the city’s first kosher restaurant, Café Simcha. A food tasting afforded the participants the opportunity to try the foods on the restaurant’s menu.

“There’s a whole new generation of young Jews that we must reach out to, to prevent assimilation,” says Riss. “They need to have a proper opportunity to experience Judaism and our programs directed at that demographic really outgrew the synagogue space we used previously.”

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