When Yury Ronzhes arrived in the United States from his home in Krivoy Rog, Ukraine, he was proud of his Jewish heritage, but he knew nothing about the history, traditions or customs of his own religion.
Since meeting Rabbi Velvel Belinsky - a Russian-speaking spiritual leader who specializes in helping Russian Jews learn more about Judaism - Ronzhes has taken Jewish-related classes and is happy to be attending Yom Kippur services with his wife and mother-in-law.
Millions of Jews around the world will usher in Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement - with Kol Nidre services at sundown today, starting 25 hours of fasting, prayer and repentance.
Attending services on High Holy Day might seem ordinary to American Jews, but not to Ronzhes and thousands like him who came here from the former Soviet Union.
"Rabbi Belinsky helped us to figure out who I am, who we are," said Ronzhes, 55, a research engineer at the Johns Hopkins University. "He talked with us about our roots."
At a special Yom Kippur service tomorrow evening at the Pikesville Hilton, Belinsky is expecting to do the same for more than 500 of Baltimore's Russian Jews, many of whom - without Belinsky - might not observe the holiday at all.
"Russian Jews have a very strong Jewish identity just because they were suffering for so many years," he said. "But they know nothing about being Jewish."
For the past year and a half, Belinsky has traveled to Baltimore from his home in New York on many weekends, working with the Chabad-Lubavitch Movement to help bridge that gap by educating some of the 20,000-plus Russian Jews said to be in the region.
Moving to help
Six weeks ago, Belinsky, his wife and three daughters, moved to Reisterstown - so they could do even more.
"I always wanted to work with people," he said. "And here, I got in touch with this community, and I saw how much work that could be done here."
Many synagogues in the area reach out to the region's Russian Jews, but the cultural gap is so great, Belinsky said, that it's difficult for some immigrants to feel comfortable.
"Synagogues here were trying their best for Russian Jewish newcomers. They did a pretty good job," he said. "But besides Russian society being totally different than American society, their approach to religion and Jewishness was very much colored by their Russian culture."
In the Soviet Union, Belinsky said, Jews often were ostracized or even persecuted. Years of anti-Semitism led to a muting of the rich cultures and traditions many Western Jews relish.
One immigrant once relied on Belinsky to tell her how to behave at a bar mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony marking a boy's 13th birthday at which he is called to read from the Torah for the first time. And there are some holidays that many Russian Jews aren't aware of, he said.
"It's crucially important to introduce Jewish culture, Jewish tradition to these people," he said. "I'm just afraid, otherwise, they're going to be drifting further and further away."
Belinsky, who was born in Leningrad and raised there until he was 15, said he has been preparing to do this kind of outreach for many years.
Working with the Chabad-Lubavitch Movement, he has now started a center called ARIEL - American Russian Institute for Enrichment of Life - which will offer a full spectrum of services to the Jewish community.
ARIEL has opened a Hebrew school, of which Belinsky's wife, Sara Ruchel, is director. The school already has 30 students - all Russian Jews.
"I see how the parents love it and the interest they have," she said. "They're very happy with what the kids are doing."
The center also runs a Jewish Educational Network for adults, holiday celebrations and other programs - mainly out of the basement of the Belinsky home. ARIEL also uses facilities of Chabad centers in Pikesville, Owings Mills and Columbia.
Eventually, Belinsky hopes to rent space in a public school or community center to accommodate the ever-growing needs of the Russian Jewish community.
Fulfilling a need
"People coming here are highly educated people," Belinsky said. "These people understand things. They are looking for the 'whys.' They want to know the Jewish way of doing things.
"They want their kids to grow up more Jewish-ly than they did, but they don't know how. That's why we're here."
Rabbi Belinsky will hold Yom Kippur services in Hebrew and Russian at the Pikesville Hilton, 1726 Reisterstown Road, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. tomorrow.