Last week, a quiet revolution took place in the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem. One hundred and twenty parents and children from the Former Soviet Union visited Israel for the first time to participate in a groundbreaking mission. The children, ages 12-14, were all prospective students of Lezion B’rina and its sister school Bat Zion, located in Beitar and Jerusalem, respectively. For nearly 20 years, the Lezion B’rina Institute has been a second home for hundreds of Russian Jewish students who have left their birth land to seek a better future in the Jewish homeland. Yaakov, age 18, came to Lezion B’rina from Moscow at 13. “I was all alone. I didn’t have a future,” he said. “Although it is common for people to be friendly and smile in America, no one smiles in Russia.” His father was not in the picture and his mother suffered from severe depression and struggled to make ends meet. The extent of his Jewish identity was that he knew that he and his mother were Jews, but had no idea what that meant. “Lezion B’rina gave me a future,” he said. “They taught me to think independently. All of my success in life today is because of this school. They gave me life and helped me with every step along the way.” Today Yaakov is getting a degree in business management at a most prestigious university, but more importantly, he feels that his life has now been infused with meaning and value as a member of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Josh Friedman (center) with Lezion B’rina alumni who are presently studying
in The Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev)
Lezion B’rina was founded in 1991 shortly after the fall of Communism, when thousands of Russian Jews were making aliyah to Israel each year, finally free of the walls of the Iron Curtain. Now, however, the numbers of Jews leaving the FSU have greatly diminished. The Jews that remain behind stand over a 90 percent chance of intermarriage and assimilation. In some ways, the problems that exist today are worse than during the Communist Regime. Today’s youth never knew the horrors their parents experienced. Instead, due to the luxuries now available for the first time in Eastern Europe, they are complacent and no longer even desire to reconnect with their roots. They are living with the sad legacy of Communism – utter spiritual ignorance. Although conditions are much better than under Soviet rule, the wealth is still in the hands of the few. The stores are stocked to the brim with the latest luxuries and products, but most people cannot afford to buy these items. Nonetheless, considering the stories they hear about Israel in the news, few Russian Jews can imagine making aliyah. Under Communism, they knew they were Jews, although they weren’t free to be Jewish. Today, they have all the freedom in the world, but they have all but forgotten that they are Jews. Lezion B’rina has been reaching out to Jewish youth in the FSU to help them find a better life in Israel and reconnect with their Jewish heritage. Last week’s mission flew to Israel to see with their own eyes that such a life is possible. Housed in a beautiful, state of the art campus, Lezion B’rina not only offers a high level technologically-based secular education, but also a solid foundation in Jewish values, history, and tradition to infuse students with true Jewish pride. In addition to their regular high school curriculum, as well as Jewish history and Torah studies, students also partake in a wide variety of extra-curricular classes such as computers, graphic design, music, martial arts, carpentry, and sports. The curriculum is designed to help students gain the tools to go on to any field they desire and most importantly, to go on to live lives of happiness, value, and leadership. “You can’t find a school like this where Russian Jews can feel at home while learning about themselves, their heritage and their history,” said dorm counselor Eliezer Gelfand, originally from Minsk. Lezion B’rina serves a double purpose of bringing youth to Israel who otherwise would have never considered making aliyah, but also helps to greatly ease the transition into mainstream Israeli society. Russian immigrants often live in secluded enclaves, regularly suffering from unemployment and poverty. Many are forced to take jobs far below their level of education and training. Teenagers can fall into bad crowds and sometimes end up in gang. “Making aliyah with the assistance of Lezion B’rina greatly eases their acclimation to the land of Israel and increases their chances of success,” said Rabbi Josh Friedman, a musmach of Yeshiva University and the school’s administrator. “At Lezion B’rina, they will succeed. No one falls out here.” The high majority of alumni end up making aliyah and go on to become highly successful contributors to Israeli society.
Rabbi Josh Friedman (center) with Lezion B’rina students in front of the yeshiva
Today hundreds of couples are raising Jewish families in Israel because of Lezion B’rina. Many are in top universities, or work in prestigious positions throughout Israel’s workforce. Countless others hold high-ranking positions in the IDF, working on building and defending the Jewish homeland. “It is so moving for me to see children from such disadvantaged backgrounds now living happy and successful lives in the State of Israel,” Rabbi Friedman said. Natan Sharansky is one of the biggest supporters of Lezion B’rina. His background as a Refusenik and his desire to come to Israel while in a Soviet prison help him understand the importance of Lezion B’rina better than most: “They are bringing children from the Ukraine, from Belarus, from Russia, who come from very problematic families, with very problematic backgrounds, without any idea of what it means to be Jewish. Now they are becoming good Jews and Jewish values are becoming part of their lives.” One of the ways that Lezion B’rina accomplishes this is through its warm, personal environment. Since students often come to Israel without family, the staff becomes their surrogate families. At Lezion B’rina every student is guaranteed a personal relationship with teachers and mentors, who help build up their confidence through encouragement and love. “Our staff doesn’t simply come in the morning and leave in the evening,” explained Rabbi Menachem Bombach, principal of the school. “They are totally committed to the vision and goals of Lezion B’rina and most importantly to the students. It’s like a family. Everyone who comes, even for a few minutes, feels the warm atmosphere.” Students are also given counseling to help them cope with their difficult past. The school is equipped with an on-staff psychologist, guidance counselor, housemother, and nurse. “Our boys come from very complicated families. We give them psychological help to deal with their issues and relationships,” said Moshe Melamed, assistant principal. “If you feel your family’s problems day after day, it’s hard to do anything else. We are involved in saving lives. These children would have nothing. We give them a new start and they have a chance to succeed.” Russians are typically suspicious of strangers; yet some 95 percent of the students are committed to attending Lezion B’rina in September. “When they return back to the FSU and see the contrast, the other five percent will most likely make up their minds to come,” Rabbi Bombach said. “I couldn’t believe how special and giving people could be,” one of the parents told me. “I wish I could have attended a school like this. The staff cares only about how best to help the children. Nothing like this exists back in Russia. It’s like night and day.” “Stalin and Lenin didn’t want them to preserve the Jewish way of life,” Rabbi Bombach said. “But their grandparents prayed that their children and grandchildren should continue to carry on the eternal flame of their Jewish heritage.”
To find out more about Lezion B’rina, visit www.lezionbrina.com. To support its efforts, you may donate online or send checks to Lezion B’rina Institute, 639 East 2nd Street, Suite 3R, Brooklyn, NY 11218.Gavriel Horan