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Jewish Journal

The Days and Nights of Berkowitz

by Marc Ballon

August 5, 2004 | 8:00 pm

On a recent bus ride through the outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz ignores the rustic scenery surrounding him. Instead, the 28-year-old executive director of the Chabad-Lubavitch-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) clutches a cellphone and speaks in hushed tones to an American businessman and potential benefactor for nearly half an hour. Berkowitz never once asks for money; that's not his style. Instead, he talks about how a donation -- any donation -- could change a Jewish child's life.

"It costs only $250 to send one kid to camp. It would cost five to 10 times more than that in the States," Berkowitz said. "I'm saying that just for $250 a poor kid in Russia can get boat rides, nutritious food and learn about the beauty of Judaism and Jewish life. Any contribution can make a big difference." The man gives $5,000, a small fraction of the more than $10 million Berkowitz says he has personally raised over the years.

Master fundraiser, tireless advocate and Chabad's public face in the Former Soviet Union to the outside world, the energetic Berkowitz sees his mission as nothing less than helping to revive Judaism among the estimated 1 million-2 million Jews in the region, a Herculean task after seven decades of atheistic communism and government repression. In the five years he has worked in the region, he has raised untold millions to fund Jewish summer camps, orphanages and community centers. He also helped establish Birthright Israel in the former Soviet Union, a program that has sent 3,000 young people on free trips to Israel.

Along the way, Berkowitz has encountered obstacles that might have sent less committed souls home.

Firstly, he has had to grapple with Western ignorance about the plight of Jews in the FSU, which has made it difficult to raise money for their many needs. Educating American and European philanthropists' about the needs of FSU Jews has turned Berkowitz into a reluctant frequent flier who spends nearly four months a year on the road away from his wife, Leah, and three young children.

Secondly, he found himself the victim of a vicious power struggle between Chabad and a competing Jewish organization, which left him hospitalized for 22 days. That experience left him shaken. However, it also made him more determined than ever to spread his love of Judaism as far as possible in the FSU, where Chabad now has 220 rabbis stationed and an annual budget of $60 million -- far more than any other Jewish organization. Chabad also is funding building projects valued at $80 million in the FSU, heavily bankrolled by Jewish philanthropists George Rohr, a Wall Street investor, and Israeli diamond magnate Lev Leviev.

"Being here is the fulfillment of a dream," Berkowitz said. "Here in Russia, I can make a real lasting impression."

With so much to do, Berkowitz wastes little time. Waking up at 6 a.m. one recent day to tend to his crying 5-month-old son, Menachem Mendel, he ends his work day 20 hours later at 2 a.m. In between, Berkowitz meets with a group of visiting American and European art dealers to discuss how they could become involved with a planned state-of-the-art $50 million Jewish history museum in Moscow; he talks on the phone with oil company executives in Kazakhstan to garner their support for Jewish orphanages there; he tries to settle a dispute between two rabbis in Lithuania; and he meets with Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of the Federation of Jewish Communities, which runs most of the congregations in the FSU, to discuss fundraising efforts for Jewish summer camps.

His youthful energy has served him well, said Marlene Post, past president of Hadassah and chair of Birthright Israel.

"At 28 years of age, most young people are deciding what to do with their lives," she said. "But [Avraham's] a man who's focused, passionate and dedicated, who is helping to start Jewish days schools and centers. He's doing amazing work."

Berkowitz knew at an early age that he wanted to help his fellow Jews wherever they resided. Growing up with eight siblings in Southfield, Mich., he moved to Seattle to attend yeshiva in 1990. There, he and a friend visited the homes of recent Jewish Russian immigrants. On their own initiative, the 13-year-olds began making weekly deliveries of free "Shabbat packages" of wine, challah and candles. Berkowitz says he raised $5,000 for the program from local businesses and philanthropists .

Berkowitz, who speaks English, Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish and Spanish, then studied at a Yeshiva in Manchester, England. He later moved to Morristown, N.J., where he attended the Rabbinical College of America. He spent the summers crisscrossing Alaska searching for Jews and non-Jews to whom he could minister.

Post Alaska, Berkowitz went to Uruguay, where he and 10 other rabbinical students founded a yeshiva. The following year, he moved to Argentina, where he spent two years raising money for a Jewish community center and teaching.

Converting non-Jews to Judaism is not part of his or Chabad's raison d'être, he says. His mission is simply to make the world a better place for everyone, he says, which is a philosophy embodied by his hero Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late, charismatic leader of the Chabad movement.

Berkowitz, who married in 1999, went to Russia partly at the prodding of his new wife, who thought they could make a more meaningful contribution there. Initially, he admitted he thought of the FSU as some "third-world place." He has since come to love it.

One of the reasons Jewish life has flourished so much in the FSU, the rabbi says, is because of Russian President Vladimir Putin's public embrace of Judaism. In 2000, Putin attended the opening ceremony of Chabad's $12 million Jewish community center in Moscow, a seven-story structure that includes a synagogue, a theater, a gym, a computer lab and two mikvahs. The Russian leader's presence signaled new tolerance toward Jews, experts said.

But just how long the FSU and its leaders remain enamored of Chabad and the Jews is anyone's guest. Berkowitz's sunny optimism notwithstanding, anti-Semitism "is there. It's always there," Amnesty International spokesman Alistair Hodgett said. "That's absolutely and unfortunately true."

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