Service in mother tongue reaches out to Russian souls

On a recent Friday night at Temple Isaiah, a mother lifted up her 6-year-old daughter to light Shabbat candles during the service.

The image was unremarkable — except that the dozens of worshippers who watched the ritual were all emigres gathering to pray in Russian and transliterated Hebrew.

"The service is an oasis from the Russians' life. They can find incredible comfort," said Cantor Boris Kazansky, who is leading the service at the Lafayette Reform synagogue.

But the 45-minute service is more than just a pleasant respite. For Kazansky, it is also an attempt to resuscitate withered Jewish souls before it's too late.

"I don't see much effort in American Jewry to invest money and time and human resources to create the kind of spiritual center geared toward Russians. I think that's a big mistake," he said.

Since November, emigres from across Contra Costa County have been gathering once a month before Temple Isaiah's regular Shabbat service. They're gradually learning the prayers and melodies so familiar to American-born Jews.

Attendance at the services has ranged from about 60 to 200 — mostly adults in their 30s through 80s. The vast majority aren't affiliated with any synagogue.

"It's a wonderful service. We hope it will build up and will last," said Ninnel Sosner, an emigre and Temple Isaiah member who served on the committee that organized the worship.

Kazansky also hopes the service will grow. An emigre who came to the United States 17 years ago from a town near Moscow, Kazansky has deep concerns about the spiritual future of this wave of immigrants — and not just the 200 families in Contra Costa County.

About half a million Jews have arrived in the United States from the former Soviet Union since 1989. American-born Jews have responded to the material needs of these emigres by providing furniture, clothing, language classes and job training.

Yet these same American Jews done too little to nourish the religious needs of immigrants, Kazansky said. If the status quo doesn't change soon, he warned, emigres and their offspring will completely assimilate.

"They'll be lost to Judaism," he said.

Kazansky, who came to Temple Isaiah last June from a Philadelphia synagogue, isn't alone in his concerns. According to a recent article in The Jerusalem Report, the Jewish Agency's top official in the former Soviet Union, Haim Chessler, cha