Ulyanovsk Rabbi Opens His House (and Heart) to City Teenagers

Looking at the busy pace of activity at FJC’s Jewish community of Ulyanovsk, Russia, it is hard to imagine that only ten years ago the community was on the brink of complete assimilation. The city had no synagogue, no rabbi or community leadership and hence the city’s youth was drifting further and further away from their roots.

Ulyanovsk is a city in Russia located on the Volga river, 893 kilometers east of Moscow. There are almost 5,000 Jews in the city, but ten years ago, in 2006, without a rabbi and a synagogue, the community was on the verge of losing its identity. That is when rabbi Yosef Morozov and his wife Suri came to Ulyanovsk from the United States to revive and lead the Jewish community. In 2008 rabbi Morozov, with the help of local businessmen and sponsors, succeeded in renovating a space in the community center and opening a fully-functional synagogue there. Now, 8 years later, there is a steady stream of Jewish activity in the city – regular prayer services, Hebrew school, a library and a kosher cafe, Torah-learning programs for men and women, a kindergarten and even a newspaper.

Among these programs, however, there is one that rabbi Morozov takes to heart more than any other – the teenage club. “These children are the future of our community, here in this city and in the entire country as well. We have to let them experience what they’ve been missing for their entire childhood in Russia – their Jewish heritage,” he said. That is why, when the club was looking for a venue for its annual year’s end Shabbaton and had trouble locating something within the budget, the rabbi offered his own house for the event.

“I never thought that going to the rabbi’s house could be so much fun,’ said Sergey, 13, one of the teenage participants.

The Shabbaton began with an outdoor Friday night meal filled with delicious food and group singing. The night continued with various contests and games. In the morning, after a light breakfast, the teens went to synagogue. “For some, it was their first time at synagogue services,” says rabbi Morozov.

After the Shabbat meal, the teenagers and the rabbi walked alongside the Volga River enjoying the breathtaking views. The rest of the afternoon was filled with sports, games and contests. Towards the evening there was an interesting lecture that kept the participants eagerly involved.

The Havdalah ceremony was held outdoors with music, song and dancing, followed by a bonfire till the wee hours of the morning. Sunday included a trip to laser tag and a barbecue.

“I’ve never had an experience like this before,” says Natasha, 14, another Shabbaton participant. “I felt like I was home in more than one sense.”

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