RAJE Maryland and Other Local Rabbis Meet Chief Rabbi of Russia at Kiruv Summit in New York

Last week, kiruv professionals from Maryland traveled to New York to attend the Olami North American Mekarvim Conference. The conference included over 200 outreach rabbis in the Olami network from dozens of locations across North America in addition to representatives from England, France, Russia, and Israel. Olami is a global kiruv foundation funded by the Horn and Wolfson families, devoted to engaging unaffiliated Jews throughout the world. They support close to 300 outreach chapters in 28 countries. The Maryland contingent included Rabbis Gavriel Horan & Josh Livingstone of RAJE Maryland, Rabbis Ari Koretzky & Zalman Goldstein of Meor Maryland, Rabbi Yosef Edelstein of Meor GW, and Rabbis Zev Pomeranz & Dan Kirschenbaum of Etz Chaim. The conference was held at the beautiful Sleepy Hollow Hotel in Westchester, New York. 

The event began with a recorded message from the Olami posek, Rav Asher Weiss shlita. He emphasized the importance for mekarvim to continue to constantly elevate themselves spiritually in order to have the maximum impact on their students. “When we dedicate our time, energies and resources to help other people grow, we have siata d’shamaya in our own growth,” he said. 

The event included multiple breakout sessions in various topics in fundraising, recruitment, maintaining personal kiddusha, achieving financial stability and many other topics. 

The main keynote speaker was HaRav Elya Brudny shlita, of Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America. Rav Brudny reiterated the statement he made at the 2019 Agudath Convention – that the greatest problem facing the Jewish people today, is that the vast majority of Jews are disconnected from Judaism. He said that it is incumbent upon kiruv professionals to share success stories with the greater frum community to raise awareness of the importance of kiruv. The problem, he said, is that most frum people don’t see non-frum Jews as their brothers. 

A major highlight of the conference was an exclusive Q & A with Rabbi Berel Lazar, the Chief Rabbi of Russia. Rabbi Lazar spoke about his delicate relationship with President Vladimir Putin and the fine line he has to walk to maintain the relationship while expressing disapproval against the War in Ukraine. He emphasized that his main job, based on guidelines from the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, was to help Jews – not to make political statements. Based on several anecdotes, he shared his confidence that Putin is indeed of friend of Jews and of Israel. He recounted an occasion in which Putin asked him how the Jewish people have survived as a distinct nation for 2000 years when so many other national groups have disappeared. Unsure how to respond, Rabbi Lazar asked if the president had an answer. Putin replied that he did indeed have an answer to the question. “Each group has their unique foods, customs and culture, but the Jewish people are committed to eternal values,” he said. “It’s your love of Torah learning, Rabbis, and family values that have kept you alive all these years.” 

Rabbi Lazar recounted the story that inspired him to devote his life to helping Russian Jews. In the 1980’s, as a buchor learning in 770, he was asked to spend a summer doing outreach in Russia. At the end of his trip, he was surprised to find that several people traveled for many hours just to say goodbye and thank him for coming. He told one young man (who eventually settled in Baltimore) that he should never hesitate to call if he needed anything in the future. “Everyone makes promises to us,” the young man said, “but when they get back to the West they forget about us.” On the spot Rabbi Lazar made a promise to himself that he would do whatever he could to someday return to Russia and devote his life to helping the Russian Jews.

 “It was amazing to meet Rabbi Lazar in person and hear about his work in Russia,” RAJE Maryland Director Rabbi Horan, said. “He’s a real-life contemporary hero who is doing so much to help Russian Jews. We at RAJE, are doing our part to continue the mission to bring back second generation Russian Jews here in America – whose families were forcibly disconnected from Judaism by 70 years of Communist indoctrination and oppression. It’s a tremendous honor to help reconnect them to the Jewish people.” 

A moving video was also shared showcasing the story of two young men who became balei teshuva through Olami branches in the Ukraine. With help from Olami and others, they managed to escape the war and have settled with their families in Monsey, NY. 

One of the final addresses was from Rabbi Benzion Klatzko, Olami Director of Education. Rabbi Klatzko told a beautiful story about a girl he unsuccessfully tried to reach out to during her four years as a student in UCLA almost 20 years ago. She always turned him down and eventually graduated without ever engaging in any Jewish programs on campus. He assumed he would never hear from her again – but to his surprise she recently reached out to him. “I’m not sure you remember me,” she said, “but I remember you. Although I ignored you for four straight years, I want you to know that every one of your attempts to reach out to me made an impact and helped create a warmer connection to Judaism.” Today she is married and raising a frum family in Israel. “You never know the impact your efforts are having on another Jew,” Rabbi Klatzko said. “Our job is to plant seeds – and the Ribono Shel Olam will help us bring his children back to Him.”

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