Old-time religion

Inside Rabbi Asher Goldschmidt's North Dallas home, a visitor can learn about Judaism in at least four different languages--English, Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish.

"Oops," gasped a woman, sitting with the rabbi and six other students at a dining-room table last week. A fellow student, speaking Yiddish, had just explained to the woman that she had been saying her morning prayers incorrectly. The woman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, says her first prayers after she arises from bed and puts her feet on the floor. The rabbi had told his students earlier that such a prayer should be said upon first awakening, as soon as one's eyes opened. As she covered her mouth in dismay, the woman admitted, "I've been putting my feet down."

"That's OK," Rabbi Goldschmidt said comfortingly. "There are no oops here. We're here to learn."

Goldschmidt came to Dallas five years ago on a mission to provide religious instruction to Jews from the former Soviet Union. Fluent in the four languages, the rabbi says he now attracts between 200 and 300 people to his services on major holidays--out of an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 Soviet Jewish immigrants living in the Dallas area.

These days, his teachings and services have become popular enough that later this month he plans to start construction on a nearly $1 million structure in Far North Dallas. The rabbi is calling his new building "A Home for New Americans." It will be a place, he says, where his followers can worship and gather for community events.

To finance the construction, the rabbi has raised the money largely from the immigrants themselves. Ilya Drapkin, the owner and founder of Southwestern Memory International Inc., a Dallas computer-technology company, donated the lion's share for the new community center and synagogue, the rabbi says. (Drapkin was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.)

Attracting newcomers to Judaism is part and parcel of Rabbi Goldschmidt's brand of Judaism. The 33-year-old rabbi follows the Lubavitcher tradition, a 200-year-old but still rapidly growing branch of Judaism. Lubavitcher Rabbi Mendel Dubrawsky first established an outpost in Dallas 15 years ago and now has some 300 families in Dallas and another 150 in Plano.

Founded in Russia and now led from New York City, Lubavitcher followers believe in rigid adherence to kosher laws and in spreading their belief among other Jewish sects. The Lubavitcher rabbis are chiefly responsible for attracting new members.

For the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom had little experience with their religion in their homeland, such distinctions between branches of Judaism are not as significant, and some in the mainstream Jewish community believe Goldschmidt has captured the attention of the immigrants precisely because they are unfamiliar with the distinctions.

"The Russian community doesn't understand what Judaism is all about," says Anna Angorina, a Soviet immigrant who oversees the Jewish Community Center of Dallas' activities and programs for Jews from her old country. "They just want to learn."

Many of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union were sponsored by organizations such as the Jewish Federation. But Goldschmidt believes that when many of the former Soviets went to the existing synagogues in the area they didn't feel comfortable socially, economically, or theologically, and no one spent the time to maintain contacts with the immigrants after they became settled. "They didn't even have addresses for them," he says.

In the Soviet Union, the Jews had never heard of such things as membership fees for synagogue attendance, a common practice at temples in the United States. Rabbi Kenneth Roseman of Temple Shalom, a Reform congregation, says that the fees--as much as $1,500 a year--were prohibitive to many of the newcomers and that his congregation often waived them temporarily to the immigrants. Goldschmidt says he will not charge for memberships at his new center. Instead, he expects the well-heeled in the community to give as much as they can. The sect's centers nationwide rarely charge admission fees.

The rabbi, however, is careful to point out that he does not intend to steal members from other congregations. "We are not here to compete with anybody," he says. "We are here to fill in a gap."

Still, his success has generated murmurs of concern in the Jewish community that the more traditional, established Dallas congregations may be losing "prospective buyers in the marketplace of religion," Roseman says.

Roseman, however, adds that in the end most Jews are happy to have the immigrants learning as Jews regardless of the branch. "Theoretically, you could argue whether in the long run it is good for them to be separated," he says. "But they have voted. Even if I don't subscribe to Lubavitcher philosophies, I am glad they are practicing as Jews. Obviously, Rabbi Goldschmidt has a right to offer a Jewish approach. That's the way America works. Better for these people to have a Jewish education than to be left at the mercy of the [proselytizing] Christians."

Goldschmidt was invited to Dallas in 1995 by his brother-in-law Dubrawsky. At the time, Dubrawsky and Goldschmidt wanted to counter what the two believed was a strenuous effort on the part of Christian churches (particularly the Messianic Jews) to attract Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Some of the immigrants say the Christians offered new immigrants better housing than the Jewish organizations established if they would attend their church services.

Goldschmidt was born in the Soviet Union, but left for Israel with his family as an infant in the late '60s. He learned Hebrew when he went to school in Israel and at age 16 was sent to New York to train with the leaders of the Lubavitcher movement.

Before coming to Dallas, the Lubavitcher leaders sent Goldschmidt, a charismatic teacher, to instruct Jews still in the Soviet Union. The New York leaders also posted him to educate former Soviet immigrants who had resettled in Cincinnati.

Now that he is in Dallas, teaching in his dining room, where his students can hear his children play in the other room and his wife's spoon hitting the sides of a bowl from the kitchen, the rabbi says he is not here to dictate. "I'm not here to tell you if you should grow your beard 5 inches long, but to bring an awareness of Jewishness and to create the growth of Jewishness," he says, referring to the Orthodox Jewish tradition.

He believes the immigrants from the former Soviet Union come to Orthodox Judaism naturally. He recalls that during one of his services for Yom Kippur--the holiest day of the year for Jews--one worshiper was in tears because he had finally found somewhere he felt comfortable. "He said, 'For 20 years I have tried to push myself to go to synagogue, but I have never found a place until now where I don't have to look over my shoulder.'" The man always felt like an outsider in the Americanized temples, Goldschmidt says.

For Boris Olshansky, a systems engineer at Southwest Airlines who came to Dallas 21 years ago from Tashkent in the former Soviet Union, Goldschmidt has filled a void. Olshansky, who was among those in the rabbi's study group last week, for several years went to Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue, but was unsatisfied. "I grew out of it," he says. "I needed more religion."

He remembers feeling like an outsider in the place of worship. "When an immigrant comes to this country, he speaks virtually no English, no Hebrew. He just sits there and doesn't understand anything," Olshansky says. The sporadic ad hoc underground services he was able to attend in the Soviet Union were even preferable, Olshansky says. "Someone would always explain things," he recalls.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen