It was a bitter cold winter day in Hillsdale, New Jersey. Snowflakes were swirling around outside, threatening a storm, but inside Bris Avrohom—an organization which provides support to Russian immigrants—a spark of Jewish faith was glowing. One ember, in particular, was on the verge of bursting into a magnificent flame that would eventually carry its light on a journey back home to Russia, where the entire story began.
Alexander Denisov was born in 1985 in the industrial town of Mozyr, Belarus, to Valery and Maya Denisov, Russian Jews with little more than an inkling of awareness of their Jewish heritage. For the family of four—Valery, Maya, and children Anna and Alexander—being Jewish meant an endless stream of discrimination and anti-Semitism, whether it came from work, school or neighbors.
Being Jewish meant an endless stream of discrimination and anti-Semitism“My son came home from school crying many times,” says Maya Denisov. “He would say, ‘My friends tell me I have to leave this country.’ It was a hard time, and I didn’t see a future for my family.”
The end of the 20th century was a difficult time to be a Jew in Mozyr. If the Soviet regime had tragically snuffed out an ancient faith throughout much of Eastern Europe, the collapse of communism and the mass migration of Jews to Israel brought with it a more open kind of anti-Semitism, one eager to push the remaining Jews out of a country where many felt the minority no longer belonged.
“A lot of times, kids would make fun of me,” says Alexander, who today goes by his Jewish name, Avraham. “I’d get into fights because I was Jewish. I remember coming home crying to my parents, saying, ‘We eat the same foods, watch the same things, why do they hate us just because we’re Jewish?’ They couldn’t answer me.”
Indeed, Avraham’s parents couldn’t answer him, because they didn’t know themselves what it meant to be Jews, aside from being targets of anti-Semitism.
“We didn’t celebrate holidays; we didn’t know anything about our religion. We just knew we were Jewish because our passports said so,” says Maya.
Despite his secular upbringing, Avraham took an interest in religion at an early age. When a friend in Belarus gave him a cross necklace, he wore it regularly, completely unaware of its deeper meaning. Only when his older sister Anna came home from a trip to Israel and informed him it was a Christian symbol and an antithesis to his Jewish birthright, did he take it off. Anna attempted to express her newfound Jewish pride by wearing a Star of David to school, and faced harassment.
A tipping point for the family came when Maya Denisov’s own parents received a vicious letter at their doorstep warning them to get out of the country and move to Israel.
In 1999, the Denisovs left Belarus for good and immigrated to the United States, settling in Clifton, New Jersey, where Avraham, 13, and Anna, 15, enrolled in the local public school. (Maya’s parents moved to Carmiel, Israel, the same year.)
Adjusting to life in the land of liberty came with its own adjustments and struggles, as it does for all new immigrants, but the religious freedom and open display of Judaism was truly a shock to the family.
During Maya’s first job at a local JCC, her boss asked her if she’d be celebrating Rosh Hashanah the following day.
“I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he said ‘Aren’t you Jewish!?’ But I didn’t know,” says Maya.
As a teenager, Avraham began to take an interest in Jewish studies, seeking out ways to learn Hebrew. His years in public school had taught him how to be an American, but he still knew very little about being a Jew.
It was during a birthday party for his young cousin at the Hebrew Academy of Morris County that Avraham connected with a Chabad-Lubavitch teacher at the community school, Rabbi Gil Hami. The two had met two years earlier at a Hanukkah play, and the Rabbi had helped Avraham put on tefillin.
“I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again,” says the Rabbi of the young boy with prickly hair and an earring. “He seemed interested, but I couldn’t tell how much, and that’s the last I saw him for two years.”
But this time the two chatted for a while, and somehow brit milah, ritual circumcision, came up. The procedure, normally performed on eight-day-old infants, was forbidden in Soviet Russia.
The procedure, normally performed on eight-day-old infants, was forbidden in Soviet RussiaA week later, Avraham received a phone call from Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky, director of Bris Avrohom, whose organization regularly performs circumcisions on Russian immigrants, asking if he’d be interested in receiving a brit. Rabbi Gil Hami had referred Avraham to the rabbi. Avraham scheduled it during his winter break from public school.
On that snowy day of Friday, February 16, 2002, the entire Denisov family piled into the car of cousin Luiza Finberg and drove to Bris Avrohom in Hillsdale, New Jersey, where they were joined by Rabbi Avraham Kanelsky of Israel, Rabbi Gil Hami, and the mohel, Rabbi Eliyahu Shain. In a last-minute twist, Avraham’s father Valery decided to receive a brit, too, although he had initially opposed the entire venture.
Avrohom (Alexander) Denisov with his parents at their Jewish wedding
The entire family stepped out into the cold that day with newly minted Jewish names. Valery became Yaakov, Maya became Michal, Anna became Esther, Luiza Finberg became Leah, and seventeen-year-old Alexander became Avraham.
Maya Denisov still becomes emotional remembering how she called her mother in Israel after the brit and discovered that her children’s new names, Avraham and Esther, had been the Hebrew names of Maya’s own grandparents.
“It was a miracle,” she says.
Avraham spent Shabbat with Rabbi Hami that week, and from there his Jewish passion continued to burn. Rabbi Hami helped him learn Hebrew; in the meantime, Avraham memorized Jewish prayers in Russian. Wearing a yarmulke and tzitzit in public school was a challenge, so he kept the tzitzit tucked in and made blessings only outdoors during breaks, when he could put on the yarmulke.
“The only thing I couldn’t hide is my beard,” he says.
Lacking years of formal Jewish education, Avraham decided the best option for him would be to study intensively at a real yeshivah after high school. He chose the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, New Jersey, a decision he had to explain to his high school guidance counselor.
“He told me to come back tomorrow, and that night I didn’t sleep. I kept wondering, why was he so curt?” says Avraham, worried the counselor would give him trouble for not taking the traditional college route.
“He called me over the next day and told me he’s a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, and that nobody in the school knows. Then he wished me a lot of hatzlachah, success.”
Avraham spent three years in the yeshivah, during which he traveled back east to Russia each Passover and summer to help run a boys’ overnight camp, as part of his yeshivah training.
Avraham Denisov heads a camp in Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2008
Those experiences set the stage for Avraham’s eventual decision to return to Russia to help Jewish boys discover their heritage and grow into responsible adults.
While visiting Russia in the spring of 2009, Avraham flew to Vilnius, Lithuania, to meet Miriam Mamykina. Miriam’s story was similar to Avraham’s in many ways, although Miriam had done a bit more globetrotting than Avraham. They became engaged that summer and were married in September in Moscow, so that Avraham could include the boys he’d grown so close to over the years.
Born in 1987 in Lithuania to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, Miriam was raised in a non-observant home, her knowledge of Judaism shaped solely by Chabad-run summer camps.
The entire family stepped out into the cold that day with newly minted Jewish names“Basically, it was a foreign life to me,” says Miriam about an observant lifestyle. “At home, there were only three Jewish people I knew: my mother, my sister, and me.”
But her summers in camp piqued her interest in Judaism, and when she was fourteen, Miriam moved to a different city to attend a Chabad-run girls’ boarding school.
Soon after, she moved to England to attend the Lubavitch Senior Girls School in London, and then to Chicago where she graduated from the Lubavitch Girls High School. From there she went to Israel, where she attended Beis Chana in Tzfat for two years, then returning to the States as a dorm counselor at Beis Chaya Mushka High School in Monsey, New York.
Miriam’s family has been supportive of her religious transformation.
“Baruch Hashem, thank G‑d, I have very understanding parents, and if I’m happy, they’re happy. As time went by, they saw I was maturing, growing up and becoming an adult, and they just realized this is serious and it’s going to last.”
After marrying, Avraham and Miriam spent a year in New Jersey where Avraham studied in yeshivah full-time. One year later—this past August—they picked up and left for the continent where they were both born.
Avraham and Miriam Denisov with newborn son Zalmy shortly after moving back to Moscow, Russia.
Today the couple lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Moscow, where Avraham is a Chabad-Lubavitch representative working as a guidance counselor at a boys High School Mesivta, a Chabad-Lubavitch boarding school for unaffiliated Jewish boys from around the former Soviet Union.
“I always felt I wanted to give people a chance I never had in Russia, and show them the beauty of Judaism,” says the twenty-five-year-old.
“[Avraham] really wanted to do this,” says Miriam, twenty-three, who teaches at Bnos Menachem, a boarding school in Moscow for Jewish girls.
Avraham’s yeshiva teachers from Morristown aren’t surprised he chose to return.
“It’s like he’s come full circle,” says Rabbi Dovid Dick, a former teacher of Avraham’s at the New Jersey yeshivah who remembers him from his high-school days.
“He came here as a Russian boy who knew very little about his Judaism, and he’s been able to learn a tremendous amount and now to help people that are in a similar situation.
“He had a real drive to accomplish and to really give back and work with Russian people. He advanced himself so that he could help others.”