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Being Jewish in Belarus

Being Jewish in Belarus

Alexander Denisov, 17, in Bris Avrohom accompanied by his sister, Anna, and mother, Maya, as he awaits his circumcision. The three of them also received Jewish names that day.
Alexander Denisov, 17, in Bris Avrohom accompanied by his sister, Anna, and mother, Maya, as he awaits his circumcision. The three of them also received Jewish names that day.

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
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
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.
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.”

Jessica Naiman is a freelance writer in Detroit, Michigan, where she lives with her husband and son. She enjoys traveling, running, reading, and all things news-related.
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Anonymous May 15, 2017

I'm Jewish living in Belarus. That's absolute nonsense. The country has always been pretty welcoming towards our culture. Learn the history.
Thought I do admit being harrassed a couple of times. But there can be bad ppl and anti-semitism in any country in the would, unfortunately Reply

Bev CHAIT April 8, 2013

Absolutely wonderful moving story. My Dad's Dad was from Kiev where thousands upon thousands of jewish people lived happily until the 1906 pogroms where many of his family were killed. He set stakes for the USA but ended up the UK, where we are all still here today.

It really is astonishing that in the 1980's and 1990's decent russian jewish people were literaly asked to leave their own country!!

Thank G-d there is today still some judasim taking place in Russia, hope one day it gets back to his thousands again. Reply

Amanda flint, MI August 16, 2011

Congrats! God bless you all! This is a wonderful article to read. As an African-American Christian I have nothing but love to for Jews. I think it is so inspiring that Avraham would move back to the place that brought him and his family many tears. That is a TRUE act of love!!

God bless you and your family, and me and my family are standing behind the Jews all the way! May you all stay safe in YOUR land of Israel! Reply

Anonymous Wayne , nj/usa June 18, 2011

Belarus Jews I once asked my father if he ever wanted to visit his Shtetl Drogachine on the Bug river in Belarus. He looked at me like I had lost my mind and said "not for a million dollars would I return to that place". He then regaled me with stories of the severe anti-Antisemitism his family underwent in the 1920's. Jews who continue to live in that country are doing their children a great disservice to the idea of remaining Jewish. Better they leave. Reply

K Wathne oslo, norway May 31, 2011

Belarus Skayla! Hello! Thank you for responding. I find that travelling is much more interesting if you know someone where you' going (I often have guests through 'Couchsurfing'). I would be very interested in meeting someone who might tell me a little bit about life in Belarus. To meet for a conversation, something like that...Any age etc. :) Thank you! Reply

s kayla pinsk, belarus May 31, 2011

Re: Jews in Belarus? K Wathne, what are you interested in exactly? I might be able to get some phone numbers for you. Reply

Anonymous Prescott, AR/US May 27, 2011

Belarus I remember visiting in Belarus some years ago, a place which was a shrine to the destruction of many many Jewish communities. Reply

PATRICIA JONES Hobart, Australia May 26, 2011

BEING JEWISH IN BELARUS This was a wonderful story of jow people can overcome what is hateful in their lives and make a positive life for themselves...Shabbat Shalom. Reply

K Wathne Oslo, Norway May 26, 2011

Jews in Belarus? Shalom! I am planning a trip to Belarus; as it turns out, Avrahm's home town, Mozyr..! Does anyone know: is there any Jewish activity going on at all in Mozyr? Reply

Patricia Jones Hobart, Australia May 24, 2011

Being Jewish in Belarus A wonderful story of how people can overcome the hatred and hardship caused by people who do not know G-d. Reply

John north richland hills, Texas May 24, 2011

Alexander to Avraham This is a wonderful story, because is demonstrate how one young man and his family endure hatred in their native land ,but so unaware of the real heritage. By novo.g to America, starting to learn of his Jewish background. I was able to relate to Avraham in his search and yearning to know ,engage, Rabbi's within the Chabad community.I wish him and his young family G-d's blessing Reply

Rachel POrtland, Or May 23, 2011

Baruch HaShem! At first my heart was breaking at the reality that even in 2011 some of us are denied their identities...but on reflection further...I see how the oieces were necessary for this couple to find each other, so, this is a true miracle of finding your bershert AND your purpose in this life. What a wonderful blessing to not just this precious couple, but to all who came before them...who again live on as a blessing to all. Shalom... Reply

Chezky Maple, ON May 22, 2011

Unbelievable! This story is so inspirational. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. Avrohom and Miriam may you have tons of material and spiritual success in your amazing work you are doing in Moscow, and continue to be an inspiration to everyone around you! ( We're gonna miss you Shavuos:-) Reply

a fellow shlucha Moscow, Russia May 22, 2011

true inspiration I am lucky enough to know Avraham and Miriam personally, and am constantly amazed by their constant striving to give back to others. They are a true inspiration in our community! May you go from strength to strength! Reply

Alina cederharst, GA May 22, 2011

Beautiful! So so Beautiful!! I myself am originally from Belarus, but my family now live in the states. I am so unbelievably touched by this story. May you continue going from strength to strength! Reply

Levi Stein Brooklyn, NY May 22, 2011

Wow! Wow, I'm so inspired by your life story, thanks for publishing this amazing article, I will pass this on to all my family and friends so they can learn from it to! Reply

Ruth Herland, MA May 22, 2011

Inspiration This article makes me realize that there is a G-d in the world that watches over us and makes things right. I am so inspired by this young man and his amazing story! Reply

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