2,000 Jewish families here are making an unprecedented declaration of their identity this winter.

A newly launched campaign helps Muscovite Jews affix hand-written mezuzah parchments to their doorways, fulfilling a Biblical commandment nearly extinct here for close to a century.

15 teams of Lubavitch yeshiva students assist people in learning about the ritual, including the proper placement of the mezuzahs on their doorways. They arrive with tools, mezuzah parchments in decorative cases and a few Jewish books translated into Russian.

Marina Katzoboshvili was one of the first Muscovites to welcome a Lubavitch "mezuzah team" into her home.

"One month ago, my older girl came home from school with the news about the mezuzah program," Mrs. Katzoboshvili related. "We decided to put the sacred scroll in the entrance door of our apartment to make our home Jewish."

Katzoboshvili also found out that some "maintenance" goes along with owning a kosher mezuzah. Twice in seven years one should bring in the parchments for inspection by a scribe, since the mezuzah is rendered unusable if even one of its hand-written letters becomes blemished.

Lubavitch emissary Rabbi Berel Lazar, chairman of the Rabbinical Alliance of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), emphasized that in the Soviet Union putting up a mezuzah on a doorpost was fraught with danger.

"For Russian Jews, installing a mezuzah now for all to see is their 'coming out', if you will," Lazar explained.

"The mezuzah project is a dream come true for many Jews here," said the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's Michael Steiner at the official launch of the campaign two weeks ago. "For Russian Jews this symbolizes their reunion with the rest of the Jewish nation. After years without any overt connection to things Jewish, a man or a woman walk into their apartment now and see the mezuzah on the door, they feel completely different about who they are."

The JDC and Lubavitch are equal co-sponsors of the drive, with each paying for one third of the cost of every mezuzah. Local Jews pay the remaining third, which is equivalent to approximately eight U.S. dollars.

"No doubt, we could have made an effort to cover the entire cost and offer the mezuzahs for free," said Rabbi Mordechai Weisberg, who coordinates the project under the Ohr Avner foundation established by Mr. Levi Levayov. "But then people would hardly realize their value. Simply put, we appreciate much more the things we pay for."

1,500 homes were targeted for the initial stage of the new drive, Weisberg said, but based on the enthusiastic response of the first two weeks, organizers have already had to double their orders.

In Line at the Marina Roscha

Inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, Chabad-Lubavitch has been running an aggressive, global mezuzah campaign since 1974. "The Rebbe's initiative brought millions of mezuzahs to Jews everywhere," said Rabbi Lazar. "It's thrilling to finally see them proliferating in the very birthplace of the Lubavitch spirit."

At Moscow's famous Marina Roscha synagogue, a group of Jews waited to register for a "mezuzah house call."

"In the 80's I was expelled from the university after the police caught me near the synagogue," recalled Artem Shyshkin, a 33-year-old businessman who was standing in line.

Shyshkin related that his detention experience discouraged him from overtly pursuing connections with fellow Jews. But now things are different. "Little by little I became close to the Jewish community again. And now I visit the synagogue very often. I want to learn Hebrew and Jewish tradition. The mezuzah is my way of demonstrating this."

Elena Pushkar, a 25-year-old Moscow day school teacher, said she spotted some "heartbreakingly beautiful" mezuzah cases on sale at the Choral Synagogue. She was tempted to buy a few and set them up at her apartment, but was unclear about where and how they were supposed to be put up. "I was embarrassed to ask the Jews there," she admitted with a smile. "I thought they would laugh at my ignorance."

A friend told Pushkar about the mezuzah campaign. While waiting in line at the Marina Roscha synagogue she read an information booklet on mezuzahs. "I didn't realize the mezuzah is actually the written parchment and not the case it's in," she said, smiling.

"I never heard of such thing as mezuzah," said Leonid Lerner, a 28-year-old bank employee who came to the synagogue during his lunch break. "But earlier this year I was invited to the celebration of the new synagogue in Tatarstan, and there I saw people kissing small plastic boxes on the doorpost. When a rabbi there explained what it was, I became fascinated and decided to get a mezuzah, no matter the cost."

The mezuzah drive was undertaken by the Lubavitch delegation to Moscow in memory of 6-year-old Chaya Mushka Lazar, daughter of Rabbi Berel and Chana Lazar, whose passing deeply affected many local Jews. At the official launch of the drive Michael Steiner pointed out the affection that exists between the Jewish community and the Chabad- Lubavitch emissaries.

"The JDC and Chabad here function like loving brothers," Steiner said. "And as a brother, I've been observing how more and more people discover their Judaism through Chabad.

"What we're doing is nothing short of rebuilding a nation," Steiner continued. "And in that context, when I meet with Lubavitchers here the first thing they want to know is - 'Do you have love in your heart?' 'First you have to have a love for the Jewish people, then we'll discuss business...' 'If you have that love then there's no limit to what we can do.'"