Rabbis in Russia Face a Battle Over Burial

Moscow, Russia - When Rabbi Shmuel Kuperman knocks on the door, some people don't answer. Kuperman has the tough job of dealing with bereaved families. He tries to persuade them to provide a proper Jewish burial for their loved ones -- and not cremate, the more popular option in Russia.

"Some people hate me. I make them crazy," Kuperman said from his cramped office inside the Moscow Jewish Community Center. This is because he does not give up easily, he said.

About half the people Kuperman deals with want a Jewish burial, he said, but they need some kind of help, often financial, which the Jewish Community Center provides. The other half have already decided on cremation, and he tries to change their minds.

Cremation, which is hundreds of dollars cheaper than burial, is actively encouraged by authorities in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, a legacy of Soviet days. During communist rule, cremation was encouraged as a means of inhibiting religious rituals of any kind. Christians largely stopped burying their dead as well.

When a Russian Jewish woman living in Israel found out that her sister in Moscow was going to cremate their mother, she called Kuperman. He called the sister in Moscow, and she hung up on him. He got her address and went to her house. She threatened to call the police. He left, bought a huge bouquet of flowers and knocked on the door again.

"She was broken," he said, "and she let me in." Eventually, she agreed to give her mother a Jewish burial.

Many Russian Jews are rediscovering their identity in life, thanks to a renaissance in Jewish culture here. But the rituals of death are more elusive, and unknown to many of the approximately 2 million Jews in Russia. A burgeoning religious community, most notably the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement here, is trying to reach out to Jews and persuade them to return to the tradition of Jewish burial.

They're getting a mixed reception, rabbis concede.

"It's a real challenge because so many Jews were disconnected here for so long," said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose association of post-Soviet republics.

A major problem is that Jewish cemeteries in major Russian cities are often full and families want to stay together; the only way to add to a family plot is to cremate the loved one. For those in Moscow, the nearest Jewish cemetery that is accepting new burials is two hours away.

The battle over burial doesn't stop when someone agrees not to cremate. Many Jews, for instance, want to show the body in an open casket as most Orthodox Christian Russians do. Some Jews here commemorate the dead with food and drink at the graveside. These and other Russian practices are not part of Jewish tradition, according to Berel Lazar, Russia's chief rabbi.

"People sadly were never taught there is a Jewish way of mourning," Lazar said. "There are certain customs the Russians have that have become part of Jewish tradition here that are completely the opposite of our traditions. Stopping this is very complicated."

Lazar, who grew up in Italy and studied in the United States, came to Russia as a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi in 1990. He stayed on and became chief rabbi of Russia, amid some controversy. He is not Russian, but is known for his close ties to President Vladimir Putin. Hundreds of Chabad Lubavitch rabbis have followed Lazar to Russia and other former Soviet republics.

In recent years, Lazar said, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and vandalized, adding to the hesitance to be buried. "Russian Jews are afraid of what will happen to the cemeteries in 50 years," Lazar said. "We've seen cemeteries, sadly, all over Russia, totally desecrated with bones lying all around. . . . There is no security."

Some of the pensioners at the Ezra Foundation soup kitchen, a Jewish federation project in Moscow, would like a Jewish burial, but not all are convinced they will get one. "I don't want cremation, but I am afraid it might happen because it's much cheaper," Vlasa Doljanskaya said. The 76-year-old eats lunch every week at the soup kitchen. She says the Jewish revival is "like an explosion."

"I am a child of the revolution," Doljanskaya said. "My grandmother spoke Yiddish very quietly in the corner, but my mother was a good communist and would not let us near the synagogue. Now I am studying the Jewish language and the Torah because life is complicated and it helps."

Koval Yankel Shakhnovich, 83, eats lunch twice a week at the soup kitchen. He lost his wife, Luba, three years ago in Belarus and came to live with his daughter in Moscow. "The Jewish cemetery [in Belarus] is full, but I have a space already and when I am dead they will bring me next to my wife," he said.

Rabbis at the Jewish Community Center said later that it was very unlikely that when Shakhnovich died, his body could be transported to Belarus. "We need to talk more to these people," Berkowitz said of the elderly who visit the center.

Meanwhile, Kuperman is getting better at persuading secular children of the elderly to arrange a Jewish burial.

"They say, 'I'm not religious.' I say, 'We'll pay everything,' and I offer them $1,000 over the expenses. Still I can't convince some of them. They see me and they are afraid," he said, touching his yarmulke. "But for those who decide on a Jewish burial, it can be the beginning of a good connection to the community, and we start to see them on Shabbat."