MOSCOW, Russia - For the first time since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, a chief rabbinical chaplain is servicing the spiritual and religious needs of Jewish soldiers in Russia's armed forces and various security services.
Rabbi Aharon Gurevich, 34, was appointed after being asked to fill the role by the chief rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Russia, Rabbi Berel Lazar, who had received official permission from the Russian government to establish a military rabbinate.
Upon accepting the post, Gurevich was granted the rank of colonel by Russian authorities and was given permission to visit military bases freely. While his status as a military rabbi has yet to be fixed by law, Gurevich has effectively been functioning as chief rabbi of the Russian Army since the beginning of the year.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, the soft-spoken and cordial 34-year-old Moscow native was full of praise for the cooperation he has received at all levels of Russia's military establishment.
"I work closely with the General Staff and its education department, and a number of army and police generals have shown great interest in my initiative to teach about the basics of Judaism in Russian military academies," Gurevich says.
Earlier this year, he was invited to deliver a lecture at a special seminar for top police commanders from across the country.
As a member of the Russian Defense Ministry's Public Council, Gurevich advises the military and the police forces on various matters relating to Jewish life.
"I visit military commands on a regular basis and determine the estimated number of Jews in the locale, speak with their commanders and explain the need for a spiritual component in the motivation to serve," he says.
Shortly after his appointment, Gurevich visited Israel to consult with the IDF's military rabbinate, as well as the chief rabbi of the Israel Police, to learn more about the role and functions his office should fulfill.
Thus far, Gurevich has succeeded in arranging for High Holiday services to be held on Russian military bases throughout the country, organized the distribution of ritual objects and newsletters among Jewish servicemen and provided pastoral counseling to soldiers, some of whom had previously been reluctant to openly admit their Jewish heritage.
"There are an estimated 40,000 Jews serving in the various Russian security forces, including some generals. But the Communist past left a permanent mark on their consciousness, and many do not speak about their Judaism among their colleagues out of concern for their careers," Gurevich notes, adding that "a lot depends on their position and the location of their service.
"But I am often approached unexpectedly by senior officers and regular soldiers who had hidden their Jewish origins until now, and I try as best I can to help them feel Jewish," he says.
While there is currently no option to arrange for the regular supply of kosher food throughout the Russian military, Gurevich makes sure to send care packages containing kosher food to Jewish soldiers prior to holidays and festivals.
"Before Passover," he says, "we distributed over 1,000 kilograms of matza and other kosher-for-Passover products."
Gurevich views education as a main component of his mission, and he has gone to great lengths to raise awareness about Judaism throughout the Russian military, among both Jews and non-Jews alike. To this end, he has worked closely with Russian officers to arrange for classes and periodic day-long seminars on Judaism and Jewish culture at Russian military academies.
On the first day of Hanukka, he notes proudly, a military newspaper published by the Russian Defense Ministry printed a lengthy article explaining the history and meaning of the holiday.
When necessary, Gurevich also intervenes with commanders on behalf of Jewish soldiers. "For example, there are soldiers who prefer not to shave during the counting of the Omer period between Passover and Shavuot, or those who run into issues of Shabbat observance, so I speak to their officers and explain the situation," he says.
Born into a secular home, Gurevich was initially drawn closer to Judaism through his reading of Jewish literature, as well as the knowledge that distant relatives had made aliya prior to World War II and settled on a kibbutz near Tiberias.
He says he was also influenced by the general atmosphere of the 1980s, when opposition to the Soviet regime simmered among many Jewish youth in the capital.
"Toward the end of the '80s, we started to receive more books and materials from abroad on Jewish national history and tradition on a regular basis," he recalls. "This would all come to play a role in influencing my growing interest and later embrace of Jewish observance."
At the age of 16, Gurevich was surprised when he was accepted into Moscow University's Faculty of History, particularly since he had told his interviewers that he was interested in studying the history of the Jewish people.
"In those years, it was still considered bold or even defiant to say such a thing," he recalls somewhat mischievously.
Alongside his university studies, Gurevich enrolled at Moscow's Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim. Upon completing his degree, he continued his religious studies at a hassidic yeshiva in Jerusalem and later received his rabbinical ordination. After a two-year stint as a rabbi in Frankfurt, Germany, he returned to Russia eight years ago to become involved in Jewish outreach work.
While issues such as anti-Semitism and the reluctance of many Russian Jews to identify Jewishly present Gurevich with some formidable challenges, he is nonetheless keenly optimistic about his work.
"The creation of a Russian military rabbinate has helped many Jewish soldiers to feel a greater sense of pride about their identity," he insists. "As much as possible, I travel around the country, going from base to base to awaken within them a stronger sense of connection. There is still a lot of work to be done."