Frum and trending: the rabbis on social media
Rabbis in Russia are using social media to reach locals wanting to revisit their dormant Jewish heritage. Semyon Dovzhik discovered how one pits his shul against a nightclub
IN RUSSIA, a rabbi is expected to be like the country: conservative, respectable and traditional. But a few pioneers have been bucking the trend in recent years by using social media to reach not only their congregants, but a much wider audience.
Rabbi Chaim Danzinger — originally from Toronto — left a comfortable life a decade ago as a rabbi in Pasadena, California to move with his wife to Rostovon-Don in central Russia.
Home to the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement and a large synagogue built in 1874, the city had a rich Jewish history that was abruptly interrupted during the Second World War, when 27,000 Jews were murdered in Zmiyovskaya Balka, on the outskirts of the city.
The long shadow cast by that massacre and Soviet-era antisemitism leads many of Rostov’s Jews to still keep their identities secret. Rabbi Danzinger believes that social media is the most effective tool to reach out to them.
“Russia has so many proud Jews that just haven’t come out of the closet yet,” he told the JC. “Therefore, we have to adapt to the times we live in.”
He recounted how, when he first started sharing short social media posts about Shabbat and Jewish holidays, people with Jewish family names started reaching out.
“After following me for some time they are ready to make a move and to check on the synagogue and meet the rabbi.”
This summer’s World Cup, which took place in Russia, presented another opportunity.
“When I learned that Rostov was about to host some of the FIFA football games, I spotted an opportunity to put Rostov on the world’s Jewish map once again,” he said, recounting how thousands of Brazilians and Mexicans were expected in the city. He was sure at least a few of them would be Jews looking for kosher food and a place for Shabbat dinner.
Rabbi Danzinger rushed to the Rostov Arena stadium just before Shabbat time and recorded a video, inviting all the fans to visit his synagogue a 20-minute walk away. Shared on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, it went viral, receiving nearly half-a-million views and making Rabbi Danz- inger a social media star overnight.
For him, it was not all about the clicks: over
100 football fans attended Rostov synagogue that
Shabbat, enlivening the local community.
Some later told him it was the most inspiring Shabbat service of their life.
There is, however, another important motivation for Rabbi Danzinger’s social media presence. Authorities in Russia have deported around a dozen foreign-born rabbis over the past decade — a great concern to any spiritual leader working in the country.
“As rabbis, the more transparent we are the better,” he said. “We are here to help people spiritually, to revive the Jewish life in Russia. Sometimes it’s hard for someone to imagine why people from the States or Israel move to be a rabbi in Russia.” But he is not the only Jewish social media star on the Russian scene. He has strong competition from the town Voronezh, 500 kilometres north of Rostov, where St Petersburgborn Avigdor Nosikov competes with some remarkably mainstream rivals for followers. “When I am organising a Kabbalat Shabbat event, my competitors aren’t Chabad or Hillel — but dance clubs, cinemas or other entertainment institutions,” he revealed. “Therefore, my marketing should not fall short of theirs.”
Rabbi Nosikov’s voronezhrabbi account on Instagram is definitely niche, showing him on the beach, on bicycles and in selfies with soldiers. “There are plenty of Instagram accounts spreading the word of Torah or Chasidic wisdom. My goal is completely different. I want
I need no permission because I answer only to God
Avigdor Nosikov’s Instagram account is more eccentric