Outreach to the Forgotten Jews of Far East Russia
By Lawrence Hirsch, Celebrate Messiah, Australia
“Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep’” (Luke 15:4-6).
In a small house synagogue about 8000 kilometres east of Moscow a group of poor Jewish people sit together around a long table celebrating a Shabbat dinner. This town of Birobidzhan is an unlikely place for a Jewish community just north of the Chinese border, further east than Siberia and further east than Mongolia.
This area called the Jewish Autonomous Region was created by Joseph Stalin in April 1928 and began to be settled by Jews from Belarus and Ukraine in the 1930’s. It was Stalin’s version of Zion – a homeland for the Jewish people. Since the fall of communism in the early 1990’s many Jewish people began to leave the region to make “aliyah” (return) to Israel.
However, today after 15 years of aliyah many Jewish people have decided to stay in the Far East of Russia because of the volatile situation in the Middle East. Today the combined Jewish population of the cities of Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Birobidzhan total about 70,000.
The Jews of Birobidzhan originally came as free people in the 1920’s and 30’s, however, hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to the gulags around Magadan and other remote areas across the region (we were told but have yet been able to verify that 17 million people died in Stalin’s gulags – three million of them Jewish). It is our vision to reach these forgotten Jews scattered across the Far East with the Gospel of Messiah.
Outreach Began in 2004
In September 2004, Celebrate Messiah took a missions team to Far East Russia to reach out to these forgotten Jews of Far East Russia. The mission began in Vladivostok, then on to Khabarovsk and finally to the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan. During that first visit we identified key people for future messianic ministry in the region and made significant contacts with prominent people in the Jewish community.
One of the key people we met in Vladivostok was a young Pastor named Alexey. Alexey has been used of God to plant 60 churches across the Primorye Region. He is very keen to reach out to Jewish people scattered in the villages where his churches are situated. Celebrate Messiah is working with Alexey in training his pastors in outreach to Jewish people.
Today we support and resource a messianic Jewish missionaries in Birobidzhan, Andre and Valeria, as they open their home for bible studies, visit with Jewish people in the homes across the region, and host a regular messianic outreach on Saturday mornings.
Andre and Valerie also have a burden to help their fellow Birobidzhani Jews with much needed material aid in the form of food parcels sponsored by Celebrate Messiah. Inside the hamper is a beautifully bound Bible with a Star of David on the front cover. Last year, we raised $10,000 to send to Birobidzhan to purchase a mini van to be used in distributing these food parcels to families in the district. Andre also uses the mini van to pick up people for services on a Saturday morning and as a general service to the community.
Our vision is to purchase a building to be used as an outreach centre for the region and for weekly services and to continue to financially support Andre and Valeria in their ministry.
Outreach in 2006
Last year, in October, my wife Louise and I, together with two Russian Jewish workers from Melbourne, Rita Ivenskis and Victor Bassine travelled again to the region. Working together with Valeria and Andre and the local church in Vladivostok Birobidzhan and Magadan we had the privilege of leading 18 people to the Lord – 14 of them being Jewish.
We were certainly overwhelmed at the poverty and dire circumstances of the people that we met in Vladivostok, Birobidzhan and Magadan. Yet, the believers were spiritually rich and they left a deposit of the Gospel in our hearts even as we sought to be a blessing to them.
Messianic Conference in Vladivostok
In Vladivostok we taught at a vibrant three-day messianic conference encouraging over 200 people (including about 50 Pastors) to reach out to Jewish people in the region.
We were very moved by the willingness of the Christians at the conference to reach out to God’s Chosen People in the various towns and villages that they had come from. Pastor Alexey, the convener of the conference and the overseer of 60 churches in the region, shares our passion and vision to reach out to Jewish people. Celebrate Messiah will continue to work with Alexey to reach out to Jewish people in the Primorye Region.
Alexey’s church also has a vision to adopt 1,000 children from off the streets into Christian homes. We visited a church family who had adopted 19 children, living together in a 2 bedroom apartment. Despite the circumstances, the kids were so well looked after. One of the most recent babies they had taken in was Jewish.
Salvation in Birobidzhan (The Jewish Autonomous Region)
We then travelled to Birobidzhan where we met many Jewish people who had been led to the Lord by Celebrate Messiah missionaries, Valeria and Andre, within the last 24 months since we began our work in the region. These new believers included a number of elderly Jewish people who, together with their parents, were sent to Birobidzhan by Stalin in the 1930’s. At one of the services we hosted, we were absolutely blessed when 10 Jewish people prayed to receive the Lord.
Over the past 2 years we have built up a good rapport with a Rabbi in Birobidzhan called Rabbi Dov. A special moment came when the team was invited into the Rabbi’s home and I was given the privilege of leading a Bible study from the New Testament. I choose to teach on the life of another Rabbi who was mentioned in the Gospels and who was a believer in Yeshua - Rabbi Nicodemus. It was a very moving and poignant moment in time.
Surprises in Magadan
Our time in Magadan was also truly remarkable. We were absolutely surprised when we led a conference at what was an incredibly vibrant church led by a messianic Jewish believer and his family - Pastor Nicolai. The worship services at this church was dynamic messianic praise in Russian and in Hebrew. The dance team was truly outstanding, mixing Russian and Jewish dance steps. This church too is very keen to work with us in reaching the Jewish people who are still scattered across their region.
Lost Sheep Found
But the highlight of our time in Magadan, and perhaps the entire trip was the time we spend at the Jewish community centre. God made a way for us to share a Shabbat dinner with about 30 members of the Magadan Jewish community. During the evening Lawrence shared about who we were and why we had come to Magadan and Rita shared her personal testimony of how she came to faith in Yeshua.
After the service, one of the Jewish ladies present was clearly very moved about what she had heard. Louise shared with her about the parable of the Lost Sheep and how we had come to Magadan to find the “forgotten Jews” of Far East Russia. She lifted up her index finger and said with tremendous conviction in her voice, “I am that lost sheep, I am Jewish and I want to receive Yeshua as my Messiah.” With tears streaming down her face, she prayed with us, right in the Jewish community centre, to receive the Messiah. What a moment! If we had embarked on this journey just for this one lost sheep, it would have been worth it. That night however, another Jewish lady also prayed to receive the Lord. Hallelujah!
We have an ongoing commitment to this region and will continue to support the work across Far East Russia. This year, God willing, we will lead another mission to share the Gospel with scattered Jews in the Sakhalin Islands and in Kamchatka. Your prayers would be greatly appreciated. – Lawrence Hirsch, Executive Director of Celebrate Messiah Australia.