Igor Dabakarov's Big Family
March 28, 2007Comments (2)
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Igor Dabakarov is the Hillel director in Ulyanovsk, Russia.
By Yasha Moz
Igor Dabakarov’s story begins 30 years ago in the Uzbekistan city of Samarkand, the cradle of the Bukharian Jewish community. The 120,000 Jews of the region continued to preserve their customs and religion even during the darkest days of the Soviet times. But soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost all the Jews left the unstable region. Many moved to either Israel or Brooklyn. But Dabakarov’s family moved to Ulyanovsk, Russia where his father opened a small shoemaker business. For Igor, it was a difficult transition. He spoke very little Russian and desperately missed the sense of belonging that accompanied his life in Samarkand.
When Dabakarov’s family went to Samarkand to celebrate Passover, a lecture given by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz changed his life. The rabbi spoke about freedom and slavery and called on his listeners to free those enslaved Jews afraid or ashamed to come out. “It was like he was speaking directly to me. I realized that the Jews of Ulyanovsk are just like that; they either have forgotten about their Jewishness or are afraid to remember,” he recounts.
Still in high school, Dabakarov and his brother, Arthur, returned to Ulyanovsk motivated to kick-start Jewish life. They gathered the support of the city’s Jewish culture club and started the first Jewish youth club. They named it “Mishpacha G’dola” – the big family in Hebrew.
“The next summer Arthur and I went to Israel. We worked hard for two months, cleaning streets and offices, and earned $5,000 that we initially planned to spend on a new car, but ended up spending on our youth club,” he says.
Today, Arthur is a successful businessman who chairs the community board and has never regretted that decision. The youth club that started with just a few friends now has almost 300 members. The group holds about 20 programs each year and celebrates Shabbat weekly, which is easily the most attended program.
“As we grew other organizations started helping us – Hillel, JDC, Jewish Agency and Chabad – says Dabakarov. Until recently, he worked long hours as the Hillel director, the Jewish Community Center director, the Chesed Welfare Center director in addition to conducting all the religious services. However, the community has just hired a permanent rabbi.
But the titles and organizational differences are almost a formality in the small community of Ulyanovsk. From the very beginning students were the most active community members and always helped the elderly by distributing food packages and conducting daily classes on Jewish tradition.
There are approximately 2,000 people involved in Ulyanovsk Jewish community life, but the number is nothing short of a miracle.
“From the very beginning we introduced the idea of community membership that is still nonexistent in the most of the FSU [Former Soviet Union],” explains Dabakarov. “Everybody makes a small annual contribution – from the students to the elderly and that really makes a difference here as people feel their contribution matters and feel more connected and responsible.”
Many students rush to Hillel after school. They sometimes stay until after midnight to participate in and run their own projects, or just hang out. Like Maxim Polin, 23, a computer programmer during the day, who comes to Hillel to edit the community newsletter in the evening. Polin also teaches Hebrew and computer classes at the Sunday school. “I spend most of my time here,” he says. “It’s my life now. I even met my girlfriend here!”
In fact, Mishpacha G’dola is very proud that four couples have already stood under the chupah in the community center.
Despite his busy schedule, Dabakarov even finds time for his other passion– music. He has recorded two albums and toured Russia, Israel, Italy, France and the United States. A showman at all the Hillel FSU seminars, he makes everyone laugh at his jokes and cry at his songs.
This past winter Mishpacha G’dola celebrated its fifth anniversary. Congratulations came from different parts of the countries. Several Hillel centers prepared dances, sketches and songs to celebrate this event with the Ulyanovsk Jewish community. But the evening reached its climax when Dabakarov took to the stage and started singing songs in Russian and then Hebrew. It wasn’t long before the students joined him on stage. A few minutes later, they were throwing their leader in the air.
When asked to explain why he has tirelessly committed himself to resurrecting Jewish life in Ulyanovsk, Dabakarov often shares this story with his friends: An elderly man who was walking on a nearly deserted beach. He came upon a boy surrounded by thousands and thousands of starfish. As eagerly as he could, the youngster was picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean. Puzzled, the older man looked at the young boy and asked, "Little boy, what are you doing?" The youth responded without looking up, "I'm trying to save these starfish, sir." The old man chuckled aloud, and responded, "Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?" Holding a starfish in his hand, the boy turned to the man and gently tossed the starfish into the water and said, "I just made a difference to that one!"
Like the little boy and the starfish, Dabakarov, with energy, happiness and a zest for Jewish life, has made a difference to thousands of young Jews across the Former Soviet Union and the Jewish community of Ulyanovsk. One starfish at a time.
Yasha Moz is program associate for the International division of Hillel at the Schusterman International Center. He was the Hillel director in Ekaterinburg, Russia.