Helping a lost generation discover its Jewishness

January 19, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

God, says Paysach Diskind, is in the midst of his latest miracle.

And Mr. Diskind wants in on it.

When communism fell in 1990 and the former Soviet Union began allowing Jews to leave -- nothing short of a miracle, says Mr. Diskind -- thousands of Russian Jews began arriving in Baltimore.

Mr. Diskind has made it his business to meet just about every one of them -- not to peddle insurance or sign them up for English classes.

He says: "I want them to be good Jews."

A former salesman for the phone company, Mr. Diskind now works full time trying to make good Jews out of people who grew up under a system that said there was no God.

He began his work as a free-lance volunteer after visiting Russia in 1989. He returned to his native Baltimore, taught himself Russian with the help of a tutor, and, on the assumption that immigrants would warm to the idea, began talking to new arrivals about what it means to be Jewish.

Since 1990, more than 4,000 have landed here.

Today, Mr. Diskind operates ACHIM -- a Hebrew acronym meaning brothers -- with a $70,000 annual budget, some of it donated by the Jewish charity group called The Associated and the rest from his own fund raising.

"What's a good Jew?" asks Mr. Diskind, a happy, passionate man of 36, an Orthodox Jew who runs a small Hebrew school and briefly studied to be a rabbi. "To be a Jew is to have a unique relationship with God. And a good Jew is someone who develops that relationship, if only to light a candle on Friday night."

If all one knows of his heritage is that the Soviets stamped "JEW" on his papers, any step toward Judaism is a development. And the young people know the least.

"Something," says Mr. Diskind, "had to be done."

So, at least once a week, he revs up his 1984 Caprice Classic station wagon with 106,000 miles on it and rides around Pikesville and Owings Mills, picking up immigrant teen-agers for informal rap sessions about God and Jews and everything in between. This week, the meeting was in the basement of Anna Liberman's house. Anna, 16, and seven of her Russian friends sat on a sofa dressed like typical American teen-agers.

Across from them, the black-suited Mr. Diskind, a yarmulke on the crown of his head and religious fringe hanging from his waist, sat hunched forward on a wooden chair, challenging the kids to question their very existence.

Some of the kids admitted to being atheist back in Russia, where the big cities had token synagogues for show. One didn't know he was Jewish until he was 8 years old, when a classmate called him an ugly name. Most knew more about the religion of "the other God" -- the Jesus of their Russian Orthodox friends -- than they did of their own faith.

Maintaining that he is not trying to proselytize immigrants into becoming observant Jews -- only two of the thousands to whom he's spoken have embraced Orthodoxy -- Mr. Diskind says he merely tries to get people to probe themselves.

"Some of the kids are very careful not to eat pork; some don't care. But all of these decisions are made by them, not even suggested by me," he said. "I don't want to impose me on them, I want them to feel good about being Jewish and let them take it from there."

On Tuesday night, trying to get the teen-agers to ask themselves how they know there is or is not a God, Mr. Diskind challenged the youngsters to question the existence of everything.

"How do you know you have 10 fingers?" he asked. "How do you know you are your mother's child?" "How do you know this piano isn't God?"

The young people argued back with verve.

"I know because I'm sitting here," said one.

"Are you sure?" Mr. Diskind asked, throwing a twist into the discussion: Would a confirmed atheist pray for his dead father if the father had requested it on his death bed?

"Of course," the children answered.

"Why, if he's already dead and it doesn't matter?" Mr. Diskind countered.

For the better course of an hour, the discussion didn't go much further than that.

"I'm not trying to prove anything," Mr. Diskind said before the kids piled into his station wagon for the ride home. "It's a good experience to think. For next week, I want you to think about the things you know and the things you're not sure of and ask yourself why."

And, while many of his questions and much of his logic may seem strange to his young friends, it is Paysach Diskind, said one girl, "who for many of us is the only source of Jewishness we can get."

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