At one time, Rabbi Yitzchok Wolpin was the chief rabbi of Belarus. Today, he’s got a less lofty title but, he says, no less an important job to do.
Since September, the 45-year-old has been dean of the Kollel in Northeast Philadelphia, which is housed at Congregation Beth Solomon. The synagogue, founded by Rabbi Solomon Isaacson, has long been known for its outreach to Russian-speaking Jews.
A kollel is a setting where married yeshiva graduates spend two to four years studying texts, supported by their community, while also teaching and doing outreach work in the community.
The Northeast kollel, which began eight years ago, currently has 14 full-time students, including some from the former Soviet Union and some born in Israel. Wolpin said some of the students will go on to be rabbis and teachers. “The kollel is a very essential part of the community,” he said, adding that his students “are the spiritual examples within the community.”
The rabbi grew up in the Orthodox enclave of Monsey, N.Y. Right now, he’s spending half his time there and the other half in Philadelphia. He’s a member of the Karlin-Stoliner Chasidic sect, which originated in the 18th century in what is now Belarus, a region in the former Soviet Union.
In 1988, when Wolpin had just completed his rabbinical studies, the Karlin-Stoliner Rebbe, Borouch Meir Yaakov Shochet Shlit’a, asked him to learn Russian and head to what was still the Soviet Union to teach Judaism to Jews who had lost connection with their faith.
He spent the next several years traveling around Belarus and Ukraine teaching about Judaism and setting up a Russian-speaking yeshiva in Israel. In 1992, Shochet asked Wolpin to move to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where he was appointed the country’s chief rabbi.
Wolpin compared the Jews still living in the former Soviet republics after the fall of communism in the early 1990s to those who were slaves in Egypt: Spiritually, they were in a critical state. But even as nearly all Jewish knowledge had been forgotten, the community still contained a spark of light.
“Today, there is no comparison,” he said. “There are stores selling kosher food, there are mikvehs, there are shuls. People are not afraid to declare themselves. Judaism has definitely come a long way from that time.”
A one-time guest at his Shabbat table in Belarus, Sasha Tamarkin now lives in Philadelphia and is active in the Beth Solomon shul. He contacted Wolpin when the position of running the kollel opened up. One thing led to another, and Wolpin ended up accepting the job.
Currently, the position of chief rabbi in Belarus is unoccupied. Wolpin left that job in 1996 but continued for years to be active in the former Soviet Union, traveling back often to give lectures and lead services.
In addition to teaching the yeshiva students, Wolpin is offering classes and lectures that are open to the wider community. “I believe,” he said, “that there are many, many people, both American Jews, Russian Jews — and I might even say Israeli Jews — that are waiting for an opportunity to come closer to yiddishkeit, to have a place where they can be comfortable, where they won’t be judged,” and yet be “guided and directed to authentic Judaism.”