RELIGION
11/01/2010 08:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Russian Jews Reaffirm Faith with Help from N.J. Group

Susan Todd
The Star-Ledger/Religion News Service

(RNS) Veronika and Oleg Bilerman exchanged wedding vows a quarter of a century ago in an unremarkable civil ceremony in the former Soviet Union. Their Jewish faith was never acknowledged.

It wasn't until Sunday (Oct. 31) that the couple, who now live in Fair Lawn, N.J., with their two children, finally celebrated their marriage in a traditional Jewish ceremony featuring a chupah, or canopy.

"You come to a point in your life when you want to do things," Veronika Bilerman said as she waited to be photographed in a cream-colored gown trimmed with gold sequins. "This was sitting in me for a long time."

In an annual gala hosted by Bris Avrohom, a Hillside, N.J.-based organization dedicated to providing community services to Russian-Jewish immigrants, the Bilermans were one of 11 couples who sought God's blessings under the chupah.

In the former Soviet Union, the pursuit of any religion was prohibited.

During the past 25 years, more than 700 couples have celebrated "chupah" as a way of marking their marriages with religious services and customs, said Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky, the executive director and spiritual leader of Bris Avrohom.

The couples spanned decades, their ages ranging from mid-30s to 60s. Most were decades into their marriages; some in second marriages. Even those who described themselves as "not religious" expressed an appreciation for enriching their lives with religion.

In the former Soviet Union, a person who attended synagogue or pursued religious studies jeopardized their careers and risked going to prison.

"I'm very happy to be here (in the United States)," said Naum Barash, a 59-year-old Brooklyn resident who was among the grooms.

Sheyva and Gennady Bosoy of Manalapan, N.J., could only begin acknowledging -- and learning about -- their Jewish faith after immigrating to the U.S. in 1985.

"We were only Russian in the Soviet Union," Bosoy said. "We became religious here. I guess now God is going to bless us."

Shterney Kanelsky, the rabbi's wife and the associate director of Bris Avrohom, said the new appreciation happens to many of the couples as they prepare for chupah.

"They become more immersed," she said. "They become very proud of their Jewish culture."