Rabbi Shlomo Uzhansky was born in Kiev, raised in Philadelphia, and educated in upstate Monsey and Lakewood, N.J. After he married, he and his wife, Chana, moved to Jerusalem.
For the past three years, the rabbi has been spending more time in Staten Island and, since last summer, the rabbi has called Staten Island home. The borough is known for its growing population of Russian-speaking Jews, many of whom are unaffiliated. “People move there because they don’t want to be found,” he says. Many are professionals in their 20s and 30s with young children.
But find them he will. Originally brought to Staten Island by Rabbi Nathan Segal to coordinate outreach among Russian Jews in New Springville, Rabbi Uzhansky has since struck out on his own and expanded his reach to the entire borough. (He is not affiliated with Chabad). Two years ago, he started Nachas Hebrew School, a Sunday school for Russian Jews, which has grown to more than 30 children. “If you invite them for a lecture, they won’t show up,” he says. “But if it benefits their children, they’ll come.” Adult educational classes, which take place at the same time as the Hebrew school, are for parents who wish to learn more about Judaism.
The Hebrew school has since morphed into a community of 60 people who celebrate Shabbat and holidays together.
This September, Rabbi Uzhansky is preparing to open an RJJ-sponsored day school geared toward Russian Jews on Staten Island. The school will be housed within the Jewish Foundation School, a day school in the area, and will start with kindergarten, first, and second grades. Staten Island Hebrew Academy will “provide a Jewish education while at the same time meeting the unique academic needs of this community,” Rabbi Uzhansky says.
Stemming the tide of assimilation in the Russian Jewish community “has always been a passion of mine,” he says. “We’re using children’s education as a way to create a community.”
Did you know? In Russia, as a kid, Rabbi Uzhansky was a go-kart racer (he won third place in a regional competition) and took many years of kickboxing. A chef, too: When preparing for a big community-wide party, Rabbi Uzhansky is the one in the kitchen.