ARIEL bridges gap between Eastern European Jews on both sides of Atlantic

Rabbi Velvel Belinsky
Rabbi Velvel Belinsky (Pesie Cohen)

When the Russian war machine began steamrolling onto Ukrainian soil, it cut the lines of communications between some Ukrainian Jews and their friends and relatives around the world, including in Baltimore. Without a direct way to contact their loved ones in Ukraine, attendees of ARIEL – Jewish Russian Community Center and Synagogue, turned to its rabbi, Velvel Belinsky, and his contacts in a worldwide Chabad network to try and reach their kin.

This represents only one of the more recent instances in which ARIEL has served Baltimore’s Eastern European Jewish community. Since its founding in the mid-2000s, ARIEL has focused on its mission to provide this particular demographic with programming in Russian, Jewish education and a sense of community.

“We are a Jewish center serving primarily Jews from Eastern Europe, and their families,” said Belinsky. “And we are a community organization serving their educational, social, religious community needs.”

Belinsky founded ARIEL himself, officially incorporating in 2005, he said. Born in the Soviet Union, Belinsky came to the United States at 15. As a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he knew that after graduating from yeshiva he wanted to serve as a community’s rabbi. He was told that Baltimore had a large community of Jews from Eastern Europe, and that they lacked a community center attuned to their specific needs.

While many who come to ARIEL are fluent in English, particularly those who are middle aged or younger, many of its programs are in Russian for the benefit of those who prefer to speak it, said Belinsky, a resident of Pikesville. The center is also more in touch with the specific culture and food tastes of Eastern Europe. Beyond that, it provides a space for individuals of a similar background to meet with each other.

“People from various places do have [a] different mentality, and this mentality carries on from generation to generation very often,” Belinsky said. “There’s definitely many people from Eastern Europe [who] have a preference for being friends with other Jews from Eastern Europe, and who also want to have a synagogue for that specific community.”

Belinsky noted that religion was prohibited by law within the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, resulting in Jews from those countries being raised without a Jewish education.

“So when they arrived here today, their families had no knowledge about even the basics of Judaism, very often,” said Belinsky. “And now these people are growing up here, and they want, first of all, to learn themselves and [they also] want their children to receive what they have missed.”

As such, many of ARIEL’s programs focus on teaching the basics of Judaism, Belinsky said, while others are on more advanced levels.

While the center does not have a formal membership, Belinsky said that as many as several hundred commonly attend High Holiday services. Recently, ARIEL rented a bar to celebrate Purim this year, with a Russian stand-up comedian from New York supplying the evening’s entertainment. The event also helped raise funds for the Jewish communities of Ukraine, which has been on the minds of many of those who come to ARIEL.

“Many of our community members here have friends or relatives back there, in Ukraine,” Belinsky said, adding that some of those community members lacked a way to contact their friends and relatives in the war-torn country. Through his contacts in the Chabad movement, he noted, he has been able to convey messages back and forth between people in Ukraine and those in his community.

ARIEL’s fundraising efforts on behalf of Ukrainians are ongoing, Belinsky said.

Belinsky wants people to know that everyone is welcome at ARIEL, regardless of their affiliation or whether they are from Eastern Europe.

“We have a large variety of programs, and I’m sure they’ll be able to find one for them,” Belinsky said.

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