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Forty years after Jews from the former Soviet Union began emigrating to Israel, the United States and other nations, many still carry minimal knowledge of what it really means to be Jewish. Those who live in this Jewish Diaspora remain disconnected from communal and religious life.

Rabbi Alexander Kaller and his wife Chani, both Chabad emissaries, have dedicated their lives to giving the Russian-speaking Jews in South Florida a sense of community, heritage, and purpose.

Growing up in the Soviet Union, Rabbi Kaller knew he was Jewish, but didn’t know what that meant. His lack of knowledge about his heritage was such that he had never heard of Yom Kippur, Passover, and other Jewish holidays. At the age of 16, he traveled to London and spent two years studying in a Yeshiva.

There, he was inspired by one of his teachers to pay it forward, and he set out to earn his Rabbinical degree with the goal of giving back to the Jewish Russian-speaking community. His dream was to provide his Russian speaking brethren with the opportunities of learning about their heritage, tradition and culture. Upon the completion of his studies, he settled in South Florida to serve the spiritual needs of the high influx of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants.

After marrying Chani, who has previously spent time working in the Jewish community of Moscow, in 2003 the couple established the Chabad Russian Center in Sunny Isles Beach, FL.

What started with a dream and a lot of door-knocking has since blossomed into a thriving community of over 3,500 Miami-area families.

In 2007 Alex and Chani began The Gan preschool (the first and still the only Jewish-Russian Early Childhood Center in Florida) with just six children, and eventually, enrollment grew to the point of max capacity in the small school space. The couple takes a personal interest in every student and their families—ensuring each classroom is staffed with a bilingual teacher who is fluent in both English and Russian, and take active roles in building the school’s progressive curriculum approach and fostering a sense of community amongst the enrolled families.

Making a Difference for Generations to Come

For the past few years, the Gan’s classes have been at full capacity. With plans underway for the organization to build a new Jewish Community Center in Sunny Isles Beach, FL the old school building was sold with the expectation that the JCC complex would be complete in two to three years.

However, the school building’s new owner had plans to construct a new project on the current school site well before the new JCC would be finished. The Kallers were eventually faced with a choice: Either close the school until the JCC opened its doors, or find another space to rent in the interim.

Closing the school that has become a second home for so many children and families didn’t feel right.  Allowing for long time staff members to lose their jobs they have come to love and invested so much time and effort into, was hard to justify. And mostly, the Kallers didn’t want to take a break in serving this important need of the community.

As Jewish immigrants from Russia, my wife Raissa and I strongly identify with the Kallers and their mission. Through the Finker-Frenkel Family Foundation, we were able to help them continue and expand their work. Our family foundation provided funds that enabled The Gan preschool to rent out and renovate a new space, which the school will utilize until the new JCC opens its doors.

No destructive break for the children and their families was required—and on top of that, even more Jewish-Russian children can forge connections with their heritage while construction on the new JCC in Sunny Isles Beach is underway (the groundbreaking was held several months ago).

When the JCC is complete, an entire floor will house a preschool for more than 100 students. The complex will also encompass Hebrew school classrooms, a synagogue, athletic facilities, library and space for Jewish-themed aftercare programs.

Rabbi Alex and Chani believe there is something fundamentally communal about bringing Jewish young people together in a space that is safe and filled with Jewish culture: Teaching the next generation to embrace their heritage will help to create a lasting Jewish community.