This blog represents only the opinion of its writers

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Value Proposition of Judaism in Russia

By Tzvi Raviv (MA/MBA)

The Genesis Philanthropy Group invited a group of Hornstein Students to Moscow this winter, and I was fortunate to be part of this unique experience. In the early 1990's my hometown of Aheqelon, Israel greeted the dissolvent of the Soviet Union. Russian immigration to Israel altered every sector of my small coastal city. We had new students in class that spoke only Russian, stores posted signs in Cyrillic, and discarded Russian language newspapers were found on busses and park benches. I too come from a Russian background, but unlike the post-soviet era immigrants, my family left Russia after the pogroms that followed the Russo-Japanese War. Unfortunately, their first stop was not the Holy Land. They sought refuge for increasing anti-Semitism in Russia in Argentina. Thus, my parents immigration to Israel in 1971 is a preamble to the Jewish-Russian immigration narrative. My ancestral connection to this narrative made me feel closer to the post-soviet immigrants who would eventually become my peers in school and in Israel’s Army. As recent immigrants to Israel, my family took an active role in the absorption of Jewish-Russian immigrants by hiring them and giving them opportunities to provide for their families and feel self-sufficient in their old-new homeland.

Prior to the visit, I read the book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, a history of the Soviet Jewry movement by Gal Beckerman. Beckerman’s book illustrates the difficulties to maintain Jewish life in Soviet times. A period in history in where people were thrown into jail for teaching Hebrew. Twenty years after the downfall of the Soviet Union things are totally different for Russian Jews. Since the downfall of the Soviet Union, Russian Jews are free to practice in Jewish life and to choose where to live, in Russia or abroad.

The visit to Moscow included visits to Jewish institutions in the city. While all the Jewish institutions that I visited do an exceptional job in their support of Jewish life, I will cherish the visit at the Jewish orphanage. The director of the Jewish orphanage is a lady with great love and care for the children, and the orphanage community seems like a big family. The residents of orphanage that age-out get support in starting an independent life.

Under the Soviet regime, Jews could not participate in Jewish life, while currently Jews in Russia enjoy religious freedom. Now days, like other diaspora Jews, Russian Jews have to choose to be Jewish. The Jewish establishment in Russia is facing a similar question as other diaspora communities are facing, what is the value proposition of Judaism today?

It is up to Jewish educators to support the formation of a positive Jewish identity, which is based on the richness of the tradition and Jewish faith. I hope upon my graduation from the Hornstein program to play an active role in assisting young Jews to choose Judaism.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

We Once Stood Together at Sinai

 By Rebecca Shapiro (BA/MA)

It is with great sadness that I write this blog, knowing that it is our last night in Moscow.  The past four days have been a remarkable experience that exposed us to the breadth of Jewish life in Moscow and the community’s commitment to supporting both individuals and institutions. We are gratful for the phenomenal hospitality received from the Jewish community here.

On Friday night we enjoyed a dinner coordinated by the e-club, short for ‘ivrim’ club. This Jewish club brings together post-college age members of the community to share in Shabbat dinners, holiday parties, learning and philanthropy. During the dinner I was struck by the words of one woman in the group. She told a story of an encounter in Israel with a man that looked familiar.  She asked him where she might know him from, and he responded “You don’t remember? We met thousands of years ago at the foot of Sinai. Every Jew was there, you must remember.”  These powerful words reminded each of us of our connection to Jews throughout the world.  Jews throughout the world may practice or observe Judaism differently, yet despite these differences we share a powerful common history.  Sitting in the Choral Synagogue on Shabbat morning, I was once again reminded of this concept, as members of the community invited us into their homes for Shabbat lunches and attempted to set us up with their sons, simply because we are Jewish.  We share one powerful connection, our past.

During our trip to Moscow we visited incredible institutions such as a Jewish orphanage, Gan Chama- a Jewish Childcare center, a budding Reform community, and the Chabad and Nikitskaya Jewish Community Centers.  Each location had a profound impact on the group. Prior to the trip, each of us read Gal Beckerman’s When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle of Soviet Jewry, which discussed the history of the Jewish communities in Russia, and their fight to remain Jewish.  The community is able to thrive today as a result of organizations like those listed above that are committed to connecting Jews throughout Moscow.

Just as the community reached out to us because of our shared history, this trip has showed me how I can support and partner with the remarkable Moscow community.  I will never forget the faces of the children in the Jewish orphanage, who live a well-adjusted and happy life as a result of the loving support of their community.  I am struck by the Moscow Jews and will forever feel a connection to them, as we once stood together at Sinai.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Genesis Philanthropy Group Welcomes Hornstein Students to Moscow

Hornstein students, both Russian-speakers and non-Russian speakers, are in Moscow to learn about the present-day Russian Jewish community within the context of its historical roots. Hornstein students recognize that to be effective and inclusive Jewish professional leaders -- in North America, Israel, and throughout the world - it is vital that they gain  strong appreciation of the unique cultural and religious perspective that Russian Jews bring to the conversation. In the words of one trip participant who does not speak Russian: "I wish to learn about the post-communist recovery of the Jewish community in Russia, the steps that led to the renaissance of Jewish life in Russia, an the future vision for the community in an era of post-immigration to Israel."

Vlad Khaykin Writes about the changes in Jewish life since the Soviet era

Russia is a different place today than it was the last time I was here some thirteen years ago, and certainly much different than the country from which my family emigrated in 1989. As Russia drifts further away from its Soviet past and economic and other developments continue to improve the life of the average Russian, the Former Soviet Union has become a more hospitable environment for the blossoming of Jewish life. During our trip thus far we have experienced a number of developments in Moscow’s Jewish community that would have been unimaginable even fifteen years ago. Perhaps the most striking of these is the recent expansion of the Lipman Jewish School, as it is known. A multi-story educational complex, the Lipman school -- complete with a gymnasium, theatre, modern kosher cafeteria, computer and video labs, art studio, and a beautiful synagogue -- is a testament to the incredible rennaissance of Jewish life in the Former Soviet Union.

Upon arrival at the school we were greeted by several of its older students from the school -- including several whom I recognized from Brandeis’ Genesis program last summer -- and were welcomed by the principal and founder of the Lipman School, Gregory Lipman. After a tour of this amazing school, with each Hornsteiner assigned their own student guide, we watched two videos about the development of the school and student life, the latter of which was produced entirely by the students in their modern multimedia lab. Following this was a question and answer session between Hornstein and the Lipman students and their principal. Both groups were interested in one another and had many questions to ask. One Lipman student, who was beginning his college application process, expressed interest in Brandeis University. We look forward to a fruitful relationship between our communities and anticipate receiving many quality applicants to Brandeis University from this amazing Jewish school.

Moreover, our visit left us incredibly inspired and hopeful about the future of Jewish life in the FSU. Where just several decades ago learning Hebrew was considered subversive activity and expressing zionist sentiments would get one thrown in jail or sent off to a Siberian gulag (work-camp), today Russia's Jews can openly send their children to a Jewish school that would be the envy of many North American Jewish communities.