"We must come back." This is the call of a people who will not give up, the call of the Jews of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) who never lost hope they would one day rebuild their community and live freely as Jews in their homeland. Glasnost, a Russian word for "openness," marked the five-year period of reforms (Perestroika) initiated by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that ultimately led to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the beginning of Jewish renewal throughout the land.
"We must come back," said 34-year-old Katiana who knew little of her own Jewishness but today is proud of her emerging Jewish self-hood. "Jewish identity does not happen by osmosis," Katiana said, "but by decision. That's why I am here."
Here was the Jewish Family Education Training Seminar held the week of October 14 first, in the Mendeleev Conference Center outside Moscow and later, in the Nikitskaya Jewish Communal Center in the city. Jo Kay, Director of the New York School of Education of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was part of a team of five teachers, three from the U.S., and two from the FSU (Yulia Karchevskaya from Moscow, Oleg Melamed from Saratov), who led the students through four days of workshops on how to involve families in living Jewish lives. The students, from five countries in the FSU - Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Uzbekistan - were sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Consortium for the Future of the Jewish Family: Expanding the Work of Whizin.
"Each participant," Kay said, "experienced these sessions on both a personal and professional basis. By responding to questions and reflecting on personal experiences, we prepare ourselves to teach and guide others through similar experiences. Only if we feel deeply about our work can we engender deep feelings in others. This is what is so powerful about this work."
"Two years ago," said 21-year-old Yuri, "I learned I was Jewish. Since then I have wanted to learn more about what it means to be Jewish." Russian-born Yuri and Katiana were among 26 students, ranging in age from 17 to the mid- 50's, who have wanted to learn more about what it means to be Jewish and who participated in the seminar. The students are teachers themselves working in their communities as youth group leaders, family camp counselors and early childhood educators.
The interactive workshops conducted by the seminar teachers (with a translator) began with students being asked to consider the lives of biblical figures, such as Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Ruth, and relate to one who has a strong connection to something in their own lives. This was an activity that enabled the participants to find themselves in the Jewish people's "master story," the Torah. Students were then asked to share a family story that gave particular insight to themselves, as Jews and as educators. Other activities focused on parenting, communication within the family, meeting challenges as a family, rituals, values, and community building. The seminar participants, teachers and students, together studied Jewish texts, ate meals and sang songs. The seminar itself was a model of Jewish community building.
Abby Pitkowsky, the JDC's Director of Jewish Education, Global Programs and coordinator of the seminar and Chana Silberstein, Director of Informal and Experiential Education at the New York Board of Jewish Education (BJE) joined Kay as part of the U.S. teaching team. At their invitation, Rabbi Alan Kay led a text study discussion on the last day of the seminar, centered on the Torah portion of the week, Lech Lecha, "Go forth." Here, Abram and Sarai (not yet Abraham and Sarah) are called upon by God to "go forth" and establish a home in the land of Canaan, the land that will ultimately become Israel. As we read Abram and Sarai's Jewish journey, the participants shared their own. They discussed how to enable Jewish families from the FSU to begin or continue their own journeys into Judaism.
Today, there is estimated to be more than 300,000 Jews living in Russia (200,000 in Moscow, 100,000 in St. Petersburg and smaller numbers in other cities) perhaps 1.5 million throughout the FSU. There are Jewish community centers, universities and newspapers and, of course, synagogues.
Soon after arriving in Moscow, the educators from the US attended, along with approximately 50 others, a Friday evening Reform service in a small "prayer hall" in the Moed Moscow Communal Center. The Hebrew liturgy and melodies were familiar to us, and the newly-ordained from Leo Baeck College in London, 32-year-old rabbi, Leonid Bimbat, and the 38-year-old chazzan, Dima Karpenko, (who studied for one year at HUC's Jerusalem campus in the cantorial program) were inspired and inspirational. Later, the senior rabbi, Sasha Lyskovoy, who was ordained in 2004, and his wife, Natasha Verzhbovsha, told us that this congregation is growing so fast, they will soon need their own building. (Natasha has been accepted to the NYSOE and has been studing Hebrew this year in preparation for entering the YII program this summer). Indeed, the growth of the Moscow Jewish community is evident in the activities at perhaps the oldest Jewish site in Moscow, the Choral Synagogue, an Orthodox community which dates back to 1891, and which is led by the chief rabbi of Moscow, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt. Renovations having been completed only recently, the sanctuary is a magnificent sacred space. On Shabbat morning, Kay worshipped in the sanctuary, which was filled with more than one hundred men and women and dozens of children.
"It's never too late to come back," said Inga, a Muscovite and one of the older students who works with interfaith families helping to strengthen their Jewish identity. Jews and Judaism are coming back in the FSU, because you can go home again.