In the morning after breakfast Daniel and I planned for the Kabbalat Shabbat service we would be leading in the evening and took some time to rest. At 1:00 PM we met Mattvey, the youth group coordinator, and Emma, and walked with them to a restaurant for lunch. Mattvey is a chef – he graduated from a two year cooking degree program and works as a chef though his hobby is working with computers. With Emma’s help, we talked to Mattvey for a long time about a number of different subjects – it started off as a light conversation about cooking, life, movies, etc., but eventually became a very serious and informative talk. We learned that there is a lot of tension between Chabad and the progressive community. This is something we had learned about Chabad in the FSU generally – ((incidentally if you want to read a good summary of contemporary Jewish culture in Moscow there is a terrifically useful chapter in it in David Shneer and Caryn Aviv’s work New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora)) Matvey told us that Chabad claims it has the only legitimate form of Judaism and it does so in a noninclusive way – the Chabad Rabbi sad that a Jew married to a non-Jew is as toxic as a person with AIDS. 80% of the Jewish community in Lipetsk is intermarried and the progressive community welcomes non-Jewish family and friends as members of the community. Chabad has more money, government recognition, and international clout, while the progressive community here is more or less on its own. Chabad meets in a beautiful new synagogue and the progressive community in a small room in an office building, though the Chabad community is only a few years old and the progressive community was founded fifteen years ago.
We asked how much Jewish history the community knows and found that they know very little, and that the Holocaust is barely taught in public school. Certainly the Jews here are more aware of Holocaust history than are their non-Jewish counterparts, but that knowledge seems limited, and knowledge of Jewish history outside of the Holocaust is all but nonexistent.
Daniel and Mattvey talked at length about whether one needs to follow commandments to be a Jew. Mattvey argued against the Chabad model and Daniel mostly agreed with him that Jew should not feel obliged to follow all of the commandments in order to consider themselves Jewish. Moreover, he encouraged Matvey not to think of himself as practicing Judaism as defined by Orthodoxy incorrectly, but instead to think of himself as practicing progressive Judaism correctly.
We asked Mattvey if he wants to stay in Lipetsk or move away and he said he wants to stay – he can have a good job and a good life here. He told us that people are always thinking that life is bad in Lipetsk and would be better in Israel but Mattvey thinks that life here is good - he feels connected to the Jewish community here and has economic opportunities as a chef that might not be available to him elsewhere. He also feels connected to Jews around the world because he has family and friends in Israel, France, England, Belarus, and Ukraine. He has done training as a youth group leader and has gone to Jewish camps, so he has connections with Jews throughout Russia and the FSU. But ultimately Lipetsk is his home and where he wants to be.
After lunch we took a bus to a run down office building, and in a small room about the size of the living room in our Jerusalem apartment, we found the home of the progressive community. Apparently they used to be in a larger space but recently downsized because of the economic crisis.
We were visiting for a youth group meeting – about six youth groupers sat round a table and we were to answer their questions about Judaism, American Jewish life, and ourselves. They started by asking about youth group in America, and we answered their questions about its structure and size. Very quickly, though, Olga pushed the conversation toward how these Jews learned that they were Jewish (and when) and what this means for them. The stories were incredible and really beyond my expectations. Several of these teenagers had spent most of their childhoods not knowing that they were Jews. One boy, Zachar, learned that he was Jewish two years ago. His grandmother lives in Israel and when he was growing up his parents told him that his grandmother was in Australia. One day two years ago Zachar’s parents were talking about Israel and Zachar asked why they were talking about this subject. They revealed to him that his grandmother was actually in Israel and that the family was Jewish. He didn’t get involved in the Jewish community right away, but when he learned about MASA, Naaleh, and other such programs he went to Olga to ask her to be a reference for him, so that he can leave Lipetsk for Israel. As he was preparing by learning Hebrew, he realized that the Jews were just normal people and that he liked them, and he became involved with the youth group. Almost everyone in the room had similar stories – they learned that they were Jews recently and got involved in order to go on an Israel program. If it weren’t for these programs they wouldn’t have pursued their Jewish identities at all, but now they are active and learning and leading their lives as Jews. Only one of the students, Katya, had been involved in the Jewish community since she was little. She said that her mother has always had Jewish friends, but she doesn’t think she is really Jewish. She’s been a member of the community since she was seven and it is a major part of her life. When she was little she used to play Jewish songs on the keyboard for the community.
We asked if everyone wants to leave the community and Olga told us that most young people do not want to stay in Russia. I asked if this was sad for the community and she said that the goal of the community is to teach and foster Judaism and as long as the kids stay Jewish she considers it a success wherever they are. Many go to Israel, but a large percent do stay in Russia. The reasons that they want to go to Israel became progressively more clear to us as the conversation wore on. The Lipetsk economy is not good, and Israel offers a way out. Also the education in Israel is better. We gave them opportunities to ask us questions and Zachar asked Daniel how long he had been in Israel. “Did you serve in the US army then?” he asked. Mattvey explained to Zachar trhat in the US military service is not required and Zachar explained to us that many boys try to get to Israel because the conditions in the Israeli are much better than the Russian army, so they escape the Russian army and go into the Israeli one. We learned that Russian young men are drafted into the Russian army which has extreme hazing practices including beating, rapes, and death. Insufficient supplies, poor pay, and absence of proper training are only a few of the problems that make the Russian army such a terrifying possibility for Zachar and boys like him. Many young Russians escape from the draft through bribery and influence. They go to college to postpone the draft and after college they run away or pay money so they won’t have to go. Those who do go to the army are already disadvantaged – they don’t have the money for bribery. So it’s easy to understand why making aliyah seems like an attractive option.
Daniel asked what the students like about being Jewish and they said it has to do with the sense of community. People here would do anything for each other and are a family. They also said that being Jewish is interesting. Russians are very invested in conformity, but in the Jewish community it is possible to ask questions, talk about interesting and unusual subjects and learn new things. This makes Jews more interesting to these youths than are other people.
The youth group meeting was a surprising and really incredible conversation in which we began to understand what being Jewish means here. We later learned that other groups did not face similar stories of people discovering their Jewishness and wanting to make aliyah, and these stories might be more prevalent in Lipetsk than elsewhere – it’s hard to tell. Olga learned that she was Jewish fifteen years ago, and knew nothing about what that meant. She founded the Jewish community originally just so that Jewish people could meet each other and see other Jews. But the community came to realize that nothing would really happen for them if they couldn’t teach the children. Then Olga began to study Judaism. She has a degree in social work, but her office is lined with other certificates as well. She graduated from the Melton Institute of Jewish Education at Hebrew University, took part in a JCC leadership training institute in Vilna, wrote two award winning programs for her community, and much more. Single-handedly she teaches whoever wants to know what it means to be Jewish and sends the young people on Israel trips so that they can learn more. She is strong and even a bit bossy but is also incredibly talented and knowledgeable – she is a guitar player and songwriter, she is a leader of prayer, a teacher, and administrator, and a fundraiser. And she is a much loved matriarch who has built the community all by herself.
The kids thanked us warmly for our visit but I don’t think they learned nearly as much from us as we did from them – I will be thinking long and hard about them and what it means for them to be Jewish in Lipetsk.
After the youth group meeting, we had a few minutes to prepare a bit for Kabbalat Shabbat services. In the meantime, community members started coming in casually, bearing bowls of food, looking at pictures from Pesach on Olga’s older-looking computer, talking, and laughing. They pushed the tables to the side and set up rows of chairs facing an ark in which a Torah, donated by a congregation in Brooklyn, NY, rests.
Daniel, Emma, and I sat in front and before we began the service we introduced ourselves in more detail than the previous evening and everyone asked a lot of questions – how long are we in Israel, where are we from, what do we do, etc. They were interested that I study Yiddish alongside English literature at university as those things seemed drastically different to them. They asked if my family speaks Hebrew or Yiddish and where I learned the languages.
We began the service. Olga usually leads the services each week and so they know some but not all of the tunes and prayers but they were eager to participate and to sing along where they could. I led most of the music, and Daniel gave a short drash (translated by Emma) about the Torah portion and the congregation listened carefully, nodding their heads to confirm their understanding. After services, as we folded our talitot, the congregation pulled out the tables and chairs and laid the table with food they had brought – salads, fish, vegetables, a latke-like patty made out of matzoh, etc. We sat down to partake of the feast.
We sat at one end of the table and Olga sat at the head. Across the table she called to Emma “What do they do on Shabbat? Do they have food at synagogue?” and the conversation proceeded – questions from Olga and our responses, with comments from around the table and frequent urges for Emma to take a rest and eat and let another English speaker translate a bit. The conversation quickly moved from questions about our Shabbat to questions about our families – are our brothers and sisters all Jewish? Are they Chabad or Reform? This led into a heated conversation about Chabad, which is constantly insulting the community and challenging their sense of authenticity. Olga often hears complaints about Chabad from her community members but she tries to smooth things over because she wants the Jewish community to be able to present a united front. It’s hard enough to be Jewish in Lipetsk without internal problems – Russians do not like people who are different. Chabad has official relationshops with the government, has a whole beautiful building, but not enough congregants to fill it, and everyone we spoke to seems to feel that the community would be better off with no rabbi than with a Chabad rabbi who competes for their members. Of course we did not speak with any members of the Chabad synagogue, who I’m sure have a different opinion. Nevertheless, it is clear that Chabad is imposing its own views about Judaism on a community that is uncomfortable with them.
We paused our conversation a bit in order to do some singing – in Russian with Olga playing the guitar. They sang a song about Jewish eyes which are filled with tears of joy and sadness – you know Jews anywhere because of their eyes. We heard a song about the “rights of Jewish women” which was called “I will marry Jewish.” In it the women say that it is better to find a Jewish man because he will treat them well –he won’t spend his money and time on alcohol, if he is out late it is because he is working, etc. I’m not sure how well a song like this about Jewish superiority would go over in the US but in a country where “Jew” is still somewhat of a slur, I could see why promoting positive self image is so important.
After singing we again became the focus of conversation. They asked us how we were chosen to go to Russia and we explained a bit about the FSU project and how we are a part of a larger group sent throughout the FSU and had requested to go to Russia because Daniel’s family is originally from there. They asked a question about how we were able to pay for the trip during the financial crisis and as Katya translated she said that everyone is always thinking about and worrying about the crisis. I explained our fundraising activity and they seemed please that our communities were so willing to send us to the FSU and to think that it was a worthy project. As the evening wore on, the conversation drifted to Yiddish. They told me that here only a few older people know Yiddish and the language is dying out. They are very sorry that the young people don’t know any Yiddish and the older people have no one to talk to. Not only did they want to talk about my chosen profession, they seemed especially eager to talk to Daniel in his Rabbinical role. People asked him questions as a rabbinical authority – one woman asked when she should commemorate yartzheit for her grandfather who passed away in the Holocaust – she doesn’t know where or when. Someone else had questions about brit milah. Daniel answered all of these questions adeptly and patiently. I took on a cantorial role, I suppose, in that they asked me to sing some songs for them. I sang a few songs in Yiddish that were easy to learn and these seemed to be appreciated and enjoyed. One congregant told me that I should become a professional singer. In fact, the community veritably flooded us with compliments though they insisted that these were not compliments but truths. They told us that we were the first rabbinical students who they felt really communicated why they had come. They appreciated our enthusiasm and they said that they believe that Daniel is a very special, wise person who will be a natural fit as a rabbi. They told us we should consider ourselves to be part of their community – honorary members who are always welcome to return, and gave us a gift of postcards of Liptesk that we can take back with us.
Soon it was time to leave and we hugged and kissed everyone and tore ourselves away from our new friends in order to pack our bags and catch the train to Moscow. In the hotel as we were packing, Daniel and I discussed that we were able to be so successful because of Emma, who made it possible for us to understand and communicate so fluidly.
On the train we stayed up late, playing cards and joking with Emma.