This year, Jessica and I spent much of Passover in Russia on HUC's FSU Pesach Project. We had an amazing time and learned a tremendous amount. Below is a summary of our trip that catches the essence of the experience. If you'd like more detail about any part of the trip, you can definitely find it in Jessica's more extensive account of our trip. Also, don't forget to check out our pictures!
Every year, HUC sends a delegations of students to countries in the Former Soviet Union to help facilitate progressive Jewish communities’ Passover celebrations and to learn about Jewish life in the FSU. This year, my girlfriend Jessica and I—with the support of almost 70 contributors—were blessed with the opportunity to travel to Russia to participate in this unforgettable program. For six very full days we visited sites and communities in Moscow and Lipetsk, and the experience we gained in that short week will stay with us for many Passovers to come.
We arrived in Russia on Tuesday and met our amazing translator, Emma, without whom we most certainly would have been hopelessly lost during the course of the trip. We struggled through the traffic of Moscow (home to 15 million people), checked into our hotel, visited the community center for progressive Judaism in Moscow, taught a short lesson on new rituals in the Passover seder, ate dinner with one of the two regional progressive rabbis based in Moscow, and walked down historic Old Arbat Street (where I tasted some absolutely luxurious hot chocolate) … and this first day was a simple one!
We spent the first part of Wednesday at the Machon, which is based in the Jewish cultural center we had visited the day before. The Machon is a Jewish education program that students attend half-time for one or two years in order to be trained as para-rabbinic Jewish leaders in their communities. The students we met were between the ages of 18 and 30, and a number of them came from fine arts backgrounds. After joining them and the community’s cantor for Shacharit services, Jessica and I facilitated an in-depth text study of Ha Lachma Anya, a text found toward the beginning of the Passover Hagaddah. Aside from our brief half-hour lesson the day before, this was our first significant experience communicating with a group of people via translator, and we found the process both difficult and rewarding. Of course, we weren’t able to communicate all of our thoughts as clearly as we would have liked, but on the other hand, we were forced to boil our points down to the most important principles.
At the end of the text study, the students had time to ask us any questions that were on their mind. We were fascinated to be asked questions like, “How do American Jews relate to the Holocaust?” and “Is there anti-Semitism in the United States?” We learned almost as much about Russian perspectives on American Judaism as they learned about us.
After peeling some quail eggs with community members in the upstairs kitchen, Jessica, Emma, and I headed to our first seder with the Jewish English-speaking Ex-Pats (JEEPS). Hosted in a posh apartment in central Moscow, guests at this seder included a collection of businessmen, academics, and Israeli government officials drawn together by a savvy and well-connected hostess. Since many of the guests were stuck in traffic, Jessica and I conversed with these guests for a while on topics such as Russian Jewry, Yiddish literature, and our professional goals. The seder was led by the head of Oxford University’s Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and Jessica and I contributed only slightly. The main value of our presence was to help forge a connection between the indigenous Moscow liberal community and JEEPS, who could serve as a significant resource for the struggling organization.
We had to leave the seder early to catch our train to Lipetsk, a city described to us as “just outside Moscow.” We boarded the train, stored our luggage, and settled in to sleep on our ten-hour train ride. The train cabin was tiny, but the ride was pleasant. When we arrived in Lipetsk, we were greeted by four smiling and enthusiastic members of Chesed Yonah, the fifteen-year-old progressive Jewish community in this city of 500,000.
As we drove down Lenin Road (passing Soviet Road and Revolution Road), we were informed that, while there was an effort to restore streets in Moscow back to their pre-Soviet Union names, no such initiative was being undertaken here. After checking into our hotel, showering, and eating breakfast, two English speaking young women joined us for a tour of Lipetsk. We walked down wide streets, past ornate and Spartan buildings, and stopped at not a few monuments. Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, and an enormous statue of him sits near a central park where old men often gather to play Chess. An iron factory dominates the local economy, which, as in many places, is currently depressed.
We visited the new Chabad synagogue, the Lipetsk Historical Museum, and sat down to our first kosher-for-Passover lunch (which, more often than not, was a simple salad). After some final seder preparations, we took a taxi to The Cave, a restaurant that members of Chesed Yonah rent four times a year for their major Jewish celebrations. When we got to the restaurant and saw the DJ setting up his equipment, we knew this wouldn’t be an ordinary seder.
The community members that we met were extremely welcoming and friendly. They were excited to see us, and the youth group was particularly eager to spend time with us. As guests arrived, we were discussing with Emma whether we should assume that people will go ahead and eat during the “seder” portion of the night or whether we should start our presentation by telling them that it’s okay to eat rather than have to wait the entire time for the dinner. However, when Olga, the head of the community introduced us, she enforced under no uncertain terms that no one was to take an unauthorized bite until the proper time arrived. Emma also seemed to be of this opinion, and Jessica and I concluded that this must be a local (if not Russian) standard of politeness (similar to America).
The seder was very well-received, and Emma’s translation enabled us to connect with the Russian-speaking crowd. We tried to shake things up in the interest of keeping people engaged: We washed our hands without water, we encouraged each table to ask a fifth question of what had changed in their lives since last year, and we acted out the Exodus story. This last part was very fun, as almost every one of the forty or so guests participated enthusiastically. After the meal (for which a sampling of delicious vegetarian dishes had been prepared specially for Jessica and me), we didn’t proceed with the rest of the seder despite multiple indications from the community that a full seder would be expected. The local custom seems to expect all of the “seder” to take place before the meal – the period after the meal is reserved for music and dancing! So, for the first time in our lives, Jessica and I partied on Passover as if we were at a Bat Mitzvah or wedding reception. We had tremendous fun dancing with our English-speaking guides, with youth group members, and with newly-introduced adults of the community. This was a tremendous opportunity to really fit in to the community across the language barrier and was certainly one of the highlights of the trip for us.
The following day, Friday, was also an amazing opportunity to engage with and learn about the Lipetsk Jewish community. Jessica and I spent the morning planning out a Kabbalat Shabbat service, and in the afternoon, the leader of the youth group, Matvei, met us for another tour of Lipetsk. Matvei, a chef who does computer work in his spare time, took us to one of his favorite restaurants where Jessica and I ordered off the “fast menu,” intended for Russian Orthodox Christians observing the Lenten vegetarian fast prior to Easter. (We were interested to learn that the Russian words for “Easter” and “Passover” are the same; thus, to be clear, Jews speak of their holiday as the “Jewish Easter.”)
Matvei talked with us at length about the Lipetsk Jewish community and about his personal views and beliefs. We learned that many of the Lipetsk Jews are very ignorant about Jewish history and religion. As Jewish communal practice was forbidden under Soviet rule, no customs or traditions have been maintained over the years, so Jewish life is only struggling to re-awaken after a decades-long period of slumber.
Despite being located in a small city in Russia, Matvei (as is common among Russian Jews) feels very connected to Jews around the world as many Jews leave Russia for other places. Friends and family stay in touch, so despite the incredibly long distances, Jewish relationships are maintained worldwide. Matvei himself has no plans to leave Lipetsk; he is rare in his commitment to Jewish education in his home town. Matvei represents a small but proud group of Jews in Lipetsk who are invested in progressive Jewish community.
Matvei told us that the Chabad synagogue was established within the last five years and, as is common throughout Russian and other FSU communities, is attempting to secure its role as the center of Jewish life. Although Chesed Yonah is ten years older than the Chabad congregation, the Chabad rabbi is recognized by the government as the leader of the Jewish community, and the significant financial resources of Chabad pose a major threat to the downsizing progressive community. This trend is particularly troublesome as this particular rabbi is strongly opposed intermarriage despite an 80% intermarriage rate in Lipetsk and has offended numerous Jews in the area with his harsh, alienating language.
We were to learn later that relations are extremely strained in Lipetsk and Moscow (though not in every FSU community) between the liberal and Chabad communities. Active liberal Jews in Moscow and Lipetsk resent Chabad’s use of money to attract participants and are especially proud of their pluralistic and progressive values in the face of Chabad’s exclusiveness. Olga, the head of Chesed Yonah, struggles to keep peace in what could become a fractured community despite her own disappointment in Chabad, and Matvei co-programs with the Chabad synagogue’s youth without knowing or caring whether their rabbi approves of their work.
The most impressive of these programs is a recent encounter between Jewish, Armenian, and Azerbaijani youth in Lipetsk. These ethnic minorities share many common experiences in Lipetsk, and the encounter program won a government sponsorship for its creativity and effectiveness. More inter-communal programming is underway, and the Jewish youth are excited to meet and exchange stories with other non-Russians.
After our lunch, Matvei took us to the small Chesed Yonah office, where we met with five members of the youth group. These particularly active members were chosen to represent the youth group, and their stories were amazing. Three of them had found out only in the past few years that they were Jewish – many parents feel it’s best for their children not to inform them of their heritage. Even Olga, easily in her forties or fifties, had only learned that she was Jewish fifteen years ago and decided to start the Jewish community so that other Jews could meet one another. Only one 17-year-old had been actively involved in Judaism since her childhood, and she told us that she didn’t even know if she was “really” Jewish (re-emphasizing to Jessica and me the strongly ethnic definition of Jewishness in Russia).
The members of the youth group appreciate meeting people like them and building a community with them. As many youth leave Lipetsk because of the hard economy, a number of these teenagers plan to move to Israel, and all of them want at least to visit. Their primary community activity is learning Hebrew from Olga (who studied for a year at Hebrew University) so that they can have some basic communication skills in Israel, and even the adults often take Hebrew lessons to affirm their Jewish identity. Although the community is small, the members love to see one another, and they were extremely welcoming to Jessica, Emma, and me.
After our Kabbalat Shabbat service, which consisted only of prayers transliterated into Russian and a brief d’var Torah which Emma translated for me, we joined about twenty adult members of the community for Shabbat dinner. We talked about our Shabbat observance and theirs, the tense relationship with Chabad, Yiddish, and music. We sang some songs, including one written by Olga, and I was asked a couple rabbinical questions. I was taken off guard when a woman told me that her grandfather was killed in the Holocaust—she doesn’t know when—and wanted to know when she should commemorate his Yarzeit. Should she pick a date or say Kaddish every week? I told her that she could do either but that formally remembering his death every week might be too painful. I also told her she could commemorate his death on Yom Hashoah. I learned when I returned to Israel that there’s a traditional day in the Jewish calendar for just this occasion, but I don’t know how meaningful following that tradition would have been for this woman, anyway. I was also asked about preparations for a brit milah ceremony, about which I know nothing, and I tried to answer to the best of my knowledge. Now I understand what Dean Marmur told us about rabbis sometimes having to seem that they know more than they actually do!
We had to leave Shabbat dinner in order to catch another overnight train back to Moscow, and I was sad to go. The community told Jessica and me that our visit was very special to them and that we had made an impact on their Jewish identities. Olga informed us that next time we visit, we won’t be guests – we’ll be family. And I think she meant it. I’ve never felt so warmly embraced by a community, and it was honestly difficult for me to leave them. They were an extraordinary group of people in circumstances so alien to my own experience, and I’m blessed to have met them.
Back in Moscow, we attended the Jewish community center’s Shabbat morning service (which we were excited to be able to navigate and participate in without a translator) and hung out in the center for a couple hours. We conversed with some members of their youth movement, ate matzah with chocolate spread, and eventually went to the State Historical Museum in Red Square. Although we couldn’t read any of the information at the museum, we were amazed (continually) by how much Emma, an 18-year-old with a passion for history, was able to tell us.
On Saturday evening, we met the Moscow youth movement at a coffee shop and chatted with them. We had a lot of fun, though we also had moments of cultural exchange about how Jewish life in Moscow differed from life in the States. Again, relations with Chabad came up, as did the strong connection that many Russian Jewish youth feel with their national history despite the hardships faced by Jews under Soviet rule. We joined the youth movement for its monthly Havdalah program, in which they visit a site significant to Moscow Jewish history and have Havdalah nearby. We visited the former headquarters of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, which raised money to fight against Nazi Germany and received official government support. In 1948, the Soviet government shut down the organization and within a few years had executed most of its leadership.
After hearing this sobering story, we walked across the street to a park with a huge statue of Friedrich Engels and celebrated Havdalah there. Jessica and I learned a new custom of dipping your little fingers into the wine and touching them to your temples, lips, and heart for wisdom, bright speech, and love. We spent the evening at the apartment of one of Emma’s friends and returned to our hotel.
Sunday, our last full day in Moscow, was a busy day of touring. We went shopping in an outdoor market full of traditional Russian products and souvenirs, and there we met up with the other HUC pair that had returned from Siberia to spend their last free day with us in the capital. We traveled to one of the two Chabad synagogues in Moscow and received an impromptu tour in Hebrew by an Israeli Chabadnik, who in Russian told our translators that Chabad would pay them to bring their friends to the synagogue. (Our translators were naturally very upset by this affront.) We saw the Moscow Yiddish State Theater, ate lunch, and toured around the Kremlin for several hours. Far, far too quickly the day came to an end, and we enjoyed one final dinner in Russia before returning to our hotel. Early Monday morning, we were accompanied to the airport by one of our translators and made our way back to Israel for the last two days of Passover.
Jessica and I found our time spent in Russia to be extremely meaningful. We were welcomed into foreign Jewish communities because of our Jewish heritage and our commitment to its enriched future. We observed a Russian Passover, celebrated a Russian Shabbat, explored Russian Jewish history, and glimpsed its future. And, of course, we learned a tremendous amount of Russian history and culture and made a great new friend of our translator Emma. In the end, we believe that we probably gained more from our experience than we were able to teach, and we feel lucky to have had this unique opportunity.
We intend to stay connected to some of the people we met in Russia, and we hope that our careers as Jewish professionals give us more occasions to engage with FSU Jewish communities. Certainly, our future seders will remind us of the times we spent in Russia as the story of the Festival of our Freedom is enacted ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-z’man ha-zeh – in those days and in our own time.