The mere mention of the place conjures images of frozen tundra, extreme hardship, and of course, the unimaginable horrors of the gulag. But for me, my husband Phil, and the seven other intrepid travelers who journeyed with us on our annual 10-day trip “out there,” Siberia is a surprising Jewish oasis, even in minus 30-degree temperatures.
It’s a little known fact that 50,000 Jews reside in this region today. Their forbearers were, among others, Jews who were banished by the Tsars, jailed by Stalin, fled Eastern Europe during World War II, or traveled voluntarily to make their fortunes in the late 1800s. Some even came to build the Soviet “Jewish Autonomous Region” in Birobidzhan.
To reach these hearty souls and share in the community they are building — together with organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (our expert guides on this expedition) — required a lot of warm layers, a penchant for traveling in an ushanka (Russian fur hat), and tapping the fortitude that comes along with the Jewish people’s history of wandering.
It took days to reach our first destination. We flew first from the U.S. to Seoul and from there to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia. From there, we braved breathtaking cold and the 18-hour train ride on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the magical city of Ulan Ude, eastern Siberia’s third largest. It is home to, among other quirky attractions, an imposing 42-ton, 25-foot tall Lenin bust (the largest in the world).
It is also where 300 Jews have created a little gem of a community. They welcomed us with surprising warmth and affection. Meaningful moments extended to the most simple interactions: the joy on the face of an elderly Holocaust survivor, originally from Ukraine, who baked and served us cookies. And the delight of a sickly young boy whose incredible smile beamed when he received from us the gift of a recorder and sheet music.
After the charms of Ulan Ude, we traveled 9 hours by bus through the rugged and frigid terrain, to Irkutsk, a colorful Siberian city whose blue and gold train station is a reminder of imperial times. We arrived in time to celebrate Shabbat with the city’s Chief Rabbi, Aaron Wagner, his family, and some members of the 3,000-strong Jewish community.
The motzi over the wine and challah, the candles flickering inside while the wind whirled outside, had transcendent qualities. And for those of us who are used to the sometimes staid, normative Jewish experience of North America, the power of Shabbat in Siberia took on new meaning. It was as if we entered a time warp and were suspended, with the Jews of Irkutsk, in perpetual celebration.
Among the highlights of our visit were the children at play in the local Jewish Agency kindergarten and our rousing songfest with members of Chabad’s Golden Age seniors group, many of whom receive life-sustaining aid through the JDC-supported Hesed social service center. The music we made together, in the spirit of Am Yisrael, moved us in ways that the performance we saw of “Rigoletto” at the city’s opera house could not.
We took that spirit with us as we traveled around the city to meet those in need, a growing population in Siberia. The region suffers from low levels of industry, a growing elderly population, and mass exodus by young adults and others. These factors, when combined with low-paying jobs (if one is employed at all) and near-poverty pensions for seniors, makes hope seem as far off as warm weather.
And it was at such a moment that we met Alexey, a 73-year-old physicist. A widower, he lives alone and has a son with disabilities who is being cared for thousands of miles away in Israel. Alexey has cancer and is homebound because of his frailty and the insurmountable ice and cold outside.
His JDC home-care worker visits him three times a week and makes sure his home is clean. She speaks with him daily, does his food shopping using his specially created ‘debit’ card for these purchases, and delivers his medicine. Although retired, Alexey spends much of his day writing journal articles and books, and is in touch with others in his field of expertise the world over.
When we first arrived at his home he would barely speak with any of us. At first, we thought that he was not well that day or that he was depressed given his life circumstances.
But soon after our arrival, he turned to a member of our group and sadly said, “Here you are, coming from so far away to help me. And what do I have to offer you? I am ashamed.”
At first we were silent, taken aback.
We thought to ourselves, “Should we not have come?”
And then, one English-speaking voice rose up from an ushanka covered head, and said with great humility (and more than a little bit of pride): “We’re all Jews. And if I were in need of help, I have no doubt that you would be there for me, and so we are here for you.”
And suddenly, our new friend became animated and effusively welcoming as he realized the truth in what was said and what we all felt. It dawned on me, at that moment, in that little home, that everything we did thereafter would be imbued with that spirit. That kol yisrael arevim zeh la zeh – all Jews are responsible for each other — was more than just words, it was a living legacy to all those Jews who came before us and were with us, at that very moment, in Alexey’s home, piled high with the physics books he had written.
Cheryl Fishbein, a lawyer and clinical psychologist, lives in Manhattan and is a member of the JDC Ambassadors Steering Committee.