As a child, I remember wearing silver bracelets so that I could twin with a Jew in Russia, who couldn’t live as a Jew. As a 10-year-old in 1987, I remember attending the Soviet Jewry March on Washington with my parents and their “UJA friends,” and seeing friends of mine from Camp Ramah, realizing, at that moment, what it meant to be a part of the Jewish people. The message was clear: Let Them Out. Retrieve them with a “one-way ticket,” either to the U.S. or to Israel.
After “retrieval,” we moved onto “resettlement.” As a student at a Jewish high school in the early ’90s, I remember Ilya and Ina and Felix. The resettlement effort took place all around me. Just as UJA nationally had been a voice in the retrieval, they were now an instrument in the resettlement. And in some ways, that was where the story stopped for me. Until this month.
I recently returned from a Rabbinic Mission to Moscow with UJA- Federation of New York, where I met not Refuseniks, but rather Jews who are living in the FSU (Former Soviet Union) by choice. In just 72 hours, I un-paused my mental DVR and realized that the story of the Jews of the FSU didn’t end with the retrieval and resettlement of the Russian Jewish community. It continues in Moscow; in homes, synagogues, restaurants, JCCS, and youth camps, as the next generation of the Russian Jewish community is trying answer a question for the ages: Who are we? What does it mean to be Jewish?
As rabbis, we were not there to swoop in and save, but to listen and be inspired, as we witnessed the continual blossoming of a community that is committed to being Russian and Jewish.
Our diverse rabbinic group saw the work on the ground take on many forms: The chesed [charitable] work of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) as well as the Jewish identity work that the Jewish Agency For Israel (JAFI) is engaged in. We were also introduced to the grassroots initiatives being cultivated by the local residents and supported by UJA-Federation and the growing religious communities organized by different worldwide movements. None of us missed the irony that we could “daven” on a Delta flight headed for Russia, that we were freely walking around Moscow, and that we ate dinner in a wonderful kosher restaurant housed in a mall. We were on a mission that was a bridge of understanding, turning images that were frozen in black and white to a movie in full color and four dimensions.
I met Elizaveta, a 97-year-old, whom JDC supports through home visits. We heard her story of survival and perseverance. We learned that she didn’t want to talk about the past but preferred to celebrate today and the potential for the future. But visiting her brought to light the important issue of the poverty facing an elderly community of Holocaust survivors in the FSU.
We visited the JAFI winter camp, “Sheleg-fest,” an opportunity for teens to spend the winter holiday engaging with their Jewish identities. We joined the teens in icebreakers. I felt like I had been transported back to my formative days in United Synagogue Youth, yet I was shaken when the students were posed the question of when they first learned they were Jewish.
I schmoozed with a young woman who lives in the Moscow Moishe House, which I could have mistaken for the Moishe House in Murray Hill. She went on Birthright Israel because her friends were going. As she said, it changed her life. Before that, her world wasn’t Jewish at all, now her interests were mainly Jewish.
And so what are the takeaways?
♦ The Moscow Jewish community is still in transition but isn’t living in fear;
♦ It is a community that, like us, here in New York, has multiple identities;
♦ It is a community where for many, Israel is the point of identity. Whether they plan to live there in the future, or have family there today, it is a very present part of who they are.
Most importantly, I found that though the needs have changed, we Jewish New Yorkers have so much to give and gain by being in partnership with this inspiring community. I am so proud to be a part of the community as embodied by UJA-Federation that helps make so much of what I saw possible.
In our era of unprecedented freedom and choice for Jews everywhere, we must build communities that understand our past while building for our future. As a congregational rabbi I strive to answer the call to create a community with a strong Jewish identity, based on Jewish values and traditions. I now draw incredible inspiration from the community I visited in Moscow, and approach my work here in New York with a strengthened sense of shared mission with Jews around the world. It is my hope that we can draw on these important lessons to take more responsibility for ourselves, and in partnership with others, let us proudly write the next chapter of the Jewish people.
Rachel Ain is spiritual leader of Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan.