In life, you are given several moments that you know you need to hold onto. To capture a few precious mental photos, because most likely this moment will never happen again. That pretty much sums up the recent Chabad Young Professional mission to Russia with thirty five young adult representatives of various cities across the United States, as well as Tel Aviv, who became International Ambassadors to their respective communities.
Only 26 years ago, in 1992, a newly married couple arrived in St. Petersburg to bring Judaism to a city that was totally devoid of it after being spiritually violated by the Communists for seventy years. They were welcomed by having their newly settled apartment looted of all its possession including their brand new Shabbat candlesticks. Today, they are the proud leaders of a vibrant Jewish community that boasts various synagogues, schools which host over six hundred children and an impressive kosher restaurant the likes of which Boston can use.
One evening we were joined by the YJP’s of St. Petersburg for a river cruise on the Neva River. We connected with them in a way that the verbal language barrier that existed went unnoticed. The intrinsic connection of family was felt over sushi, wine and music as everyone shared their many commonalities with each other, most notably their Jewish identity and what it means to be a Jewish millennial today.
The irony of the day did not pass over us. Ninety-one years ago to the day, in 1927, the previous Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi YY Schneersohn, was violently thrown into a prison situated along this river for sustaining Jewish life, and here we were, openly and proudly eating kosher food and connecting with other Jews. It was a cause for a L’chayim for everyone on the boat.
An eight hour overnight train to Moscow, it turns out, is a great place to go deep and have the conversations that are difficult and challenging to our millennials. Several hours in the lounge car advanced both the conversation and friendship that would otherwise take years.
Moscow is Judaism on steroids. People walk the streets with their heads held high and with such pride, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. In the States many of us keep our Judaism close to the vest, a sort of hesitancy to stand out with our self-conscious “too Jewish” appearance and behavior – but not so in Moscow.
In 26 years, Moscow has transformed from a city where Judaism was all but completely silenced, practically comatose, to one where Judaism is expressed with absolute pride. It hosts an orphanage, a center serving 15,000 meals a week to needy families, as well as one dedicated entirely to Seniors; a Jewish museum attended annually by 600,000 visitors, top notch kosher restaurants (lamb four ways, for real!), youth centers, religious and educational centers. The many miracles we witnessed there can never be fully retold.
It was obvious that many in our group who did not get a chance to appreciate their Judaism in “the land of the free & home of the brave,” a country that always has been, and remains, open and embracing to Jews, suddenly in Moscow of all places, everyone felt comfortable being Jewish and embracing their Judaism.
This phenomenon struck a deep chord inside me. Why are we so reluctant to celebrate our distinctive Judaism? Why don’t we take advantage of our freedoms & get comfortable in our own skin? There is secret sauce in Moscow and it must be packaged and brought to the US and Europe.
I know it sounds crazy but it’s true. Russia today is a country with the proudest Jews in the world. It’s time we learn from them; I know we will all be better off for it. They have inspired a new generation of future Jewish leaders to unapologetically enjoy and celebrate Judaism.
The Holocaust taught us to ‘Never Forget’ our past. Israel is a living testimony that today we are a people and have a homeland. For our future as Jews however, especially outside of Israel, our brothers and sisters in Russia model for us how to boldly embrace our unique religion and celebrate our distinctiveness as Jews. Their hard earned lessons should inspire us all to live unabashedly as Jews.
CYP is very grateful to Merkos 302 for incubating this initiative and to the Meromim Foundation, the Eliyahu Foundation and the Yisrael Foundation for their generous partnerships. For more info about the largest Jewish organization catering to millennials, with 91 locations, please go to chabadyoungprofessionals.com.