Celebrating Freedom: Channeling the Refuseniks in America

The Haggadah created by Katya Rouzina of Russian Jewish Columbus, a partnership that provides meaningful programming to Russian-speaking Jewish young professionals.

Katya, Alex and I exchange anecdotes after Dima recounts the maggid. In the small apartment more than twenty Russian-speaking Jews cram around the Seder table, complimented by bottles of vodka. For some, the Passover celebration is a first.

This is not Leningrad in 1966 — it is Columbus, Ohio, earlier this week.

Though our Seder echoes similar themes to that of the Refuseniks fifty years’ prior, including a mixed Haggadah of Russian and Hebrew and “next year in Jerusalem,” our modern Haggadah includes an English portion. Our Jewishness, however, is different; unlike the sought Jewish expression of the Refuseniks, our Judaism is mostly secular.

Yet, just like the Refuseniks, we speak of persecution. The dialogue at the Russian Jewish table evokes a lineage of tragedy that begins with the Exodus and continues beyond the collapse of the USSR. Edward is the first to retell his parents’ journey to United States. Marissa speaks of her family’s forceful assimilation and Katya Rouzina, the co-organizer of tonight’s “RuJew Seder,” verbalizes anti-Jewish oppression and calls for the celebration of our generation’s freedom.

As I observe where I am, I cannot help but be reminded that our small but significant community owes a great debt to American Jewry. I am reminded of American Jewish student movements like the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, which joined the torrent of social justice movements of the 1960s, as well as the Soviet Jews that emerged from the abysmal silence of an oppressive regime.

Saturday night's Seder.
Dima recounts the Maggid.

I also find solace locally in Columbus, a city that took in Russian Jews with open arms in the 1970s and 1980s through the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. Columbus, the city from where the late Gordy Zacks propelled the American Soviet Jewish Movement into the political limelight, and from where Leslie Wexner and Jay Schottenstein continue to sponsor Jewish education.

And thirty years later, the Russian Jewish community is rebuilding and joining its American brethren. We, Russian Jews, are empowered to through the a newfound Jewish conscience, stolen from our grandparents by the Bolsheviks. A collage of Refuseniks compose the cover of Katya’s Hagaddah — and we channel their psyche.

In the universal Soviet Jewish movement lies the strength of the American Jewish community; therein lies American Jewish glory. I am grateful to the generations of American Jews and allied voices that did not cooperate with oppressive institutions.

This Passover, let us remember the Exodus and cherish the spirit of freedom together — a spirit that did not end with the Refuseniks, and a spirit that continues to fight for the liberation of all peoples.

About the Author
Misha Vilenchuk is in his final year at Brandeis University pursuing degrees in Russian, Judaic Studies, and History. He is the founder and president of the CAASE: Coalition Against Anti-Semitism in Europe. Misha is also a chess enthusiast; he is the reigning Greater Boston Chess Co-Champion.
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