When I was first approached by Rabbi Eli Naiditch of Chabad on the Coast in Tel Aviv to be an ambassador on a Chabad-sponsored trip to Russia, I was kind of taken aback. Like, really, why Russia?
When I let my family know about this opportunity, my mom’s first reaction was “Why in G-d’s name Russia? We left that awful place, why go back and visit?” And, of course, I was reminded that “your [my] grandpa never wanted to go back, they were terrible to us.” And I guess there is some merit in those responses, after all many of the Russians I had met in Israel while serving in the IDF and otherwise, for the most part, left Russia citing how much better it was for them here in Israel. “There is nothing in Russia. Nothing for Jews. That’s why I’m here”, a Russian hiking acquaintance told me once on a pit stop in the Negev.
Nevertheless, I embraced the opportunity to be the Israeli Chabad ambassador. It was amazing for the first time to be representing Israel abroad and also funny because I am originally from Colorado. But, I was fortunate enough to join some 20 other incredible, young professionals from the USA, Canada, and Argentina, on a mission to understand the state of Russian Jewry.
Our trip consisted of a week-long, super packed trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow where we visited important historical and cultural sites and also met with leaders of the Jewish community who gave us an overview of Jewish life in both cities.
To be honest, after my week-long trip, I was amazed!
Jewish life in Russia is nothing like I had imagined. Having grown up with the Jewish guilt surrounding Russian oppression of Judaism as well as American prejudices regarding Soviet Russia and recent Russian-US scandals (thanks Trump), I expected to see just that—a Soviet, oppressed Jewry. But, that was not the case.
St. Petersburg boasts a vibrant Jewish community with young professionals who met with us and explained their experience as proud Jews observing Shabbat, learning Torah, and eating at kosher restaurants in the city. Not to mention, their main synagogue, the Choral Synagogue, once abandoned, has been renovated and rivals the beauty of the Hermitage—-in my opinion.
Moscow, likewise, took my idea of Russian Jewry to a whole new level. Jews walk openly in the streets with kippot and tzitziot. Kosher restaurants can be found around the Jewish areas, near major thoroughfares, and inside mega shopping malls. The main woman’s mikveh, once the site of a terrorist attack, is a thriving area of Jewish pride. And, the main synagogue and Jewish community center is a 7 story-high complex with guards who watch and patrol it diligently. It is located near a compound of Jewish life that hosts an old-age home, a soup kitchen, medical center, apartments, a beit midrash, a Russian Holocaust Museum (christened by Mr. Putin, I may add), and recreational center.
Of course, this picture of Russian Jewry is owed in great part to the efforts of Rabbi Berel Lazar and his wife Chani whom with we had the pleasure of sharing Shabbat lunch. These two warriors of Judaism fought diligently to restore Russian Judaism to a state of pride. Rebuilding Jewish centers and establishing key religious foundations, the Lazars pushed forward and have since reawakened the Jewish community of Russia.
It is no wonder more and more people keep finding out about lost Jewish ancestry, because, finally, while it might not be great, it is OK to be Jewish in Russia. Additionally, the fact that Rabbi Lazar meets with Mr. Putin fairly regularly, who himself has a known affinity for Jews and Jewry, makes it no surprise that Jewish life in Russia is thriving.
But, this raised an important question for me: How can an Oleh in Tel Aviv, less than a year out of his army service, trying to establish a small business in film and marketing, make any true impact on Jewish life, say, in Tel Aviv. After all, Rabbi Lazar challenged me at Shabbat lunch to make Tel Aviv “better”. But what could I do to make Tel Aviv “better”?
After all, we live in the freaking Jewish state, it doesn’t get much better than this. Yet, what I realized coming back from the trip was that what Russian Jewry has now what it lacked for so long, and what people like Rabbi Lazar helped restore—the idea of community or kehila.
While a Jew is a Jew no matter what, he requires a community to exist as a proud Jew. Whether because of the need for a minyan to actually conduct religious services or simply to have other Jews to rely on for help and strength, Jews need to stick together. Olim and Immigrant Lone Soldiers especially, having uprooted their lives elsewhere to come to Israel, can find it particularly problematic to find their community here in Israel.
Without a strong group of friends, working knowledge of the language, or professional network already in place, Olim have to push harder than most to find their place in Israel. For that reason alone, many go back to their home countries and others can endure large periods of depression.
So my goal, coming back from Russia, is along with Chabad on the Coast, to provide that answer to Olim and Immigrant Lone Soldiers. The Kehila answer. We intend to make it our duty that Olim who want it, get connected to a community of people who will be there to support them and comfort them. Olim helping Olim make it in Israel. And not just that, but we want to make sure that Olim who move here and Immigrant Lone Soldiers who finish the army stay and develop themselves.
Through a professional networking service, we aim to connect Olim and Immigrant Lone Soldiers with the right jobs so they can start acclimating, worry-free, and establishing themselves securely in Israel. Because inevitably, if we are the Jewish state then we have no excuse to not have the strongest type of community.