By Jane Charney
For Zlata Karpas, the recent Russian Shabbaton was a chance to reawaken the Russian culture with which she has grown up. A native of Riga, Latvia, Karpas was just 7 years old when her family moved to the United States.
"I came to the Shabbaton because I rarely get to meet Russian Jews," Karpas said. "It was just a good opportunity for me to learn more about Russian Jews and thus learn more about myself."
Karpas, who had to drive for almost seven hours to get to Chicago from Minnesota, was part of a group of about 45 students and young adults – 38 of them birthright alumni – who gathered at the Indiana Lakes Resort in Bloomingdale, Ill., for the second annual weekend of workshops, lectures and conversations about being a Russian Jew in the United States. Sponsored by Hillels Around Chicago, Chicago birthright israel Alumni Committee and the JUF/JCRC/Hillel Israel Initiative, the Shabbaton aims to help Russian Jewish students who often must piece together one identity from Russian, American and Jewish traditions.
Other participants came from as close as Chicago suburbs and as far as New York, Maryland, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Missouri and Indiana.
The Shabbaton marked the second time young Russian Jews came together as a community – a feat that can be hard even in Chicago, which has a large population of Russian Jewish immigrants. Whether it was a stop on the journey toward self-discovery or a chance to learn about Shabbat traditions, the Russian Shabbaton turned out even better than organizers planned, said Misha Zilbermint, the senior Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow at Hillels Around Chicago: Multi-Campus Center.
Titled "Yisroyl Iz Mayn Ganse Mishpochah" or "Israel is Our Big Family" in Yiddish, the Shabbaton's purpose was to bring to the forefront the feeling of "Jewishness" that each participant carries within, but does not necessarily display outwardly all the time. At the same time, it was an opportunity to meet other Russian Jewish students and continue building the Midwestern Russian Jewish community, Zilbermint said.
"I think we raised many questions we are often afraid to ask and had insightful high-level discussions," said Anna Polishchuk, a former Hillel student leader in Chicago who is now the USD Hagshama Midwest regional director. "I think events such as (the Shabbaton) are imperative to motivating the young Russian Jewish population into involvement. But possibly more importantly, they help us discover who we are, what we want for ourselves as a people and what our values are as individuals."
Along with Zilbermint, Hillels Around Chicago Israel intern Felix Grudsky and Lena Kalinovskaya from Milwaukee, Polishchuk led several discussions on assimilation, intermarriage and Jewish identity that touched the hearts and minds of participants – many Jews born in the former Soviet Union consider themselves Jewish by culture or heritage, not necessarily through religious practice.
While last year's Shabbaton was meant to create a foundation for a Russian Jewish community in Chicago, this year organizers believed that deeper questions about identity and assimilation would provide an interesting twist.
Identity is one of the most pertinent concerns among the younger generation of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who were either too young to absorb Russian culture or too old to adequately adjust to the American way of life. During a discussion centering on participants' distinctive understanding of themselves and the way assimilation and acculturation fit into their lives, participants debated the intriguing hodgepodge of behaviors and qualities present in every Russian Jewish American.
Roman Kastin, who graduated from University of Maryland and now works in St. Louis, came to the Shabbaton to find a new way to discover and connect to his Jewish roots. Originally from Moscow, Kastin considers himself a cultural Jew, like many other Soviet-born Jews.
"I find that it is hard to explain to my American peer that there is a difference between being a religious Jew and a Jew by ethnicity, nationality, culture or background, such as most of Soviet non-practicing Jews are," Kastin said. "It's rewarding to be in a group of people who understand that distinction and to whom I can relate."
Wendy Ketter, the Midwest director of the Israel Aliyah Center, gave an inspiring talk about making aliyah as an 18-year-old woman, with no idea what she was supposed to do or even how to find a place to stay for the night. Just as many young adults today battle questions of identity, Ketter's move to Israel was part of her quest of self-discovery.
"Israel helped resolve an important question of identity for me," she said. "I didn't have to make an effort to live a Jewish lifestyle. I realized that Israel is where I belong."
Jane Charney is a senior studying journalism and international relations at Indiana University. She emigrated from Moscow in 1996.