By Jane Charney
Ilana Gitman's red T-shirt said it all: "Kiss me. I'm Jewish." The shirt was only too appropriate for a weekend of spirited discussion about Jewish identity at the third annual Midwest Russian Shabbaton, which took place Feb. 24-26 at the Indian Lakes Resort in Bloomingdale, Ill. The event was sponsored by the Initiative for Israel on Illinois Campuses, a partnership of the JCRC of the JUF and The Hillels of Illinois, JUF Birthright Israel Alumni Committee, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis.
The ways in which one person's Russian, Jewish and American identities interact were the focus of the Shabbaton, which provided a forum for young Russian Jews to explore their identity. The idea, born three years ago at Hillels Around Chicago: Multi-Campus Center, has evolved into an annual tradition that attracted more than 50 people from three states this year. Many of this year's participants are also Taglit-birthright israel alumni who became involved in Hillel after their trip to Israel.
"The goal was to create a comfortable atmosphere for Russian-speaking students and young adults," said organizer Misha Zilbermint, a program associate at Hillels Around Chicago. "This way, they can easily express their Jewish identity in their own way."
Though Gitman has participated in Russian Hillel events before, this was her first time at the Russian Shabbaton, and she dove right in. Along with fellow Russian Hillel Executive Board members Regina Iskaeva, Mark Furman, Michael Lakirovich, Marina Swan and Ilya Trakhtenberg, Gitman led other participants in the rituals of Shabbat and on Saturday facilitated a discussion on the Jewish take on dating, marriage and sex.
Gitman and Swan directed participants to two pitcher-and-bowl stations for the ritual washing of the hands, while explaining the meaning of the tradition. Even those who do not celebrate Shabbat every week were moved to chant "Shalom Aleichem" with the group. Second-year participant and executive board member Trakhtenberg said he drew on past experiences of hosting Shabbat dinners to succeed at the Shabbaton.
But Shabbat rituals weren't the only way for participants to explore their Judaism. They divided into smaller groups Saturday to discuss everything from Jewish identity to Israeli politics to finding love as a city-dwelling young Jewish person. The topics were just as diverse as the participants themselves, who ranged in age from 18 to 28. In fact, they echoed the diversity of the Russian community in the United States. Some came to America as adults, while others grew up among English speakers and share more American – rather than Russian – values.
Throughout the weekend, both participants and staff tried to speak mostly in Russian, but English words crawled into the sentences here and there. Together, the two languages weave an intricate Web that mirrors the puzzling Jewish identity of the Russian Jews living in the United States: Are they Russian first? Jewish first? Or American first? The session on Russian-Jewish identity tried to answer these questions.
During one activity, participants had to choose a picture that best represented them. Their options included a drawing of a mezuzah, a photo of Tel Aviv and a map of Russia, among others. Recent Indiana University graduate Sonya Weisburd chose the mezuzah because she "grew up in a home filled with the Jewish spirit," she said.
But the highlight of the Shabbaton was the entirely student-created and student-led "Sex and the City" session, which took its cue from the outspoken HBO series. The frank discussions touched on such heavy-hitting subjects as sex before marriage, dating non-Jews and raising Jewish children. After a 45-minute student discussion, the students joined for a candid question-and-answer session with Rabbi Pinhas Zussis of the Heritage Russian Jewish Congregation.
A younger group might have trouble handling such weighty issues, but Shabbaton participants have outgrown the juvenile stage when it comes to talking about sex, said group leader Olga Shalman, who participated in Shabbaton 2005 and came back as staff this year.
"The student leaders did an amazing job. It was very successful," Shalman said. "During this session, I was just another participant, and it was extremely enjoyable."
Most of the time, the discussions asked more questions than participants could answer. But that was exactly the goal of the Shabbaton, Zilbermint said. He said he is especially proud of the student leaders, who succeeded in creating an education yet fun environment.
"We challenged students to prepare and run sessions, and they succeeded!" Zilbermint said. "The best part is that students were fighting over issues, looking for the best scenario. It was an awesome bonding experience."
Jane Charney graduated from Indiana University-Bloomington in 2005. She now works as a campaign and marketing associate for the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis.