Russian students create community at a Shabbaton.
By Jane Charney
Nana Joseph didn’t know what to expect from the Russian Shabbaton. A friend had convinced her to sign up with stories of the fun weekend retreat. But Joseph, 19, discovered so much more at the fourth annual Midwest Russian Shabbaton.
“I loved the atmosphere of the Shabbaton,” said the Loyola University Chicago sophomore, whose family came to the United States from Baku, Azerbaijan. “The discussions were really inspiring. It was great to be in a small group where everyone could get a word in.”
Joseph joined 70 other participants for the Feb. 23-25 retreat, which has become the flagship event of Russian Hillel, a branch of Hillels Around Chicago that serves students and young professionals from the Former Soviet Union. In its fourth incarnation, the Shabbaton attracted participants from five states and even overseas locations as far away as Israel and the Ukraine.
“The ultimate goal of the Russian Shabbaton is to create a sense of community,” said Hillels Around Chicago Program Director Misha Zilbermint, who has helmed the Shabbaton for four years. “We are all very confused about our Jewish identity. The important thing is that we are talking about it.”
Along with discussions on Jewish identity and the concept of Jews as the “Chosen People,” Shabbaton attendees also explored stereotypes, perceptions and ideals and took part in a competitive comedy improvisation game to conclude the weekend. For a bit of Jewish learning, Shabbaton Scholar-in-Residence Rabbi Pinhas Zussis told the story of Purim, while listeners noshed on delicious dessert on Friday night. Israel was also a major feature of the Shabbaton, which also served as a reunion for Taglit-birthright Israel alumni.
“The Shabbaton opened my eyes to a lot of things about Judaism and about myself,” Joseph said. “And it definitely reminded me how much I love Israel.”
In past years, workshops centered on exploring the Russian-Jewish identity. Although the intertwining of Russian and Jewish identities figured prominently at this year’s event, the main goal was to consider various aspects of Jewish life from the Russian-Jewish perspective instead of focusing on the identity itself.
For Joseph, this approach provided an opportunity to learn something new about Judaism. In a session about gender roles in Judaism, Joseph learned that “in the Reform tradition, women can break the glass under the chuppah along with the men,” she said. The session explored the various ways Jewish tradition, which can be very gender-specific, treats men and women’s roles in the synagogue, in the community and at home. The session provided other firsts for participants – one student donned a tallit and a kippah for the first time in his life when he helped group leaders demonstrate the ritual garb Jewish men and women wear.
Throughout the weekend, participants also confronted Jewish stereotypes, investigated the intertwining of Jewish religion and culture and explored their perceptions of diversity and inclusion. Just like last year, the Russian Hillel Student Executive Board took over the leadership mantle and presented sessions they developed. This year, they focused on love. Roman Chernykhovsky, Yelena Braginsky, Ilana Gitman, Lev Krasnopolsky, Marina Swan and Ilya Trakhtenberg led other participants through games and discussions about romance and the ideal match, making relationships work and the language of love.
Like Joseph, first-time participant Mike Mann, 23, delighted in the discussions. He said it was important for him to experience the instant sense of community he felt with people he had known for only five hours.
“Throughout the discussions, I learned how similar we are,” Mann said. “We are all very different, raised by different parents, but we share expectations of life and we have similar values. The discussions really inspired me – I did not know how I felt about a lot of subjects until we got them out in the open and threw our ideas back and forth.”
Mann, who was six when his family emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine, has participated in other Hillel events before. The Shabbaton solidified his connection to the Russian-speaking community.
“We didn’t spend all that much time together – only about a day and a half, but we came away very close to each other,” Mann said.
Organizer Zilbermint measures the success of the Shabbaton in the closeness of the students after the weekend. The Monday after the Shabbaton, e-mail inboxes overflowed with messages from participants, who were already planning a reunion.
“Usually, the follow-up activities and involvement are initiated by the staff,” Zilbermint said. “But this year, the students themselves saw the need for more events. The success of the Shabbaton is in the students’ desire to continue their Jewish involvement and their Jewish education.”
Jane Carney is the campaign and marketing associate for the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis.