Over 100 Russian-speaking Jews attended the Chicago Shabbaton.
From February 20-22, 2009, over 100 Russian-speaking Jewish students gathered in Chicago for Chicago Hillel's sixth annual Russian Shabbaton. The Russian Hillel initiative seeks to foster and maintain the growth of a vibrant Russian Jewish community within greater Chicago's broader Jewish community by planning social, educational, and cultural events for Russian-speaking Jewish college students and young adults. Yasha Moz, a member of Hillel's International Division interviewed Genia Solovyova, the Director for Chicago's Russian Hillel program and the organizer of the Shabbaton, and Marina Rykhlin, a participant and senior at the University of Illinois-Chicago, about their experiences.
Hillel: Thank you for taking the time to speak to me about your participation at the Russian speaking Shabbaton. When did you both first join the Russian-speaking Jewish community here in the United States?
Genia Solovyova: I was born and grew up in Ukraine, made aliya to Israel and then last year I moved to Chicago to work with Russian-speaking students as the Director of Chicago Hillel's Russian initiative.
Marina Rykhlin: I moved to the United States in 1992 at the age of six with my family from Minsk, Belarus.
Hillel: You both seem to have very different immigration stories. How did these personal histories play a role during the Shabbaton?
MR: It was great that people were open to meeting one another, having conversations together, and sharing their memories. Many people had similar stories, but some people stopped in Italy and Vienna on the way to the United States. It was amazing to meet people who had similar stories as mine. It enabled us to understand each other and form an immediate connection. I am usually a shy person but felt very comfortable to open up at the Shabbaton because we all share similar families and cultures. We grew up eating the same food and listening to the same music.
Hillel: The Shabbaton sounds like a truly unique experience. Can you tell me a bit more about the background of the event?
GS: This year’s theme was "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: Our History, Immigration and Identity." The main goal of the Shabbaton was to connect Russian-speaking Jewish students — connect them with each other as one people, connect them with Jewish history and tradition, and strengthen this connection by coming together and celebrating our heritage. The Shabbaton was created six years ago by my predecessor, Misha Zilbermint, who wanted to replicate the success and the feeling of the annual Winter Congress that took place in the former Soviet Union Hillel. So in 2003, he invited Russian-speaking Jewish students from Chicago and Milwaukee and the Russian Shabbaton was born.
Hillel: Over these six years, I imagine the Shabbaton has grown and changed. What elements of the experience seem to resonate most with participants this year?
Shabbaton participants observe Havdalah ceremony.
GS: From what we have heard from our participants, the most powerful spiritual experiences from the weekend occurred during the Havdalah ceremony. They were moved and inspired by the beauty of the candles, the blessings, and the singing and dancing. Together, it gave the students a feeling of unity, belonging and simply a joy of celebrating together! The Russian Shabbaton inspired our students to be involved in Jewish community life.
MR: I was looking for more ways to become involved with the Russian community in Chicago. Previous Russian Hillel events ignited my interest in Judaism and Jewish identity and history, but this conference allowed me to deepen this exploration. It was a unique opportunity to learn about the immigration experiences we all share through discussions, singing, meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends. I feel more involved now. I never participated in the Hillel at the University of Illinois-Chicago in the past, but now I am going with them on an Alternative Spring Break to New Orleans.
Hillel: It sounds like it was a great success all around. Is there anything either of you would like to add?
GS: I would just to like to take a moment and recognize all of those who made the weekend possible through their generous support— Hillels Around Chicago and Hillels of Illinois, Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, Taglit-Birthright Israel, Birthright Israel NEXT, Shorashim, Jewish Agency for Israel, Genesis Philanthropy Group and Stand With Us. A special thanks also to the wonderful Russian Shabbaton Chairpersons, Olga Shalman and Jane Charney, Hillels Around Chicago Executive Director, Michelle Maer, Russian Hillel Engagement Associate, Yuri Shetkin and all of the volunteers and professionals from near and far. This experience would not have been the same without all of them.
MR: I wish more people could come and experience what I did. I hope other people take initiative and start similar programs in their communities. It makes a huge impact on young people because everyone needs a community.
Read more about the Russian Shabbaton:
OY! Chicago: An Online Community for Jews in the Loop
Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
Learn more about Hillel Chicago’s Russian program