It was a bone-chilling 25 degrees below zero in Moscow as 200 Jewish university students representing the 27 Hillels of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia gathered at the seventh annual Hillel in the former Soviet Union (FSU) Winter Congress. Within minutes, however, the frozen Russian winter was an afterthought as the participants embraced old friends and met new ones during the four-day program.
"It was both fun and educational with a very warm atmosphere," said Avi Rubel, the assistant director of Hillel's international division, who attended the congress.
The conference offered the young Jewish leaders, 80 percent of whom were first-timers, the opportunity to attend a number of Jewish education workshops and seminars with topics ranging from the Jewish perspective on piercings and tattoos to women in the Torah. Students also addressed many issues pertinent to the community at large, such as drugs and alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases. Rabbis representing several denominations led Shabbat services, and students showed off their talents in music and dance with several performances. And for the first time, a partner-agency fair introduced attendees to the wide range of Jewish resources and programs available to them in the FSU and abroad. The congress also brought together 50 Hillel professionals in the FSU for training in administration and fiscal management, Jewish education and innovative programming.
But for the participants, the chance to meet with other young Jews was just as important as the program offerings, according to Rubel.
"It was a safe space for them to be with their Jewish peers," he said. "For so long Jews in the FSU were cut off. No one in their world had the opportunity to make these connections. Now there's a lot of hunger for it."
At a time when the 1 million Jews across the FSU are in their early stages of organizing, now is the ideal time to train young adults to step up and take the initiative to create strong communities.
"There is a major need to provide students with the ability to see themselves as part of the Jewish community and to take on leadership roles," Rubel said.
The congress coincided with Hillel in the FSU's Taglit-birthright israel program, where more than 200 students visited Israel for the first time. Among the five buses was a group of students from the former republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan – a first for Hillel.