Reflections from Moscow: Today Being Jewish in Russia is Something to Explore, Not Hide

May 16, 2013

In April, Team Schusterman had the chance to visit several Hillels in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. We asked young leaders in each community to write about how Jewish life has changed for them. Read an introduction to this series by Schusterman President Sandy Cardin.

Ten years ago I was a university student in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Studying international relations was good, but as a local Hillel activist at the time, my most memorable education came from my involvement in Jewish life. Working at Jewish camps, going on Birthright, learning about Judaism at Hillel seminars and then sharing it with my peers and the larger community made for a very busy but also incredibly rewarding time. Still to this day, the connections I made all over the FSU form the core of my social and professional networks.

A decade later, I now live in Washington, DC, working as the Assistant Director of International Operations at Hillel International, where much of my time is focused on Jewish life in the FSU. Last month I had a déjà vu experience when I spent a week in Russia with Lynn Schusterman, meeting with students who had that familiar spark in their eyes as they talked about how a Birthright trip, leadership training program at Hillel or a homemade Shabbat dinner at Moishe House helped them connect to their own Jewish identity.

These conversations captured how much the community here has changed. Birthright, Moishe House, Presentense and Limmud, among others, have joined Hillel here, creating more opportunities for young people to further explore Jewish values and traditions.

Ten years ago Hillels were mostly teaching Judaism 101—now they are finding and supporting students to run programs for their peers. Ten years ago, going on a free trip to Israel felt like winning a lottery—now it is a rite of passage. Ten years ago living a Jewish life meant going to large community events—now young people are also able to create vibrant home-based communities through Moishe House. And finally, 10 years ago, the possibility of hosting a Moscow Limmud was not even on our radar—this year, more than 1,000 participants of every age and walk of life paid $200 per person to attend this multi-day educational.

Importantly, the local community is increasingly taking ownership over and responsibility for its continued growth. In addition to enjoying great relationships with international partners such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and UJA Federation, we now also have very important local partners in the Genesis Philanthropy Group and Russian Jewish Congress, a federation-like local structure.

While we still get invaluable input and support from International Hillel board members who care deeply about the continued Jewish Renaissance in FSU, it is the local board that is setting the direction and priority areas for Hillels across Russia.

The impact of this growth in infrastructure, partnerships and opportunities has been dramatic, resulting in perhaps the most significant accomplishment to date: the feeling that being Jewish in Russia is something to explore, not hide.

Indeed, in many ways, Jewish has become a part of the mainstream culture. Local universities cosponsor Israel culture festivals, President Putin donates his monthly salary to help build a Jewish museum and a group of the country's most prominent Jewish businessmen publicly walk through the desert to Israel to relive the Exodus story.

And yet, despite our progress, the road ahead toward a self-sustaining, diverse and confident Jewish community in Russia is still long and winding. Demographic, political and financial challenges remain a constant threat to the progress achieved to date.

We need to move beyond offering just a gateway to the Jewish community and Judaism 101 experiences but also a way for young adults to continue growing Jewishly. We need to expand Hillel’s presence to more universities and engage many more local lay leaders to help us grow. We need to get to know Birthright participants before they ever head to the airport and then, with the help of well-trained staff, build relationships with them during their experience so we can meaningfully engage them upon return.

It may sound obvious, but for redeveloping communities like Moscow, it requires work and collaboration in new and profound ways between organizations like Hillel, JDC, Jewish Agency, Moishe House, Nativ and others.

There is much we dream to, need to and, indeed, can accomplish. With international and local partners joining forces to make an investment in young people, we are making the best possible bet for long-term success.

Yasha Moz is the Assistant Director of International Operations at Hillel International.

This article first appeared on ejewishphilanthropy.