Yom Kippur Sermon
When I was growing up in the 1980s, the specter of the Soviet Union was omnipresent. I learned about the constant threat of nuclear war and I learned about the fate of Jews in the Soviet Union. The situation of refuseniks was a major part of my connection to the Jewish community growing up. I was of the era of “twinning,” of leaving an empty seat on the bima during a bnei mitzvah in honor of a Soviet child who was unable to have their own coming-of-age celebration on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
During the Soviet era, religion was taboo and Judaism was no exception. Under the Soviet system, religion just didn’t matter anymore so intermarriage among Jews was rampant. From 1918 to 1991, some three generations of Jews unlearned their heritage and became model Soviet citizens. Then, suddenly in 1991, the future changed for everyone. Who would’ve expected that the situation would change so dramatically, that in 1991 religious freedom for Jews would return to Eastern Europe and to Russia?
With that freedom, Jews fled the Former Soviet Union. Over a million emigrated to Israel and the United States but some remained. Today, only about 200,000 Jews remain in Russia, less than a third of the number of Jews in Los Angeles. 200,000 Jews in the world’s largest country, almost twice the size of the United States. And many of them are barely connected to the tradition. A few thousand of these Jews remain in Siberia, a remnant of Jewish professionals - engineers, scientists, physicians, sent by the USSR to work and teach east of the Ural Mountains.
When I heard about the Siberia bnei mitzvah program, I desperately wanted to be part of it. Created by Elaine Berke, a member of the Valley Beth Sholom community and sponsored by my school, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University, along with the Joint Distribution Committee , the Siberian bnei mitzvah program has, for the last six years, sent two rabbinical students to Siberia to spend a week teaching Jewish Siberian teens some basics of Judaism in anticipation of a communal bar and bat mitzvah celebration on the following Shabbat.
While I was part of the sixth pair to go to Siberia, our team was quite historic. Traveling with me was my classmate and friend, Rachel Safman, the first female rabbinical student to participate in the program. For years, the Joint and the Siberian Jewish community were reluctant to allow a woman to participate in the program, fearing that it would de-legitimize the program. Fortunately, communal pressure by my classmates at my school resulted in change. During our time in Siberia, we came to realize that Rachel was likely the first female to conduct a Shabbat service in Siberia in many many years, if ever.
In late June, Rachel and I found ourselves flying on Aeroflot, the Russian airline, from Los Angeles to New York to Moscow to Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. Our week-long camp consisted of nearly 60 Siberian Jewish teens. Several parents also took time out from their lives to attend and to learn with us. Kids came from small towns and large cities from throughout Siberia, for this one opportunity to connect to their tradition. Several of the children were the one and only Jew to travel to Novosibirsk from their hometown; how daunting that must have been. We were amazed by their courage and dedication to our tradition.
Novosibirisk, known as the capital of Siberia, is a modern city, founded at the end of the 19th century at the junction of the Ob River and the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The architecture of the city is quite remarkable with a combination of modern skyscrapers, utilitarian Soviet housing blocks, and Victorian edifices. The city is Russia’s third largest with more than two and a half million people in its metropolitan region. While winter temperatures can dip to 30 degrees below, we were there at the end of June and early July and so temperatures were warm - into the low 90s. And, with sunrise by 4 am and sunset around 11 pm, the day was hot and long. Surrounding Novosibirsk is a dense beautiful forest with thin birch and pine trees reaching high into the sky. We hiked whenever we had a break, despite the rugged Siberian mosquitoes who seemed to mock our nearly useless American bug repellent.
Throughout the week we had numerous sessions with our teen campers, teaching them through our translators, to recite and sing the Shema, the Torah blessings, and Veshamru. (It was quite fun that among those familiar with Veshamru, it was Rabbi Rothblum’s tune that they knew, literally on the other side of the earth.) We studied some Torah and learned about the Talmud. We worked on the basics for there were so many holes we needed to fill. Some kids came with knowledge and some came with nothing. I discovered one young girl wearing a Eastern Orthodox cross because it’s what nearly every women in Russia wears around her neck. We talked to the girl and replaced her cross with a magen david necklace instead.
We encouraged the campers, counselors, and parents to ask us anything. We spent a week answering many many questions about ourselves and about our Jewish observance. We answered many questions about the role of women in Judaism. We answered questions about kashrut, about kippot, about Jewish life in America, and about Israel. We talked about our tradition and commandments and what it means to be empowered and obligated as a bar or bat mitzvah.
But, we were saddened by some of the questions. One in particular stands out. A 20-something young couple in love, camp counselors, somewhat knowledgable of our tradition, asked us if it was true that only Orthodox Jews could be married under a chuppah. Ouch.
While the future opened up for Jews in Russia after 1991, only our friends at Chabad were able to dispatch rabbinical leaders throughout the country. The chief rabbi of Russia is a Chabad rabbi and is close to Vladamir Putin. The wealthy Jewish oligarchs of Russia give their money to Chabad to duplicate their Eastern Orthodox colleagues. The synagogues that were returned to the Jewish community after the fall of the USSR were given to Chabad. Chabad is recognized as the official form of Judaism in the modern Russian Empire.
Therefore, those who know anything about Judaism usually only know about it from a Chabad perspective. So, what this young couple learned about Jewish weddings was that you had to be Orthodox to be married Jewishly because Chabad can’t deal with the Jewish identity question in Russia after so much intermarriage during the Soviet era. So, Chabad only accepts those willing to prove their identity and be observant according to Chabad expectations. We were so sad. We answered the couple that Jewish tradition wants young people to get married and have Jewish children so the task doesn’t even require a rabbi. We encouraged them to be married by the state and have a knowledgeable friend learn to perform the Jewish ceremony under a chuppah.
Throughout the week we tried to teach our students that alternatives exist in the global Jewish community. We encouraged them to seek out answers for themselves on the Internet and to seek out alternatives when they are told “no.” We tried to be the Russian 2011 version of the 1965 book, The First Jewish Catalogue.
We took many questions about brit milah and realized quite quickly that nearly all of our male campers were uncircumcised, and likely not one had received a brit milah by a mohel. These teenage boys obviously have suffered a lot of mental anguish over their status as Jews. What to do under these circumstances? How do we make them feel more welcome?
We decided to give all of our campers Hebrew names as a sign of welcoming them into the Jewish community. None of them had been given Jewish names at birth. Over the course of the week, we met with each of our campers and talked about their current name and about the heroes of the Bible and we worked together to select a new meaningful Hebrew name for the child, which we then used to call them up to the Torah during our Shabbat morning bnei mitzvah service.
At the end of the week, we had a wonderful Friday evening service with songs and dinner, it went late into the night but still ended before the 10 pm candle-lighting time. A local Jewish singer sang Go Down Moses and Hava Nagilah.
On Shabbat morning we held our Torah service and brought up groups of the teens to the Torah and bestowed upon them their Hebrew name and the title of bar or bat mitzvah. We even had a group of moms who studied with us throughout the week who were called to the Torah for their adult banot mitzvah. For nearly everyone in the camp, it was their first time even seeing a sefer Torah. We unrolled the Torah across several tables after the ceremony so that children and parents alike could see that the Torah it not in heaven but right there, in front of them.
While the bnei mitzvah program is only six years old, it has touched the lives of more than 350 young Jews and their families throughout Siberia. Most of our counselors had been part of the program themselves four to six years prior. Since then, they have gone on to Russian universities where Joint Distribution Committee-sponsored Hillels are sprouting up and are giving young Jews alternatives.
We attempted to empower our young charges to learn more. We directed them to the resources of the Internet and provided our contact information. We prepared basic Hebrew and Russian siddurium which we gave to our students to use for the future.
We spoke individually to several of the shining stars among the older campers and the counselors about continuing their Jewish education and encouraged them to consider rabbinical school in Germany, London, or in the United States. How wonderful would it be to have native Russians trained as progressive rabbis in the rabbinical schools of the west? After ordination they could return home to Novosibirsk, to Moscow, to St. Petersburg and be the leaders of a new generation of Russian Jews, who know the culture and language as natives, who have grown up after the demise of the Soviet Union, who have grown up in a country where Jews can once again wear kippot and magen david necklaces. They could create the alternatives that Russia so badly needs.
I often had to remind myself that just 20 years ago, Russia had its second major revolution of the 20th century, and for many years after 1991, the country was in chaos and individuals no longer had the certainty of a job or shelter as they had under communism. Freedom and individualism are new and it will still take time for these ideas to settle. Each year, additional Russian Jews are discovering their past, a past hidden during the time of communism. If we count those with one Jewish grandparent, perhaps the number of Jews in Russia rises into the millions. In time these Jews will look to the tradition to provide meaning and structure in their lives and to mark the passing of lifecycle events. They will turn toward the tradition and its teachers for spiritual fulfillment and growth. They will create communities where all Jews can be married under a chuppah and can circumcise their boys...
I know that this holiday season, the Jews of Siberia are unable to celebrate Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur in the way we are today. The problem of isolated and disconnected Jews remains throughout our world. Just because the Iron Curtain came down 20 years ago, we must not forget the Jews of the world. We can do more to help them, to remember them, to improve their Jewish community.
When I say next year in Jerusalem at the end of our service this Yom Kippur, I will be thinking of my friends in Siberia, praying that they too will receive the light of liberal Torah in the year to come. Gemar Chatimah Tovah!