For Ilya Bunimovich, the fifth annual Russian Shabbaton and birthright israel Reunion was more than a chance to meet new people from across the country and to learn about being a Russian Jew in America. Bunimovich got to flex his leadership muscle throughout the weekend too. Along with nine others in the School of Madrichim, Bunimovich led two sessions for his fellow Shabbaton participants. The School is a leadership skills building program of the Russian Hillel, an offshoot of Hillels Around Chicago geared toward college students and recent graduates from the Former Soviet Union. Led by volunteers Felix Grudsky and Olga Shalman, the group brainstorms ideas for programs, practices creating ice breakers and leading discussions.
“It’s such a different experience when you know that you had to create and lead activities and make sure that everything runs smoothly,” Bunimovich, 23, said. “I felt like I was helping make the Shabbaton what it was. You get to see the results of all of these months of training and work. It’s a great feeling.”
Together with scholar in residence Rabbi Pinhas Zusis, the School of Madrichim team created a charade-like performance based on the ritual of the Jewish wedding, which might be unfamiliar to people who did not grow up in an expressly Jewish environment. In addition, the student leaders devised a game similar to Jeopardy in which participants learned trivia about Israel, Jewish culture and Russian history.
Having been to previous Shabbatonim, Bunimovich – who is also a member of the Russian Hillel student Executive Board – recognized the novelty of being both a participant and an occasional group leader. Every year, for example, E-Board members are responsible for introducing the traditions of Shabbat to participants. They talk about the history behind lighting candles, saying blessings over wine and challah, and teach the ritual washing of the hands. For some participants, this is the first introduction they get to Jewish ritual.
Every year Shabbaton organizers struggle to brainstorm new ideas for programs and discussions for the weekend. One of the central themes remains Jewish identity. Coming from the FSU, many experience the unique blending of being Jewish, Russian and American. At the Shabbaton, participants can take time for introspection and learn about themselves through discussions with others.
“The Shabbaton is a completely different experience from any other Jewish event I’ve been to,” said Andrea Sidelsky, 22, also a member of the School of Madrichim crew. “It brought back memories of being on birthright – it’s the same type of instant camaraderie that grows from being with people who share a common culture.”
A pharmacy graduate student, Sidelsky was born in the United States, but speaks Russian and immerses herself in Russian culture. The Shabbaton allowed her to engage with her Russian heritage, something she came to value while in college.
For Boris Abezgauz, who recently moved to the Chicago area from Dallas, the Shabbaton was also a chance to discover all the different sides of being Russian and Jewish in Chicago.
“It’s great to see how well-developed the community is. In Dallas, there are a lot of Russian Jews, but it’s definitely not organized, and we didn’t have many events for young people,” Abezgauz, 26, said. “My experience at the Shabbaton was great: I got to meet all kinds of different people from all over the place. We are all so different, but there is an obvious link that brought us all together.”
Participants explored that link in a variety of ways – from singing Russian and Hebrew songs throughout the weekend to discussing the future of Russian Hillel to simply meeting others and having one-on-one conversations about life. And of course organizers and participants had to celebrate the fifth birthday of Russian Hillel and the Russian Shabbaton.
In addition to the theme of identity, this year’s Shabbaton focused on Israeli culture, history and politics. In fact, one of the groups was led by Anna Vainer and Alexandra Belinski, emissaries of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who have come from Israel especially to work with Russian speaking community.
Lisette Dolgin, Nick Israel and Inna Kolesnikova from StandWithUs, an international educational and advocacy organization, led sessions about Anti-Zionism, the law of return, and Israel 101. These informative discussions were the highlight for those who came to the Shabbaton to reminisce about their trips to Israel.
Plans are already in the making for Shabbaton 2009, which will take place February 20-22. For more information about Russian Hillel, please visit www.russianhillel.org .
Jane Charney is a graduate student in international relations at the University of Chicago and a Shabbaton staff member. She immigrated to the United States from Moscow, Russia in 1996.