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One big Jewish family: The 10th Russian Shabbaton

The 10th Russian Shabbaton was held the weekend of March 7. It attracted close to 130 participants, among them first-time attendees, as well as alumni.

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Thanks to a generous gift from Nick and Alex Turik, as well as support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the 10th Russian Shabbaton was held in Hilton Chicago Indian Lake Resort (Bloomingdale, IL) the weekend of March 7.

It attracted close to 130 participants, among them first-time attendees, as well as alumni. Notably, distinguished alumni and co-founders of Shabbaton Misha Zilbermint and Olga Abezgauz joined the annual celebration for its anniversary. When asked to share the reason for coming to this event, most participants stated (some in Russian, some in English) that they were looking for a sense of community. They all added that they found this community at Shabbaton.

Russian Jewish Division (RJD), the organizers of this event, really did a wonderful job of creating a sense of togetherness for the participants. By reshuffling everybody into various small groups (by interest, city of origin, or randomly) they insured that all in attendance met as many fellow participants as possible. The Shabbaton began with a beautiful candle lighting ceremony followed by a big group session where Shabbat was explained and everyone was encouraged to welcome it with songs and prayers. This was followed by dinner and an intellectual game night (What? Where?When?).

Saturday was just as packed with activities starting with a discussion with Dmitriy Shimelfarb from JAFI, NY on Russian Jewish identity, cleverly expressed in a desire to create an acronymic alphabet for the community. The discussion was followed by workshops, the focus of which varied from painting led by Ramona Luka, JUF, and acting with famous Russian director Ilya Rudiak, to discussions about the media led by Jane Charney, AJC Chicago, and the psychology of Exodus with Rabbi Pinchus Zusis. Participants were encouraged to choose two workshop sessions that they found most interesting. With a plethora of options, it was hard to settle on just two, but no matter which workshops the participants selected, all were very satisfied with the knowledge and skills they gained from attending.

Bonding continued in small groups; as participants shared their experience of being a Russian American Jew. Many have found that what they thought to be a uniquely personal life-event was actually one that they share with other Russian Jews. Among such experiences were attendance of Jewish summer camps, realization of one's Jewish identity, and facing some form of anti-Semitism throughout one's life.

Participants also created shared experiences while at the conference: for most the Havdalah ceremony became the most cherished memory from the trip. The prayers, dancing and singing made participants feel like a part of something greater; it made them realize that they have a community which welcomes them and into which they fit with ease.

The sharing of personal experiences and the creating of shared ones did not stop with the scheduled programming. Despite days packed with ceremonies, workshops and sessions, participants were given plenty of free time in which most strove to continue to get to know each other. Some played card games, others sang songs and played guitars, still others held intellectual discussions over problems faced by the contemporary Jewish community. As the conference closed on Sunday, participants, now sporting a grey RJD t-shirts, hugged their new friends for a group picture. In the sea of grey, 130-something smiling faces confirmed that the 10th Shabbaton was a huge success. Please take a look at this short video and photos from the retreat.

To learn more about the Russian Jewish Division or Russian Shabbaton, contact Evgenia Kovelman, RJD's director, at or 312-673-2351.

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