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Annual retreat emphasizes Jewish learning for Russian-speakers

What happens when 96 Russian-speaking college students and young professionals gather for a weekend of Jewish learning? “A sense of instant community,” is Steve Bogdanov’s answer.

Shabbaton image
Chicagoan Masha Chernyak holds the multi-wick candle during the Havdalah ritual at the sixth annual Russian Shabbaton and Birthright Israel Reunion

What happens when 96 Russian-speaking college students and young professionals gather for a weekend of Jewish learning? “A sense of instant community,” is Steve Bogdanov’s answer.

Bogdanov, who was born in Minsk and came to the United States in 1995, was among the participants at the sixth annual Russian Shabbaton and Birthright Israel Reunion, the flagship event of Russian Hillel, which is a program of Hillels Around Chicago. The Shabbaton, which was held Feb. 20-22 at Indian Lakes Resort in Bloomingdale, began in 2004 with the goal of offering Russian-speaking Jewish young adults in Chicago a venue to meet each other and learn together. This year’s Shabbaton attracted participants from Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Tampa, Fla.

“From the first moment, from when Shabbat started, we came together as a community,” Bogdanov, 24, said. “It didn’t matter where you were from, whether it’s Minsk or Moscow, your religious background … We became like a little union, like a Russian Jewish family.”

A second-year law student at John Marshall Law School, Bogdanov is part of Russian Hillel’s School of Madrichim, which teaches leadership skills. In addition to a weekend of learning, the Shabbaton was a chance for Bogdanov and eight other members to showcase what they had learned in the six months since the program started.

Marina Ryklin, a University of Illinois at Chicago senior and a School of Madrichim member, said the Shabbaton’s theme, “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: History, Immigration & Identity,” appealed to her desire to explore the different patterns of migration her family experienced. She felt a sense of connection to other participants because “we were raised with the same values and the same environment,” Ryklin, 23, said.

“It’s nice to have a connection right away because you came from a country that didn’t accept you,” said Ryklin, whose family emigrated from Minsk in 1992. “I think Russian-American Jews are a totally different heritage. We are unique in nature.”

That sense of uniqueness was explored in a variety of ways throughout the weekend, including marking the beginning of Shabbat with songs in Hebrew, Russian and English. Participants also enjoyed a festive dinner and a chance to take part in traditional rituals such as the Kiddush, the Ha’Motzi and the washing of the hands. For some, the Shabbaton presented the first opportunity to take part in Jewish ritual.

On Saturday, professional Jewish educators from around the country addressed everything from the role of naming in Jewish culture to the various denominational paths within Judaism and from finding love in the Jewish community to the places where Jews have lived historically, including Ethiopia, Cuba and India.

Undoubtedly the most important question—and the reason many participants chose to attend the Shabbaton—is one of self-identity. The blending of one’s Russian and Jewish heritage with an American or Israeli education has created a convoluted identity.

“People who aren’t Russian-speaking and didn’t immigrate as Jews to America don’t really know about the experience,” said Liliya Mzhen, 21, who lives in Florida and heard about the Shabbaton through her Birthright Israel group leader. “It’s hard to discuss this with people who aren’t of the same background.”

To help decipher the identity puzzle, this year’s Shabbaton featured a scholar in residence, who provided an academic take on being a Russian-speaking Jewish American. University of Colorado-Boulder Associate Professor David Shneer, who focuses on Russian-Jewish history in his research, engaged the mind and focused on migration stories and the feeling of “gerness” (ger is Hebrew for stranger). Shneer not only used texts by Russian-American writers, but also the parasha (Torah portion) of the week, Mishpatim, which details all the things forbidden to the Israelites, including mistreating the ger. The feeling of gerness is common to all immigrants and especially to Russian-speaking Jews as they seek a place to fit in.

“The entire experience was eye-opening,” said Mzhen, whose family came from Kiev in 1993. “The main thing is that we all come from the same background, culturally and religiously. We may not have grown up as religious as other Jews, but we still have both of those qualities, which we should keep alive. And I got to speak a little Russian, which I don’t get to do with people my age at home.”

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