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Reflections on my return to the former Soviet Union

I visited the former Soviet Union as part of the Jewish Federations of North America (JNFA) National Young Leadership Cabinet Mission to St. Petersburg and Tbilisi.

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Local Chicago Cabinet members during their travels to St. Petersburg, Russia. From Left: Shayla Rosen, Jacob Shapiro, Jeremy Oberfeld (the author), Mike Teplitsky, Robyn Schneider, Jonathan Gonsky, Jen Leemis, and Michael Oxman.

How does one reconcile beauty, culture, and progress with the darkness of anti-Semitism and the oppression it brings? 

I visited the former Soviet Union as part of the Jewish Federations of North America (JNFA) National Young Leadership Cabinet Mission to St. Petersburg and Tbilisi. In St. Petersburg, I thought about my childhood experience living in Kiev, Ukraine in the 1980s. 

Yet, what I saw now in St. Petersburg was diametrically opposed to the times when I clenched my fists to fight just because I am Jewish. Now, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, where theaters and museums grace almost every corner, I saw a revitalized Jewish community, with active social centers, schools, synagogues, and growing bonds with Judaism and Israel.

Can history finally stop repeating itself? While I saw great signs of optimism, I am cautious to believe it. We've been fooled into comfort more than once before. That is one of the reasons maintaining connections and supporting Jewish diaspora are crucial.

This is why I joined National Young Leadership Cabinet, a group of national Jewish leaders in their 30s and 40s who are part of the five-year program. We learn more about Jewish life and needs around the world, and strengthen our leadership skills and philanthropic commitments, all while forging lifelong friendships.

In St. Petersburg- where the Hermitage Museum, Empress Catherine II Palace, and Mariinsky Ballet were some of the highlights- listening to the stories and seeing the centers of Jewish life made the most impact on me and my chevre , my friends and fellow Cabinet members. We visited Jewish community centers and an ORT affiliated school, and attended Shabbat service at the Grand Choral Synagogue.

During a visit to the St. Petersburg's Jewish community center, we met a group of retirees. One, an elderly lady, described to me the way many members of her family died of starvation during the Leningrad's 1941-44 blockade by the Nazis. She then told me that coming to the Jewish community center provides her "the only happiness" as she struggles to live. Her wide eyes, trembling voice, and clutching hands conveyed an expression of deep gratitude.

We were accompanied by Natan Sharansky- a prominent Soviet dissident and Israeli politician- and his wife, Avital. Our trip was enhanced by his direct perspective, historic context, and conviction on the future of the Jews people.

I also was profoundly struck by Avital, a hero who rarely takes center stage. An ordinary person without grand aspirations or political ambitions, she was thrust into a position in which she had to step up and convince global leaders to support her cause: freeing her husband and all of Soviet Jewry.

She challenged the Soviet regime, chipping away at its foundation, and ultimately helped to win the freedom for millions of Soviet Jews, finally allowed to leave in 1987. Her resilience and ability to rise beyond seemingly insurmountable challenges were moving and truly empowering.

We then went to Tbilisi, in Georgia, a country located in the path of most Soviet military conquests. Jews settled there nearly 2,600 years ago, after the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. We visited the Jewish communities of Tbilisi and Gori. This is a land of proud, passionate people, with famous cuisine and vibrant national dancing. While most Jews emigrated, mainly to Israel, a few thousand remain.

There, we visited an elderly couple's home who would not survive on their meager 70 dollars per person monthly pension without the Jewish community's assistance, much of which is provided by Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which JUF supports.

In the town of Gori (also the birthplace of Stalin), a small but active Jewish center provides a refuge for Jewish troubled youth. This was a community of 90 Jews, with an active synagogue and small community center. Although the community has a declining membership, it does possess resources to continue.

Georgia and Russia presented a deep look into two different communities, in many ways, with similar past, but divergent future. One is shrinking, while the other thrives.

Regardless of these communities' paths, we must not neglect those in need, regardless of where they are in the Diaspora or Israel. Collective responsibility and proactive support have enabled Jews to survive for millennia. We have all been on the receiving end of that support- some families more recently than others.

If one ever wonders how our financial contributions to JUF and other Jewish organizations support Jewish lives, the evidence that we witnessed on this trip was clear. We must not waver on our moral obligations.

Jeremy Oberfeld is an entrepreneur, investor, and the CEO of Midwestern Career College.  Oberfeld, a first-year NYL Cabinet member, and his family immigrated to the United States in 1987 from Kiev, Ukraine. He and his wife live in Deerfield with their son and daughter.


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