By Jeremy Borovitz
Judaism is a religion that starts in the home. From the signs we put on the doorpost to our houses to the way we eat, interact with guests, and celebrate the cycles of the week and year, the home serves as the focal point for our culture, religion, and identity. From November 14-16, 28 residents, alumni, and community members of Moishe Houses across Europe and the Former Soviet Union, from nearly a dozen different countries, gathered on the outskirts of Budapest to discuss ‘What exactly makes a home Jewish?’
Moishe House residents, as well as their alumni and community members, are faced with the challenge of creating a community, often times from scratch. The apartment or house which serves as their Moishe House has to be a place that is much more than four walls. It must have all the intangibles of a Jewish home, all the warmth of a Shabbat meal, all the comforts of familiarity in what can often be a scary and unfamiliar place. What did these participants, coming from across the European spectrum, truly have in common? What bound them together? What could they hope to find in Budapest that they could bring back ‘home?’
Varvara Krasutskaya grew up in Minsk, Belarus, with her mother and brother. Judaism was a big part of her upbringing, a rarity for many Jews in Belarus. For Varvara, spirituality, Torah study and Shabbat dinners were childhood standards. In fact, she never imagined that the Judaism she practiced in her home was in any way different from how Judaism is practiced in other traditional atmospheres.
Varvara currently lives as a resident in Moishe House Warsaw, and she rarely has the opportunity to observe Jewish practices with her family. Instead, she is charged with creating a standard for her own home. As she put it, “My mother built and shaped my relations with G-d, and a retreat like the one we have had in Budapest helps me to know more about Judaism in terms of tradition and practice.”
Daniel Susser grew up in an observant family in London, and even attended a religious Yeshiva in Israel for two years. Daniel emerged from his Yeshiva experience feeling that the Judaism he learned there did not entirely match his world view. But through his time as a resident of Moishe House London, Daniel has begun to reimagine what can truly constitute a Jewish educational experience. All of the participants were wowed Saturday morning, when, during the first session of the day, Daniel facilitated a session on “How to give a Dvar Torah.” His first time teaching at one of the retreats has inspired Daniel to run more Jewish learning programs at Moishe House London, as he perhaps discovers a passion for Jewish education long since dormant.
For Anna Kassai, a community member of Moishe House Budapest, this was her first Moishe House Jewish Learning Retreat. “All my life I knew I was Jewish,” she told me, “because my Grandma always said so.” Except for some old family recipes and dusty artifacts in the attic, most of that was lost on her. It wasn’t until just two years ago, at the age of 23, that she first desired to learn about her heritage. She went on Taglit (Birthright), and while she enjoyed herself, she felt it didn’t give her an option to get involved.
One day, a friend of hers came to visit Hungary, and decided to stay a few nights in Moishe House Budapest. Anna stepped into Moishe House on a Friday night for a Shabbat service and for the first time, felt like she was a part of a community. While Anna is not a religious person and didn’t think Torah study was for her, she was pleasantly surprised when the Torah study sessions turned out to be one of her favorite parts of the retreat. Anna is currently serving as a Madricha (counselor) for Birthright trips through the Jewish Agency in Budapest and is looking to make use of the skills she has learned on the retreat. “I can’t stop thinking how – if I am given a chance – would I use these techniques to teach my group of Birthright participants.”
These are just a few of the amazing stories we had at our retreat, where the participants were truly a ‘hodge-podge’ of European Jewry. From an Italian-Jewish journalist from Milan, to a Jewish communal professional from Kiev, to a furniture maker from Riga, cultures and languages came together to explore their own Jewish identity and attempt to form their own Jewish futures. As we learned different texts, sang different songs and practiced different rituals, we were all united in our commitment to the Jewish people and strengthening our Jewish communities back home.
One of the most powerful moments came at Havdallah, where we sang “Shavua Tov,” or “Have a Good Week,” a traditional blessing given and sung as the Sabbath departs on Saturday night. After we sang it in Hebrew and English, we sang it in Russian, Latvian, Serbian Italian, Ukrainian, Spanish, French, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech and Polish! The tongues of the earth reuniting under one roof because a Jewish home is where the light of our people shine.
And the glow from Budapest that Shabbat was very, very bright.
Jeremy Borovitz is European Director of Jewish Education at Moishe House.