What brings together 25 participants from eight countries to Chisinau, Moldova?
Russian speaking Jews (RSJ) from Austria, Armenia, Germany, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Israel, Ukraine and Russia gathered together for three days to learn about the Jewish life cycle from birth to death for Moishe House’s first ever RSJ Jewish Learning Retreat. With generous support from UJA-Federation of NY, The LA Pincus Fund for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, and an anonymous donor, Moishe House led the first ever retreat entirely in Russian.
As we delved into Jewish traditions throughout the life cycle, examining our personal life cycles became inevitable. As a Russian American Jew, born in Moscow and raised in New York City, I never imagined my journey taking me to Moldova to build community with RSJs from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and Europe. Yet, this felt extremely natural. Despite any barriers, I knew I was with “my people” – a phrase RSJs often use to describe instantaneous bonds. This is a testament to our culture, history, and heritage that has permeated the span of time and distance.
Our lives and that of our ancestors have been marked by critical moments including pogroms, war, famine, communism and post Soviet society. Add modernity, immigration, and the increase of investment and identity of RSJ young adults, this becomes quickly multi-layered and rather complex. What binds these 25 participants together? Our shared heritage, our common struggle, and the ability to connect culturally and linguistically through Russian. While each of our childhoods differed depending on whether you grew up in Almaty, Moscow, or immigrated to New York, common language has and continues to bind us literally and figuratively.
The Russian speaking Jewish Learning Retreat enabled the full creative expression of each individual. “The seminar was remarkable because all of the participants had glowing eyes and warm hearts. I think that Moishe House has huge potential in the FSU and I was extremely happy and lucky to be part of this experience,” said Yulia Tucinskaia, 30, Vienna, Moishe House alumna and founder of Moishe House Chisinau.
We began by marking impactful moments in our personal lives by drawing and exploring ways to commemorate the significance of these moments through Jewish rituals. Aligned with the Moishe House ethos of learning for the sake of doing, we created our own rituals for naming ceremonies, weddings, and members entering and exiting communities. Throughout the three days, creativity flourished as we role played a traditional Jewish wedding, rapped a Dvar torah, and learned bits of Jewish text while participating in a wine tasting.
In the past, the Soviet Union had systematically suppressed Jewish communal life and denied opportunities for Jewish education, and yet, in Moldova stood 25 Jewish young adults actively engaged in Jewish life. As a Russian American Jew, I personally experience the fluidity between multiple identities complicated by history and modernity. Today’s generation of Russian speaking Jews struggle to relate to Jewish life and often revert to the generation of our great grandparents in order to remember the rituals, traditions, and customs of our people. By taking pride in our cultural traditions through our shared experiences, dialogue, and leadership development, we are building and strengthening the RSJ community and helping to cultivate young adult Global Jewry.
“When I am alone, it is difficult to create something new and meaningful; yet, in our breakout groups, we found support in each other in order to express our individual Judaism,” said Katya Osmehovskaia, 24, a Moishe House alumna participant.
In 2009, Moishe House launched the initiative to open RSJ Houses in the Former Soviet Union, and today, we have 10 houses in six countries. My first Moishe House experience occurred back in 2012 while attending a Shabbat dinner and Purim celebrations in Odessa. Fast forward three years later to Moishe House’s first ever RSJ Jewish Learning Retreat, where I have reunited with the same residents who made my experience so memorable. Even more extraordinary was the reunion of the original group that opened the first RSJ House in Chisinau, Moldova who arrived from Israel and Vienna to partake in the retreat.
As we parted ways, it became clear that we built a community through our shared culture and language that began the process of lifelong friendships. The responsibility to advance and strengthen the Russian Jewish community falls upon our Jewish young adults and community members. And in my best estimation, this important responsibility is being left in good hands around the globe.
Yana Tolmacheva is Senior Director of RSJ Programming at Moishe House.