Building Jewish Community Through Dance

photo courtesy Yana Brook
photo courtesy Yana Brook

By Abigail Pickus

Yana Brook was already a teenager when she found out that she was Jewish.

Growing up in St. Petersburg, the daughter of a Jewish father and a Russian mother, it wasn’t that her Jewish identity was deliberately hidden from her.

It was more like her Jewish roots were not spoken of – a common situation for many Jewish families in the Soviet Union.

“We ate Jewish food and had Jewish jokes in our family and I even received gifts when I was 13 [indicating a bat mitzvah],” recalled Brook, “but I thought everyone did this. I thought everyone ate gefilte fish. We just never spoke about it.”

But then something shifted when Brook’s mother took her to the Israeli cultural center when she was 13 for dance lessons.

“I always loved dance,” said the now 26-year-old.

And it was there, at the Israeli cultural center, that Brook first learned that her first love could lead her to something much bigger than herself – something called community.

As she put it, “I entered the Jewish world through the dance door.”

Circle dancing led to Jewish Agency summer camps, which ultimately led her to St. Petersburg’s Jewish community. Throughout it all, Brook experienced a transformation from someone disconnected from her Jewish identity to someone embodied by it.

“St. Petersburg is a big city and it’s very important for me to have this kind of family. It’s amazing,” said Brook, who estimates that out of a population of over 5 million, the Jewish community in St. Petersburg is 90,000 – with the number of those who identify much smaller.)

When it came time for university, Brook pursued an advance degree in tanach (Bible) and cultural studies from St. Petersburg State University.

In 2011, she also spent the year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, thanks to a grant. (Besides her native Russian and English, she’s also fluent in Hebrew.)

Brook credits her intellectual interest in Judaism to the experiential learning she received at Jewish summer camp.

“This spoke to me so much,” she said. “I can’t remember a thing about Russian history but when it came to a Jewish framework I understood it all. It’s all about the approach. This form of being active in the learning where there is no one guide to tell you what to do but rather you explore together, spoke to me. I was very happy studying.”

She even worked for the Jewish Agency in St. Petersburg for a time, running its student department and acting as a counselor for teens.

But throughout it all, she never abandoned her connection to dance.

In 2011, she choreographed Hillel St. Petersburg’s Purim video.

That same year she founded Puzzle, a dance-focused program that blended dance and movement with Jewish texts and tradition to educate young people around the former Soviet Union and across the globe.

This soon morphed into DANCEGURU, an international dance company that uses dance as a tool for education.

“We call it dance storytelling,” said Brook. “People come thinking they’re going to hear a lecture about Israeli history and instead we tell stories based on a dance that we teach. We use dance as a fun way tell the cool stories of the Jewish people. People who participate learn something they never will forget because they danced it!”

Since its start in 2007 (their official launch was 2013), DANCEGURU has traveled throughout the FSU, Europe, Israel and even Scandinavia (Sweden), impacting over 9,000 young people.

As its founder and ceo, Brook feels that DANCEGURU is something of a homecoming.

“This is 100% an intersection of all that is important to me,” she said.

“I feel that I am changing the world. It is a big thing to say, but after my sessions I see smiling faces. I know we are not only teaching and educating, but we’re helping people feel good about themselves through moving their bodies.”

She is also helping them feel good about Jews and Judaism. Brook has seen evidence of this – both through the Jews who suddenly feel free to be themselves and proud of their heritage to non-Jews who see Jews and Judaism in a positive light, as opposed to what they may internalize from the media.

Brook is also empowered by being part of an international Jewish community. She is both an alum of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, and a member of ROI Community, an international network of young Jewish activists.

“I feel very grateful for these communities,” she said. “It was after international gatherings and incubators that I started my dance company and this is how I believe we should work connecting Jewish people from all over the world. I know how powerful this is. And I want to say thank you to all the people who have invested not just in a project, but in the people behind them.”