Continuing our Aliyah – Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli Marks its 50th Retreat for FSU Olim

By Linda Pardes Friedburg

Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli celebrated a significant milestone this month our 50th Friday-Shabbat retreat for Russian-speaking Israelis in their 20’s and 30’s. The evolution of our nonprofit from our first seminar of 35 participants in December 2010 to a dynamic and influential national learning community of over 6500 members, only proves the need for grassroots, high-content frameworks for both new and veteran Russian-speaking Olim, and the centrality of these talented young Jews to the future of Israel and the Jewish People.

Through the prism of our recent 50th seminar, I would like to share the greatest lessons of this challenging, eye-opening, and rewarding journey.

  1. Gratitude – the source of all blessing. Upon boarding the bus in Jerusalem for the 50th time, my first words to the 50 young, expectant faces before me were thank you – to the newcomers, for trusting your friends and/or Facebook and joining us for the first time. To our returning participants – for contributing their talents over many years to our growing community. I thanked the Genesis Philanthropy Group for consistently propelling us towards excellence, and our visionary seed funders – the Pratt Foundation and Ami Da Institute, as well as the Orion and Rochlin Foundations and other critical partners of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli, for their commitment to our talented young olim. The 50th Seminar t-shirts that we distributed also contained the logos of our sponsors. I thanked our Operations Director Ilya, our guide Sonya, our driver Avner, and all the workshop leaders for this seminar.
  2. Jewish Geshtalt – Our participants are engineers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, soldiers, students, hi-tech professionals, etc. who generally work and live in a secular environment. When we are together, I try to focus on the larger picture of why we are in Israel and the Jewish bonds that connect us. On the bus, before introducing the tour guide, I usually share something about the time of year we are in, which is often linked to the theme of the seminar. We are now in Elul – returning to our true selves, connecting to the things that matter. Forgiving and encouraging ourselves so that we can improve and encourage others. Yom Kippur as the day that we received the second set of the Ten Commandments – God forgave us that day, and brought the concept of T’shuva into the world. To apply this, during our first set of icebreakers in nature later on, each person shared basic information about themselves, plus something positive and encouraging about someone else in the group.
  3. Ayin Tova” – seeing good in others, is an infectious phenomenon, and characterizes the participants and atmosphere of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli. New members feel immediately welcome, and people listen respectfully to divergent opinions. This pluralistic approach and appreciation of the diversity of Jewish viewpoints is a critical contribution to tolerance and unity in Israeli society.
  4. Supportive community – Many of our participants arrived in Israel without family and with few friends. A few moments after arriving at our guest house, a few of the participants knocked on my door with big silver helium balloons in the shape of “50”and many expressions of their appreciation for Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli and its impact on their personal lives and sense of belonging. After they left, four other participants came and said that they were off to visit a friend from the group who is recovering in a hospital nearby. They all met in Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli a few years ago and have become each other’s family, with whom they celebrate birthdays, take vacations, seek advice when job or apartment-hunting, and leave their pets when going overseas. If that was the only contribution of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli to our olim participants’ lives – a network of excellent friends that they can count on – then dayeinu.
  5. Our beautiful Land – We experience Israel and Jewish history through our feet, and I can gratefully say that we have traveled the length and breadth of Israel, during our seminars and frequent excursions in between. Our seminars usually begin with a Friday hike, combining nature and history, and then an educational, cultural or agricultural site. This time we hiked to the Twins’ Cave near Beit Shemesh (chock full of bats) and then traveled to Neot HaKdumim, where we toured ancient wine-making apparatus, used an olive press, made our own Zatar (crushed hyssop leaves), and experienced the agricultural life of ancient Israel. We often stop at local farms or wineries, where participants stock up on wine, cheese, honey and other homemade products before Shabbat.
  6. Musical Kabbalat Shabbat – It took many seminars before we found the right balance between my expectations of an uplifting pre-Shabbat sing-along with my guitar, Carlebach style, and the potential of 50 cerebral, Russian speaking olim, who actually love to sing but are not all familiar with Kabbalat Shabbat. Over the years, we began to incorporate moving Israeli songs (i.e. Ben Adam by Rav Kook) discussions and stories by participant leaders, and traditional tefillot of Kabbalat ShabbatLecha Dodi in different melodies, Sh’ma Yisrael, Oseh Shalom – all accompanied by guitar, before candlelighting. After Shabbat comes in, the religious or interested participants join the tefillot in the local synagogue, while we do a workshop or activity with the rest of the group.
  7. Shabbat Meals – Our Friday night meals begin as a family, singing Shalom Aleichem, making Kiddush and HaMotzi. Meals are a valuable time for socializing and often noisy if other groups are present. During this 50th seminar, one of the participants, at his initiative, prepared sheets with Hebrew and Russian transliteration and taught the Ladino melody of Tzur Mishelo and the Sfaradi piyut “Agadelcha.” He explained that we are one People with multiple cultures, and now that we’ve come home to Israel, we need to learn the customs of our brothers and sisters. Nachat.
  8. Participant ledworkshops – A gratifying element of all of our seminars, which empowers them personally and professionally. In addition to our guest speakers, 3-4 participants prepare activities on topics that interest them and present them in an engaging way. During this seminar in Maccabim, Lena, a madricha in the Masa program, led Kabbalat Shabbat and a Brain Ring Quiz during Oneg Shabbat. Olesya, who works in marketing, facilitated group dynamics after dinner on the theme of our Jubilee Seminar. Moshe, a new oleh photographer, led a talk entitled “Why is it important that Judaism survive?”, and Ivan, an Olympic masseuse and trainer, led a parallel session on healthy nutrition and life style. Zhenya, a special ed teacher, lectured about the calendar of the Dead Sea Sect vs the modern Jewish Calendar, and Eli, a water engineer, led a workshop on the relevance and meaning of Elul and how to practically prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana.
  9. Oneg Shabbat – the group has developed Oneg Shabbat customs all their own. This is the magical time when they whip out bottles of beer, whiskey, wine, munchies, fruit, you name it, and often their guitars. When the formal activities are done, they talk, play games, and sing until 3-4 in the morning. This is something I didn’t plan – our approach is that when we are together, there is a full Shabbat atmosphere, i.e. minus guitars – but I came to the understanding that this indeed was their Oneg Shabbat and something they look forward to every seminar. It is a rare phenomenon to see young people from very different places and backgrounds truly enjoying one another and creating friendships that last long beyond our events.
  10. Mobile Library – our group loves to read and their interests are broad. From my educational work in the FSU Department of the AJJDC during the 1990’s, I was familiar with many excellent Russian-language books on Jewish history, philosophy, literature, tradition, Israel, and the Hebrew language, and bought a few hundred of these books when we founded Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli. I bring a crate to each seminar for participants to read during free time and then return, and enjoy seeing them curling up with these books, sometimes asking to borrow until the next seminar. We use the books also as gifts to our presenters, and I have learned not to anticipate the books they will choose! When Ivan, the Olympic masseuse, chose as his gift after this seminar “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch” (a compendium of practical Jewish Law) I asked him if he was sure and if he knew what was inside. Then I remembered that the last time he had chosen a gift after running a session it was a Russian-Hebrew Chumash with commentary.
  11. Musical Havdala – A beautiful ceremony which we have developed over the years and is a meaningful closure to the seminars. We sing Havdala and additional songs afterwards, including a theme song that we wrote for the group. I have learned that any new activity or song that we introduce repeatedly and with enthusiasm eventually catches on. What comes from the heart, enters the heart.
  12. Feedback – After Havdala, participants fill out on-line evaluations in their smartphones and then do a round of oral feedback, sharing what they took from this seminar. I jotted down some of their remarks from the 50th seminar: “Warm feeling – felt my Jewish soul!” “Opportunity to give back, not just take.” “A new interest in Judaism – Until I came to Shishi Shabbat, I always fled from religion.” “Amazing atmosphere.” “A welcome break from the army.” “New friends – such quality people!” “The psychological aspects of Judaism and improving ourselves.” “New songs, new knowledge.” “Excursions to places I would never go on my own.” “15 years in Israel and this is my first seminar! Feel bad for missing the first 49.” “Took something from all the lectures and activities – every seminar is so different.” “Return to warmth and positivity of childhood.” “Grateful to Shishi Shabbat for the friends I have today.”
  13. Continuity – We named our organization Shish Shabbat Yisraeli – “Israeli Weekend” – after the Friday-Shabbat retreats that are the backbone of the project. But we quickly understood that people want to meet and be part of a warm Jewish community during the week and throughout the year. We developed growing chapters in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and hopefully soon Beer Sheva. We hold 10-14 events per month, before and during Jewish holidays when the feeling of family is so critical, we experience Israeli culture, we explore our connections to the land and history of Israel with frequent hikes and excursions, and we empower one another personally and professionally with workshops on everything from the psychology of relationships to rental and consumer rights in Israel. We have celebrated numerous marriages of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli couples, and the births of their Sabra children. We have also accompanied many of our members through Halachic conversion, some who came to this very personal decision because of their exposure to the positive and meaningful Judaism embraced by our community. These are concrete aspects of Jewish continuity that we could only imagine when we founded Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli seven years ago.
  14. A Gift and an Historic Opportunity – My entire life has been bound up with the ongoing return of Russian-speaking Jewry to the body of the Jewish People. I was able to study Russian language in my public high school (during the Cold War), visit “refuseniks” in the Soviet Union during the 1980’s and facilitate educational programming in the FSU while working for the AJJDC during the “Jewish Renaissance” of the 1990’s. I married an Oleh from Belarus, and now enjoy deep friendships with hundreds of young members of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli.

I have watched our Olim evolve professionally – from working night shifts as security guards to becoming successful engineers, from new olim doctors who knew no Hebrew to becoming senior specialists in their fields. Through hard work, sensitivity and talent, Russian-speaking Olim continue to transform the face of Israel in every field, including the world of Jewish thought.

But more than their professional contributions, I am impressed by the character and refinement of young Russian-speaking Israelis. They will continue to bring tremendous good to Israel and the Jewish People, if we continue to nurture the Jewish and Zionist values that brought them to Israel and seek expression alongside the daily challenges of surviving and thriving in their new home.

Fifty percent of the Russian-speaking olim of recent years (about 13,000 per year) are under the age of 40.

They are the fulfillment of many prophecies. “I will say to the North – Give me (my children)! … And I will bring your sons from afar and your daughters from the ends of the Earth.” (Isaiah 33:6)

May we never take the physical and spiritual ingathering of young Russian-speaking Jews for granted. Both qualitatively and quantitatively they are a gift to world Jewry. If we do not invest in developing their spiritual and cultural identities and sense of Jewish Peoplehood, while advancing their tremendous professional potential and contributions, we will be missing the opportunity for critical, refreshing Jewish leadership that only their unique perspectives and backgrounds can provide.

Linda Pardes Friedburg is Founding Director of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli.