The Voice of Ancestors Calling the Living

Participants at a Taglit Mega event for Russian speakers February 2013 (Tel Aviv)
Participants at a Taglit Mega event for Russian speakers February 2013 in Tel Aviv; courtesy

How the great-great grandfathers of a young generation of Russian Jews are bringing their descendants back to Jewry

by Roman Yanushevsky

The history of Russian-Soviet Jewry has been both splendid and disastrous. From the traditional and relatively small pale of settlement communities of Tsarist Russia, the 20th century brought pogroms, two revolutions and two world wars, political repression and oppression, as well as several waves of emigration. From the shooting ditches and death camps of the Holocaust to the Jewish quota in the universities, the unhappy lands of the Soviet empire weren’t exactly a welcoming place for the Jews.

As a result, many Jewish families perished or were torn apart, and some succeeded to emigrate. Those who remained struggled to survive and rebuilt their lives within the Russian mainstream culture, under the heel of the regime which frowned upon any “foreign” ties of its subjects.

With this baleful shadow gone, freedom restored and the broken national ties on the mend, today efforts are underway to revive Jewish communal life in Russia by reminding the young Jews of their roots and involving them in different community activities. And one of the most successful ways to mobilize them is, of course, through Taglit-Birthright, which offers the Russian-speakers a distinct program developed especially for their needs and interests.

One of the crown jewels of this program is the unique ‘Generations‘ project offered by the Am Hazikaron Institute with the support of the Genesis Philanthropy Group. It is an interactive educational workshop that immerses young Jews in the atmosphere of Jewish history in order to help them realize their role in it and build a personal connection with the Jewish nation.

During this workshop the participants are not only introduced to the most significant “events in the history of the Jewish nation but are also offered basic genealogical research results about their own family – what their family name stands for, where it comes from and what was the profession of their ancestors,” says Malka Hagoel-Spitzberg, Am Hazikaron’s project manager.

A pilot Generations project with Taglit-Birthright was launched in 2008 and from 2009 Generations has become a mandatory part for all the Taglit-Birthright Russian-speaking groups.

Implementing a project can often be full of pleasant surprises. Before beginning, project participants are asked to fill in a detailed questionnaire about four generations of their ancestors. Sometimes basic research helps discover relatives, and the most recent finds revealed that two members of the same group, one from Moscow and and one from Kiev, are not only related to each other, but are also related to a famous Tzaddik Levi-Yitzchok of Berdichev who lived during the 18th-19th centuries.

It’s a rare success, but it happens,” Malka Hagoel-Spitzberg says. “In situations like this we just tell the participants that some 200 years ago they were one person.”

Jewish last names help trace their origins and their profession. Cohens and Levies were Jerusalem Temple priests, Rappaports some 20 generations ago lived in Portugal, Shapiras arrived from Germany, and as for Katzenelbogens, Landaus and Lifshitzs – well, they are descendants of King David!

“Once we had several participants in the same group with last names like Resnik, Shoikhet or Shechtman – their great-great grandfathers were all kosher butchers. The interesting part is that today most of them go and study medicine – just like their ancestors who had to have a perfect knowledge of an animals’ anatomy in order to carry out their work as they should,” says Hagoel-Spitzberg.

But the most amazing story happened when the Am Hazikaron staff found out that six members of one Taglit-Birthright group are descendants of people who bought certificates from the Jewish Colonization Association to be used for purchasing land for Jewish agricultural colonies at the beginning of the 20th century. Each certificate cost 1 pound (it is a sum equal to $600 today) and people bought them as a mitzvah.

Hagoel-Spitzberg goes on to explain that “prior to informing participants about their ancestors we asked the group a question, who would contribute such a sum to an official emissary who would come and ask to take part in planting trees in the Negev. Only six people raised their hand and agreed that they would. Believe it or not, those were the descendants of Jews who purchased those certificates a hundred years ago, who obviously knew nothing about this part of their family history. It all remains in the family. We cannot guarantee that these young people will join a Jewish community in their city, but it’s important for them to know that, no matter what, they are connected to a rich cultural tradition of a small nation and they are following in the footsteps of their ancestors.”

“In the absence of basic Jewish education and taking into consideration broken family links, young Russian-speaking Jews have no material connection to their nation,” says Sana Britavsky, Executive Director GPG Israel. She continued, “but this project can offer them a new perspective, previously unfamiliar to them, making them realize that, long and rich in events the history of the Jewish people may be, it is not yet another alien collection of historical facts, but their own history and the history of their family. Our nation is too small, and genealogy helps us find ties – not blood ties, but family ties, bridging the gaps in time and connecting us with our legacy.”