“You Have To See it to Believe it”

By Stella Binkevich

Today marks a week since I returned from a week-long trip to Russia. Unexpectedly, the trip fundamentally altered my paradigm of the possibilities that lie ahead for both my local and the international Jewish community.

(Cue puzzled look).

I sense the question of “why Russia?” coming. “Of all countries in the world (with or without strong Jewish communities), why did a group of 26 young leaders from across the world travel to Russia?” I am going to attempt to answer that question below.

In many ways, the stereotypical story of Jewish life in Russia, or anywhere in the former Soviet Union, for that matter, is my story. I was born in Ukraine, under the Communist regime. My parents wanted to name me after my great-grandmother Sara, but quickly changed their mind – it was too Jewish. Instead, they took the first and last letter and fashioned Stella. I grew up knowing that I was Jewish and that this made me an “other.” Besides that, I had no formal Jewish education nor a vocabulary with which to even engage in a discourse about Jewish matters. And while my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was 7, this continued to be the case until my early 20’s. The journey of how I got to where I am, which is a moderately observant Jew, who places Jewish values at the center of my life and decisions, was a long and windy one, but isn’t the point of this article. More salient, however, was my thin understanding of and conviction in what Jewish life in Russia today looks like. Embarking on the trip, I was convinced that I would find the same Jewishly desolate communities, who are full of folks that, like my grandpa during the WWII German occupation, are still throwing out their Jewish paperwork and altering their Jewish last names.

What unfolded before our group in Russia couldn’t have been more different.

Instead, we saw Jewish communities that sprouted like roses from concrete. Notwithstanding the tireless efforts of Chabad, and the outside financial support, the Jewish community’s revival in the former Soviet Union is nothing short of miraculous. There are full-service community centers that help any Jew in need. There are orphanages that are giving abandoned kids the gift of a Jewish life. There are Friday night dinners that buzz with the energy of Jews, who know that they are Jewish once again, and who can’t wait to revel in beauty of Shabbat. There are boys who speak fondly of the pain of a circumcision at seventeen because this pain symbolizes their covenant (and reunion) with G-d. There are professional organizations, like Solomon Club of Marina Roscha, that seek to create a space for Jewish young professionals to share and grow in their careers.

As I reflect on this, I can’t help but think of the parting words of a trip mate from Atlanta, Samantha Morton: “Jews are like a seed. When you bury a seed, it grows.” Not only is the Russian Jewish community growing, but it is doing so exponentially and without the rifts that are often rife in the U.S. Though I acknowledge that I am oversimplifying the matter, it’s noteworthy that the reform or less observant factions of Jews in Moscow aren’t battling the more observant ones over money, real-estate, or synagogue memberships. Moscow showed us that there can be a community where religious affiliation and branded Judaism does not define a Jew. What defines a Jew is the fact that he/she is Jewish. If you ask me, the U.S. can stand to learn a thing or two!

The revival didn’t happen out of nowhere. We all stand on the shoulders of the tzadiks (righteous ones) who, through secret networks fueled only by a relentless love of Judaism and a pursuit for the Torah’s truth, kept the cracks in the concrete that stifled religion in the Soviet Union open. These giants smuggled religious books, and tefillin, and, like my great-grandmother Sara, prayed and lit candles in secrecy. No less important are all the people who are actively taking responsibility for their own communities today. Contrary to the belief of most Americans, Russian young people are giving philanthropically. They are giving time and acting as madrichim to those that come after them. They are not waiting for someone to come save them. They are making Judaism their own and using it to touch the lives of others, one by one, no matter how long it takes. They are acting. And they are doing so guided by Rabbi Lazar’s (Rabbi Lazar is the Chief Rabbi of Russia who spent an entire Shabbat afternoon with our group) key principal – that everything branded as Jewish should be pristine, positive, and far better than any of the alternatives. For me, this was another take-away.

When you live in New York City, or Atlanta, or Tel-Aviv, for that matter, and you’re remotely connected to the faith, the Jewish community can almost feel like a back-drop. It’s just another event, out of many. It’s just another Friday, another Shabbat dinner. Again. You start to think about quantity over quality. Your vision for your community’s future is tied to your current limited perspective. And then you see the Russian Jewish community.

So why DID 26 young leaders from across the world travel to Russia?

To encounter transformational change that is inspiring and beyond our wildest imaginations. To remind us that, yes, everything Jewish SHOULD be pristine. To internalize that today is as good of a day as any to start reaching others in your community, conversation, by conversation. And to never forget that awareness isn’t enough. That just like in the Russian Jewish community, it must be coupled with responsibility and with action. And to know that you’re not alone. That when the going gets tough, as it inevitably will, there are twenty five other like-minded young leaders who were in this with you and who still are.

Stella Binkevich was born in Ukraine and immigrated to NYC when she was 7, after the Soviet Union collapsed. She’s since been passionate about several Jewish causes, including AIPAC and Chabad and is currently attending Columbia Business School.

This trip was an initiative of  Chabad Young Ambassadors (CYP), a global network of activists and change-makers from various fields of interest, sharing an inner passion to grow their local Jewish young adult community.

CYP is incubated by Merkos 302 and generously supported by The Meromim Foundation, The Eliyahu Foundation and The Yisrael Foundation.

Photos courtesy CYP