By Yehudis Litvak
My Soviet education was relentlessly atheist. I still remember my first grade teacher talking to us about religion. “Raise your hand if your grandparents sometimes take you to church,” she said. Several children raised their hands. Being Jewish, I had never been to church. The word “synagogue” was not even in my vocabulary. The teacher urged the ones who had raised their hands to stop going. She told us that G-d didn’t exist, that He was invented by primitive people who did not have science to guide them, and that all forms of worship were no longer necessary in the progressive Soviet society that was so close the ideals of communism.
I was fortunate. The Soviet Union collapsed when I was a teenager, and I was able to attend a newly opened Jewish school and learn about my heritage. But many Jews who grew up in the former Soviet Union did not have this opportunity, and while my grandparents’ generation still remembered some mitzvos and traditions they grew up with, my parents’ generation was left with barely any trace of Judaism.
As a Russian-speaking religious Jew I’ve always felt an obligation to reach out to those Russian Jews who were less fortunate than me and who remained mostly ignorant of the beauty of their Jewish heritage. Twelve years ago, when my family moved to Los Angeles, I looked for ways to get involved in local Russian Jewish outreach. Then I met Moshe and Esther Davidoff who are passionate about bringing Russian Jews closer to Torah.
Esther’s story is similar to mine. Growing up in the Soviet Ukraine, she was taught that anything Jewish was anti-Soviet and therefore evil. She recalls a horrific incident where in the 1970’s her teacher of Russian language and literature gave her whole 4th grade class a lecture, screaming at the top of her lungs, about those terrible traitors who leave ‘mother Russia’ to seek a better material life abroad, referring to the Jews trying to flee from the Soviet persecutions during that time.
Moshe remembers being thrown out of school in the former city of Leningrad (now S. Petersburg) while being the editor of a school bulletin board and printing in it a story on life outside of the Soviet Union.
Both Moshe and Esther moved to America and discovered Judaism. They fell in love with Torah and wanted to share it with their Russian Jewish brethren. They began by hosting Torah classes in Russian in their home, then partnered with Alla Feldman of the Jewish Federation in organizing kosher retreats for Russian Jews, and then they founded Simxa Company, an educational non-profit organization. Simxa Company holds annual Shabbatons where Russian Jews are able to connect and learn from other Russian-speaking and English-speaking Jews.
When I met Moshe and Esther and learned about their organization, I immediately offered to help, and I have been involved with Simxa Shabbatons ever since. My job at the Shabbatons involves registration, transportation, and other administrative tasks. Other volunteers are responsible for other aspects of the Shabbatons. Rabbi Menachem Vilner, who has been part of Simxa Shabbatons from the beginning, sets up the hotel for Shabbos, and his wife Rena is our banquet coordinator. Chana Hertzberg directed the children’s program for several years. Sasha Faynerman serves as the shul gabai, Sasha Hertzberg as announcer and musician, Shaul Raigorodsky is the group’s photographer. Vicky Rosenberg, Toly Begelfer, and Jessica Yuz work on fundraising.
Simxa Shabbatons are held over a Thanksgiving weekend. This year’s Shabbaton was number fourteen. Over three hundred people attended. The attendees were of all ages and stages in life, from young children to great-grandparents. They came from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, as well as Seattle, Chicago, and even Toronto. They ranged from unaffiliated to fully observant, with everything in between, but they all shared a common background. Everyone came together to learn and grow, regardless of their level of observance.
The lecture rooms were full to capacity as the speakers taught and inspired the audience. This year’s Russian speaking lecturer was Rabbi Shimon Grilus, a well-known Soviet dissident who had spent five years in Soviet labor camps due to participation in the Jewish underground movement and who had become observant there. After his release, Rabbi Grilus moved to Israel, where he founded the first yeshiva for Russian-speaking Jews, Shvut Ami. Rabbi Grilus continues teaching all over the world. Simxa Shabbaton attendees had the privilege to learn from him over the weekend. His lectures were especially popular, perhaps because he teaches in Russian, providing a rare opportunity for the attendees to hear a world-renowned Torah teacher in their native language.
The lectures in English also drew large audiences. Chana Weisberg, a Chabad Shlucha from Lakewood, NJ, a best-selling author and a sought-after speaker, shared a feminine perspective on Judaism, which elicited many questions and sparked lively discussions. Rabbi Sholom Rodal, of Chabad of Mount Olympus, touched on several controversial topics. In addition to his popular lectures he led a bonfire event for children on motzei Shabbos, with songs and stories, and the proverbial roasted marshmallows.
Rabbi Yaakov Ephraim Parisi of Boca Raton, FL brought a special energy to the Shabbaton with his lively l’chaims and many personal stories encouraging the attendees to remain strong in their Judaism even when dealing with the secular world. Rabbi Parisi is a former Christian pastor who began discovering discrepancies in Christian doctrines and eventually converted to Judaism. He shared his fascinating story with the audience, injecting his unique sense of humor and inspiring the listeners with his commitment to the truth.
The response to his lectures was overwhelmingly positive. “People told me, ‘You changed my life,’” says Rabbi Parisi. “They said they couldn’t wait till my next lecture. It was an amazing, unbelievable experience. I went to inspire people, but they inspired us to do more.” Teenagers especially connected with Rabbi Parisi and shared that he helped strengthen their commitment to Judaism. “People were so welcoming, loving, warm, at lectures and even during meals,” adds Rabbi Parisi.
Rabbi Yisroel Majeski, Rosh Kollel VNK in San Fernando Valley and a popular senior lecturer for Los Angeles Jewish Experience (LAJ), as well as an 8th grade rebbe at Emek Hebrew Academy, gave several lectures that engaged the audience as he discussed politics and Facebook in light of Jewish values. In addition, he ran our most successful boys’ program to date.
Rabbi Bentzion and Mattie Pil of San Francisco, who have been attending and bringing their congregants to the Shabbaton in the past five years, conducted several special learning sessions and heart-warming discussions, each drawing its unique audience. Two more local lecturers, Rabbi Gershon Shusterman and Michael Eisenberg, both from Los Angeles, paid a visit to our retreat and shared their knowledge of Judaism with our participants. Katya Kapelnikova of Chicago, who has been with SimXa Shabbatons for the past eight years, delighted women of all ages with her beautiful poetry and inspiring songs.
Many Shabbaton attendees felt that they learned a lot from the speakers. “Their speeches were very educational and lively,” says Zhanna Kimelblat from Los Angeles. “In addition, another lecturer, Lifsha [Weissman from Chicago], spent [extra] time with me after the lecture to clarify certain points in the siddur. That one-on-one mentoring was priceless.” Michael Sigal from Palos Verdes, says that the Shabbaton was a “great experience, fantastic learning.” Anna Levi, a psychologist from the San Fernando Valley, says, “It’s a great vacation because I am free to attend lectures with amazing speakers that give me a spiritual lift for the whole year, while my children are excited about enriching children’s activities and a full children’s program for all four days of the Shabbaton!”
Indeed, Simxa Shabbatons provide baby-sitting alongside the fun-filled children’s program. The girls’ program this year was directed by Ms. Tzippy Kin and run by students of the Bais Yaakov of Los Angeles, and the boys’ program was directed by Rabbi Yisroel Majeski and Rabbi Dovid Morris. The programs included such activities as sports, a harbor cruise, a moon bounce, an animal show for younger children, a duct tape activity for older girls, and a Bas Mitzvah celebration for one of the attendees. “The children’s program was well organized, the girls were exceptional and very qualified,” says Jessica Yuz, a mother of a two-year-old girl. Malka Forer from San Diego was also impressed with the counselors and says that her children found the program very interesting.
Another aspect of the Shabbaton that keeps the participants coming back year after year is the opportunity to connect with other Russian Jews and inspire and encourage each other as they learn more about Judaism. Malka Forer says, “The people are very friendly. It feels like a family. There are no divisions. Everyone interacts with everyone else, with unity and warmth.” “We have first attended ten years ago,” says Anna Levi, “and have been coming every year because we cannot miss reconnecting with wonderful families that have become our friends and their children – our children’s friends!” Jessica Yuz adds, “We get to see people from a similar background learning and growing so much more every year, and see their kids growing. We are always happy to see each other. For personal reasons, we weren’t able to come for two years. We felt so sad when we realized how much we missed.”
Rabbi Rodal, who has been a Simxa Shabbaton speaker for many years, says, “It was very gratifying to see how the Shabbaton has grown both in quality and quantity, organization, programming, food, lectures and location. The crowd has become more diverse while retaining the Russian Jewish flavor it began with. The menu of speakers and lecture topics are plentiful and very stimulating, inspiring and thought provoking. It is beautiful to see the spiritual progress and yiddisheh growth of the Shabbaton in general and of the people who have been attending in particular over the last decade. Most of all, the Shabbaton exudes such warmth and acceptance and unconditional love for every Jew who attends.”
It is especially beautiful to see extended families get together at the Shabbaton. Russian Jews maintain close family ties, and often several generations attend the Shabbaton together. This year was particularly special for me because my mother and my sister and brother-in-law attended the Simxa Shabbaton for the first time. It was wonderful to spend the Shabbaton together as a family, and it was especially meaningful to attend a lecture together with my mother and my teenage daughter – three generations learning Torah together. This is a powerful proof that the Soviet regime has completely failed in its attempt to eradicate Judaism. Not only did the younger generation discover Judaism, but even my parents’ generation, raised in the thick of Soviet propaganda, are no longer limited to their Soviet education. The light of Torah has reached us all.
A version of this article first appeared in The Jewish Home, http://jewishhomelablog.com.