Tonight, on Shabbat, in response to the horrific anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh, many thousands of Jews across United States and the world at large will be attending their local synagogue, following the #ShowUpForShabbat campaign of the American Jewish Congress. Orthodox, Traditional, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or Liberal; religious and secular alike, will come to demonstrate solidarity and togetherness.
Unfortunately, there is one significant segment of the Jewish people that will probably be absent from this demonstration of unity. For many Russian-speaking Jews, synagogues are still a no-go area.
“I will never step into a synagogue,” one Russian-Jewish friend of mine in Israel told me after hearing my impressions from last Yom Kippur which I spent with the Beth Tsedec congregation in Toronto. “There is nothing for me to find there!”
“‘You don’t get it,” I tried to explain. “It’s very different from Israel. It is not about religion, and it is more about community.” Still, he resisted. “If I were to go there, I would feel completely estranged and stupid. I wouldn’t know what to do or what not to do.” My friend is not alone. The vast majority of my friends born in the Soviet Union would do anything to avoid the synagogue setting, where they are totally unschooled in rituals and etiquette. While they may attend a Bar mitzvah, a Brit or a wedding, Russian-speaking Jews go to synagogue largely when it is a family obligation.
The Israeli Russians are the worse off of all. For those who came to the Jewish state 15 or 20 years ago, synagogue became a synonym for religious coercion; a phenomenon that every secular Israeli experiences in his daily life, and is that much worse for the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They have to confront daily challenges caused by the powerful religious establishment which often questions their Jewishness. They are frequently prevented from exercising their basic civil rights such as marriage, divorce and burial, all of which are in the exclusive hands of the Israeli Rabbinate. Over the years, many of them have become strongly alienated from anything relating to religion and religious practice. In their view, it is only religious fanatics that belong in the synagogue and only them.
Even those Russian Jews who have lived in North America for a long time and have joined the local Jewish community, still hesitate crossing the synagogue threshold. They are happy to express solidarity with the State of Israel, and take part in communal cultural events, such as those mounted by Limmud (which holds special events for Russian speakers) or to become a member of the local Jewish Community Centre. So why not a synagogue?
Most Jews in the Soviet Union developed a very strong sense of Jewish peoplehood (especially in the wake of the Six-Day Way in 1967), but their Judaism tends to be of a cultural and intellectual nature, and not religious. Prevented from any Jewish education or cultural upbringing, people in my community learned to recognize Jews, not by a kippa on their head, but by books by Shalom Aleichem or Ilya Ehrenburg on their bookshelf. Very few of the “Jews of Silence” (in Elie Wiesel’s words) were able to celebrate a bar mitzvah, and even less could learn Hebrew, and even then clandestinely. Add to this the atheism instilled in Soviet childhood, the hostility to religion that was ingrained under the Communist regime — and Judaism was as distant as another planet.
Though Chabad has focused heavily on attracting Russian-speaking Jews, few other groups, particularly among progressive Jewish congregations, have made any significant effort.
Today, as we “#ShowUpForShabbat,” let us change that. Let us invite our Russian-speaking Jewish neighbors to shul.
More than one million Russian Jews risk remaining “Jews of Silence” when it comes to synagogue life — unless American synagogues welcome them, encourage them with their rich cultural heritage and strong Jewish identity.
Please open the door and welcome them in — for all our sakes.
Semyon Dovzhik is a Russian Jewish journalist, living in London. Born in the USSR, he lived in Israel and the UK. Semyon writes for the Jewish Chronicle as well as for the Russian Jewish media in Israel and CIS countries.
This story "When You Show Up For Shabbat — Don’t Forget The Russian Jews" was written by Semyon Dovzhik.