Friday, November 30, 2012
From Russia with Nothing but Thanks and a Vision
Every morning for the past several months I have diligently written down something for which I am grateful. Without a doubt, my most common theme is appreciation for my freedom. One glance at a Jewish history book, or one conversation with my grandparents reminds me that I enjoy a greater degree of freedom than any of my ancestors. I have had more education, opportunities, and expressions of religious freedom in my 26 years than almost any Jewish person in history. Most recently, in Moscow, I was reminded what that freedom truly looks like, and what responsibilities and necessary actions come with the privilege.
On July 1st as I embarked for my trip to Russia my morning gratitude note read: “I am grateful for Moishe House for helping to fund my upcoming adventure with the American Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) young professional trip to Moscow. I was one of 13 20-somethings headed to Moscow to learn about Jewish life in Russia and the work the JDC does there. The JDC is the largest international Jewish humanitarian aid service. Established in 1914, it has saved Jews around the world and provided essential aid to ensure their survival. As a group, we spent a little over a week exploring the city, making home visits to the elderly, visiting summer camps, and most importantly engaging with our Russian peers. (It was a total blast! This is my plug to check out other Entwine trips (add link), and knock on Moishe House’s door when you have Jewish learning you want to do!)
Some important background on modern Russian Jewry: During the Soviet era, the practice of Judaism was completely forbidden. For centuries before that, Jews had been subject to often-violent repression: ghettos were created, pogroms periodically swept Jewish areas, and Jews had few rights. Under the Soviets, repression became smothering. Jews were not allowed to congregate or engage in religious practice, and in the wake of the Holocaust many Soviet Jews decided it was far safer to bury any tie to Judaism. Other than a special note on your passport declaring you Jewish, no Shabbat candles were light, no Passover seders observed, and no Jewish summer camps were created. (What, no summer camp?! I am completely grateful for my Jewish summer camp.)
One afternoon, we broke into small groups and made home visits to elderly Jews receiving JDC’s care. We visited Elena in her 75-square-foot apartment – an apartment she had shared with her parents before they passed away. Elena’s parents were from Hungry and had escaped the Nazis by finding refuge in Russia. After a lovely conversation about her life, Elena mentioned it was her birthday. We immediately broke into a warm “yom huledit sameach” song. This was the first time Elena had ever heard the Hebrew language, and she had us sing it twice more. As we were leaving she said: “I hope the authorities don’t arrest me for this visit, but it was worth it to meet you.” Of course, she was recalling a darker time not so long ago, but nonetheless, my note the following morning read: I am grateful for my ancestors’ courage to leave their families and homes here in the hope of finding a better and freer life in the United States. Their bravery allowed me to be free.
Over the course of our trip, many experiences reminded me of my gratitude for my freedoms as an American. Quite surprisingly, I also found myself questioning my role and my own dedication to my Jewish community. I was struck by the realization that the young people I met were the very first Russian Jews to be free. They now consume Jewish knowledge like sponges, and are more educated than their parents and grandparents in Judaism. They are truly leaders in their communities -- not just for their peers, but also for their parents, and future generations. It was fascinating to talk with people at the Moishe House Moscow’s gathering (woot, woot, Moishe House Moscow!), or at the many dinners we shared with others our age. They are doing groundbreaking work and giving back to their communities -- what my ancestors did for me when they left the region. I was left with the question, “What am I doing now, to help my future generations live freely and expressively?”
We were able to witness and help lead 25 students in their first Shabbat as they embarked for their Birthright trip. It was astonishing and inspiring to see these young people take an interest in their lost heritage and traditions. My morning note on July 6th read: “I am grateful I was able to be a positive role model as somebody who is comfortable in her skin as a Jew and in her spiritual self. Many times in my
life, I have looked to other people as role models, and today I was able to be one.”
Another fascinating and very real discovery is that in a post-Communist society like Russia, the notion of “volunteering” is rather complicated. As an American Jew, the practice of Tikkun Olam, or service work, is one of the core ways in which I express my Judaism. But in a society in which until recently
all “volunteering” was actually mandated and any other “community service work” was banned, the notion of the voluntary repairing of the world is novel. But it is important that it become embedded as a value in Jewish consciousness. “We were slaves once, and now we are free.” It is the duty of all Jews who have reached that place of freedom to learn to give back, both to the global Jewish community (as the JDC does) and to our Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors.
It is my hope that as Moishe House expands it will create more of a platform for international communication and community building within the houses and the communities we serve. I hope many residents can be energized and inspired (as I was) by experiencing the work being done in Russia by our peers to cultivate Jewish life in their own communities, so that Judaism can exist the way we want it to for our future generations. Lastly, I hope that as inheritors of the freedoms and privileges that American Jews enjoy, we can be active role models and lead by our actions in religious communities as well as in our dedication to Tikkun Olam.
"When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world."
It's no coincidence that our organization is called Moishe House. The Torah teaches us about the greatest Jewish leader in our history, Moshe Rabenu. When Moshe was given the task of leading the Jewish nation to go out of Egypt, Moshe asks Hashem, "Who am I?" By asking "Who am I" is Moshe showing a lack of self confidence, and if Moshe lacks self confidence, why would Hashem choose a person with no self confidence to lead us out of Egypt. Our Rabbis teach us that Moshe did not lack self confidence; Moshe was known for his unmatched humility, and because of his humility, Hashem chose him to be the one to lead us out of Egypt. True leadership comes from humility, and true humility comes from personal change and growth.
As Moishe House residents, we are given the challenge of creating and leading a strong Young Professional Jewish community. To be effective leaders, we have to be humble and focus on our personal growth. What good qualities do we have? What qualities do we lack and need to develop? As leaders, we must not aspire to greatness as perceived by others, but rather develop our inner greatness and inspire others.
I can confidently say that as a Moishe House resident, I have learned about this important lesson about leadership. The Moishe House staff, residents, and members have inspired me to constantly develop myself and change myself for the better, and through my personal growth, I can only hope that I was able to inspire others and be an effective leader.
Friday, November 2, 2012
The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (now home to MoHoPitt!), then moved to Montreal, Canada, I have now lived in London, England – and in MoHo London – for two and a half years. I came to London knowing absolutely no one; it was an experiment to see whether I could make a life for myself away from family and friends. I never imagined that the life and family I would make would fit so perfectly with what I need.
Rosh Hashana 5771: three weeks into my London experiment and unsure how to celebrate one of my favourite chaggim without the support and traditions of my family. Grassroots Jews set up a giant marquee (tent) with close to three hundred committed young adults who wanted to celebrate the beginning of the year with each other and exploring spirituality of the year. Not only did it allow me to explore and meet the community, but it showed me a different side of my own religion: experiential Judaism. There was not a moment during the 48 hours where I felt passive, but rather I actively engaged and explored my own religious beliefs.
It was during Rosh Hashana, the time to remember the promises and deeds done within the year, that I set myself the goal to welcome newcomers into MoHoLo in a way that they will feel engaged, welcome, and like it is their own community. Sukkot, a time to remember our history as wandering Jews, became a holiday where I opened up our home to the nomadic among us. I have organised events to explore London, especially its Jewish roots, and have introduced both native Londoners and newcomers to the multifaceted history of this city.
I am now preparing, mentally and emotionally, for my eventual departure from the House. There is a large part of me that can’t imagine London without being in the epicentre for alternative and spiritual young Jewish life – where people seem to know me before meeting me. In thinking where to move, I am reflecting on the number of couples and individuals who have moved closer to Moishe House throughout the last two or three years because they wanted to be more within the Moishe House community. I feel like I have been a part of something big, important, and worthwhile, and have made a difference within my new community. I will miss Moishe House, and am cherishing my last few months here.