Friday, November 30, 2012

MHDC - Sarah Waxman

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.

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