By Sveta Raskin
The streets of the small Austrian town of Ried were quiet and empty after sunset, its residents getting ready for the night’s rest, except for the music coming from a huge tent by the town lake, a tent that appeared out of nowhere a few days before and now hosted something extraordinary: a group of 1,000 Jews from the FSU, a delegation almost the size of the town population itself that shattered misconceptions and broke stereotypes.
Now, in the evening, the group was gathering in the tent for a kosher dinner and a concert, before returning back to their hotels throughout the town. Local waiters and staff looked on with amazement and curiosity at the enthusiastic faces of the Jewish youth, who were chanting strange songs in Hebrew and Russian, at the friendly rabbis, who were saying blessings and words of Torah and at the popular Russian Israeli music band Machete, whose soulful and at the same time upbeat melodies left no one standing still. Even the waiters joined in, while the town’s mayor came by to welcome the group.
This was the third day of the EuroStars on- week journey for Jewish college students from the FSU, who were enjoying their reward for a completed year-long Jewish studies program. The trip itself, however, provided plenty of opportunities for learning, combining fun sports and sightseeing activities with in-depth Jewish experiences. One of such experiences came the next day in a most profound way: six Chuppas, real Jewish weddings, took place in a nearby city of Innsbruck under the Austrian skies.
“This was such a spiritual wedding experience, much deeper and more sincere than the regular civic weddings I’ve seen before,” said Olya from Samara, one of the participants. Olya, like the majority of the group’s 900 students, has never been to a Chuppa before and had only a vague idea of what it’s all about. “Now that I saw one I want one for myself too,” she said.
Olya’s declaration underlines one of EuroStars principal missions: to counter sweeping assimilation that especially affects college students throughout the Former Soviet Union region.
“Young people would attend Jewish schools in their hometowns, but after they went on to universities we would loose them,” said Mr. Levy Leviev, FJC President speaking at EuroStars learning forum in Innsbruck earlier the same day.
EuroStars was launched six years ago in an effort to provide young Jewish adults in the FSU with an active peer community that would keep them “in the loop.” Now it is part of a variety of learning and social programs offered by YAHAD, FJC’s young adults’ Jewish programming platform.
Also speaking at the forum were some of the program’s main sponsors, Brazilian philanthropist Mr. Elie Horn, Russian Israeli businessman Mr. Itzhak Mirilashvili, Russian businessman Mr. David Aminov. Answering questions from the audience they spoke openly about personal decisions in life and work, and how their Jewish identities influenced the choices they made – making a lasting impression on the listeners.
The honorable guests also stayed for the weddings, walking with the grooms down the aisle to the chuppahs. Each of the six couples getting married that night had a unique and moving story – most met on previous EuroStars trips or through other YAHAD programs, coming from cities far apart on the region’s map. One couple met in first grade of the Or Avner Jewish school in Khabarovsk, Far-East Russia. “Tonight’s weddings are a unique event that shows that Jewish youth in the FSU is sincerely interested in re-discovering their roots, connecting to their heritage and leading a Jewish life,” said Rabbi Berel Lazar, the chief rabbi of Russia, who conducted the ceremonies. “Also significant is the fact that they are taking place here in Austria, in a land where Jews suffered from Nazism, were deprived of their right to exist. I am certain that the new families created here tonight will go on to lead long and happy Jewish lives together.”
The weddings were followed by a festive banquet for the entire group, with Jewish traditional music and dancing that went late into the night, echoing unfamiliar sounds throughout the Austrian city center.