By Dovid Margolin | Chabad.org
Gliding down the Seine under a soft drizzle, the lone flame of the traditionalHavdalah candle seemed to illuminate not just the boat, but the entire “City of Light.” Havdalah is the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat, and for the 500 young Jewish participants who traveled together to Paris, Berlin and the grounds of Auschwitz in Poland as part of Chabad-Lubavitch in Russia’s “Eurostars” program, the burning torch’s symbolism was apt.
Gathered on that boat were young Jews hailing from 24 communities spread throughout the vast Russian steppe, the Jewish spark alive within them visible to all.
“What amazed me most was that this is a new generation of Russian Jews, most of whom were born not under communism, but under freedom,” says Rabbi BerelLazar, Russia’s chief rabbi and head Chabad-Lubavitch emissary. “When we came here, the Jewish community was limited to older people who remembered their parents and grandparents. Their children were born and raised under Communist ideology, and were for the most part lost to Jewish communal life. This generation is different. They want to learn more, understand more. Looking at them, you can see in each of them potential leaders for Russia’s Jewish community.”
The Parisian boat ride marked the midpoint of a seven-day tour of Europe, which Russian Jews ages 18 to 26 are eligible for after partaking in the eight-month Eurostars Jewish-studies program. Each week participants gather at their local synagogues to study about Judaism, using a curriculum specially created for university-aged students by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI). Eurostars is the successor youth program to an older one called “Stars,” and after rebranding and rebooting three years ago, the program has grown to 700 members, drawing from Astrakhan in the Lower Volga region to Khabarovsk on the Chinese border 5,000 miles away.
“When we reflected afterwards, many of them said that the highlight for them was Havdalah under the rain,” says Sara Deutch, co-director of Chabad of Perm, a city of about 1 million people about 880 miles east of Moscow. Deutch led a group of 20 students from her city on this year’s trip, seeing firsthand what her husband had told her about following last year’s trip: “They told me they felt like one people, one nation.”
‘Feel a Responsibility’
Although most students wouldn’t partake in a year of Eurostars just for an all-expense-paid trip to Europe, it does serve as an incentive for students to continue attending classes despite their often heavy school or work schedules. But far from it being just an entertaining excursion, participants say the trip itself has a deep and lasting impact on those who go.
“Since we returned, I’ve been getting amazing feedback from emissaries everywhere,” says Rabbi Mendy Wilansky, youth director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS and Baltic States, Chabad’s umbrella organization in the Russian Federation. “There have been circumcisions, guys who have requested tefillin, girls who pledged to light Shabbat candles. But even more, the trip turns students into ambassadors for Judaism. Seeing so many people their same age who are learning the same thing as them, it has a powerful effect on them. They come back determined to bring even more of their Jewish friends to the program. That’s a big deal.”
When Rabbi Zalman Deutch began participating in Eurostars last year, he had only four students in his group. It was when they returned from the trip that the invigorated young men and women invited their friends to join. This year, they had nearly 25.
“The program itself is very good; the curriculum this year was amazing. But what it accomplishes is not just learning, which is important, but action,” stresses Duetch, who has served as chief rabbi of Perm for the last 13 years. “Last year one boy came back and dedicated himself to growing our group. This year a girl came back and has volunteered to do the same. These are the new leaders of Perm’s Jewish community. It’s important that young people should feel a responsibility over what happens in their community.”
Alongside tourist “must-see” icons like the Eiffel Tower, Pont Neuf and the Louvre, the Eurostars visited the massive Complexe Scolaire Beth Haya Mouchka school system, with its girls’ high school, Beth Hanna, being named top high school in France recently by Le Parisien. They also experienced an inspirational Shabbat filled with prayer, song, food and study. A high point came towards its conclusion, when Lazar hosted a spirited “Ask the Rabbi” session that drew tough questions from an eager crowd.
But as is the case with almost any site in Europe, a visit to Paris would have been incomplete without paying respect to a place of Jewish sacrifice. On Friday, the group gathered at Hyper Cacher, the kosher supermarket where four French Jews were murdered in cold blood by a Muslim terrorist in early January, also on a Friday before the start of Shabbat.
Standing in a semi-circle, the group sang “Ani Ma’amin” (“I Believe”), the Holocaust-era melody expressing belief in the ultimate redemption and coming ofMoshiach. It was followed by “Nyet, Nyet Nekovo,” a Russian song exclaiming belief in a one G-d, which served as an inspirational tune for Russian Jewry during the darkest days of the Soviet regime and has, since the fall of communism, become their triumphant anthem.
“The students who came with us were there as proud Jews, wearing yarmulkesand tzitzits, and totally unafraid,” says Lazar, under whose leadership the former Soviet Union has experienced an unprecedented revival. Standing outside the grocery, he addressed the crowd. “I told them that after the attacks in France, people were saying ‘Je Suis Charlie,’ but we have to say ‘Je Suis Kosher.’ We were standing outside of Hyper Cacher; our lives have to be ‘super-kosher.’ It is not enough to stand on a sidewalk in France and be proud of who we are—we have to take that pride back home and live a kosher lifestyle.”
‘She Had Come to See Life’
Like much of the former Soviet Union, intermarriage in Russia is a rapidly growing problem, and the importance of marrying Jewish was a recurring theme on the trip. Lazar explains that today’s young Russian Jews are more often than not the third generation in their family disconnected from Jewish life. Engaging them and articulating the importance of marrying Jewish, he states, is the only chance to ensure Judaism’s survival in Russia.
“One of the biggest accomplishments is the many positive connections that have been made between young Jewish men and women,” says Wilansky. “We constantly hear from young people in various cities that they don’t know any other young Jews. This trip introduced them to hundreds of young Jews in similar stages of life as them, and thank G-d, a number of serious relationships have since been formed.”
But no singles mixer or speed-dating event could have driven the point home more than on the next leg of the group’s trip, at the Auschwitz death camp in southern Poland. There, in the shadow of the crumbling crematoria and gas chambers, amid the screaming silence of death, the group was joined by Breindel Fleishman, a 90-year-old former inmate. It was Fleishman’s first time at Auschwitz since its liberation in 1945.
“She initially refused to walk into the gas chambers during the tour,” recalls Wilansky. “She told us that she had already seen death before, and now she had come to see life.”
She had been in the gas chambers once before, mere minutes away from death. It was only due to a technical malfunction that her group of women was led out by Nazi guards and thus spared.
“I have a request for all the young people here,” Fleishman told the hundreds of young Russian Jews who stood surrounding her during a ceremony at the camp. “Establish Jewish families.”
Fleishman’s short but moving speech was followed by representatives of each family of her descendants presenting her with framed photos of their families—some 25 in all.
“After Mrs. Fleishman spoke, everybody sang, and I gave each student from Perm a note written by their mothers,” says Sara Deutch. “It was such a moving moment. You had this woman, this survivor, who had lost everything at that place, surrounded by her extended Jewish family, and all of our students at the same time reading notes written to them by their Jewish mothers telling them how proud they were of them.
“It was an unbelievably powerful moment.”
Goal of Doubling the Numbers
Three years ago, Rabbi Shmuli Stiefel and his wife, Sara, relocated with their three children from New York to Lipetsk, Russia, about a six-hour drive south of Moscow. A rabbi in Lipetsk is still a pretty novel concept and the level of Jewish illiteracy the Stiefels’ encounter is staggering, especially among young people.
“A girl came to the first class this year wearing a cross,” shares Stiefel. “She’s not Christian; she just didn’t know any better. Our job here is to ensure that everyone born a Jew remains a part of the Jewish nation.
Stiefel was on the trip with five young Jews. On Shabbat, a long line formed near the Torah of girls requesting Jewish names, among them one girl from Lipetsk. “Her mother works in our preschool, and on Shabbat in Lipetsk, my wife told her that her daughter is probably going to take a Hebrew name while on the trip. The mother said, ‘I bet it will be Esther. She once went to a Jewish camp and said she wants to be named Esther.’ ”
In a makeshift synagogue in the hall of a Parisian hotel some 2,000 miles away, at the Torah, the girl was named Esther.
“When we came back from the trip, she hadn’t remembered saying about the name,” says Stiefel. “She chose it just because she liked it.”
The Eurostars trip ended with a swing through Berlin, where the group saw Chabad’s work there and heard from Rabbi Yehuda Tiechtel, the city’s head emissary.
While the true impact of Eurostars might never be known, evidence of its success is already building up. One couple—a boy from Tyumen and a girl from Chelyabinsk—announced their engagement this week. A number of circumcisions have been performed as well, welcoming young Jewish men into the covenant of Abraham.
“This is the last strain … without these young people, the future of Jewish life here would be bleak,” says Lazar. “But we are hopeful because we see that these are young men and women who want to grow; they are proud to be Jewish.
“Hundreds of the students made positive Jewish resolutions on this trip, and we the rabbis did, too. Next year, G-d willing, we will double our numbers. That was our resolution.”