It makes us who we are. It pushes us to do better. It impassions us, propelling us forward. It is our identity.
For many individuals in Western countries the questions remains, “Are you a Jewish American or an American Jew?” Where is the emphasis? Which is the adjective and which the noun? Which word IS me and which describes me?
For many Jews in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), these questions are just starting to enter the narrative. Many individuals have only recently found out as adults that they are Jewish. Many others are only now starting to question their identity. The wave of Jewish revival has been slowly and steadily continuing to grow across the region. Jewish customs and ceremonies are becoming more and more frequent as individuals identify themselves as proudly Jewish. Wedding under a Chuppah (canopies), religious circumcisions, and Bar/Bat mitzvot are being performed in greater numbers, each year.
Each community in the vast expanse of the FSU has had its own Jewish awakening – at its own pace and with its own priorities over the past 25 years.
The Jewish people of Rostov, for example, a town within Russia, are very proud of their Jewish heritage. Having survived the Nazis and the communists, they still identify through their common history. Jews of Rostov are connected to both the positive as well as negative Jewish history of the town. The ohel – burial site – of the Rebbe Rashab of Lubavitch is frequented by many throughout the year. Some of the Jewish residents who don’t attend synagogue on a regular basis, still chose to frequent the resting place and recite chapters of Tehillim (Psalms) next to this great righteous leader. Additionally, the site of the mass killing of over 28,000 Jewish souls in August of 1942 is treated with tremendous respect by the town’s 15,000 Jews.
Yet, despite this pride in Jewish heritage, very few religious wedding ceremonies have taken place until recently. Weddings seemed to be the final hurdle in a full Jewish revival. In the last few years, Jewish weddings have been taking place more and more frequently. Even those already married secularly are choosing to renew their vows with a religious ceremony. Many cities and villages are seeing their first chuppa in decades.
A common goal of many Jewish communities around the world is to ensure the continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people. How this is done takes on much different iteration in each community. The community of Rostov is focusing on the beauty and joy of rituals:
“Our approach – says Rabbi Chaim Danzinger – is to bring forth the joy of Judaism through practice and ritual. A few months ago there was a huge wedding celebration and we invited over 100 students to witness this beautiful Jewish event. The students learned about the Chuppah ceremony up close and, after seeing it, decided that they, too, would like to get married in a Jewish way.” Three additional Jewish wedding ceremonies are already being planned for this year and more are expected. This number might be small but it is most significant in the path toward Jewish revitalization and renewal in Rostov.
By choosing a Jewish wedding, people are making a statement – as Rabbi Danziger puts it, “The young couples are proclaiming to the world that they want to establish their lives together as a Jewish couple, starting a Jewish family, within a Jewish community, holding Jewish values.” This one act – marrying under the chuppah with a rabbi joining them together – is exactly what Jewish leaders throughout the FSU have been working toward for 25 years – to bring Jewish thought, practice, ritual and identity back into the daily lives of its community.
The Rostov Jewish community is strong and engaged. The people are open and interested in their history. They are steadily showing that they are willing and eager to forge the chains to connect their past with their future.
The holiday of Lag B’Omer, the night of May 6th this year, marks the end of a Jewish period of mourning which started after Passover. With the close of this period, the unofficial Jewish wedding season begins! Jewish communities across the FSU, and the world, will now begin to celebrate Jewish revival in the best way possible – a wedding party.