From Russia With Love
by Sasha Kopp
As a Jewish educator, I feel as though I am supposed to be teaching and understanding the broad idea of the “global Jewish community,” that the Jewish individuals who live around the world are one single peoplehood, “Am Yisrael.” Yet in today’s world – where there are so many opinions, denominations, non- denominations, and trans-denominations – this sense of peoplehood can be lost and it may become a challenge to find like-minded Jews.
I recently went on a trip to Moscow with other young professionals, all of whom were Jewish but had varying degrees of connections to their Jewish communities. The trip, sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), was titled “Inside Jewish Moscow.” Our goal was to see the different programs the JDC has put into place to revive the Jewish community in Moscow and its surrounding communities. Our time was filled with wonderful moments that made me aware of how Judaism can cross cultural boundaries.
Early in the trip, we visited an Eco-Moshav, which is a Russian Jewish summer camp. There I frolicked through a field holding hands with a 9-year-old singing “Le’cha Dodi” at the top of our lungs; it was the first song we could think of that crossed our language barrier. Friday morning, I had the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat at the local JCC, where we lit candles and sang the same songs that I sing with my pre-schoolers in Needham, MA. Throughout the week, I felt connected in a way that I had never experienced, not even in Israel. Here, Jews constitute a very small segment of the population yet many of the people I met live active Jewish lives.
Then came Shabbat. I had been nervously looking forward to Shabbat for the whole week. I had negotiated with my group leader to be able to leave the group to visit the progressive congregation in the suburbs of Moscow. My fellow participants thought that it would be a disappointing experience to travel so far just to attend services, which would probably be entirely in Russian. I decided that it was a “when in Moscow” moment: I only had one opportunity to go to these progressive services, and even if I lacked a spiritual connection, it would still be interesting to see what a progressive community looks like on the other side of the world.
My taxi pulled up to the typical office building that housed the congregation. Stepping off the elevator on the fourth flour, I was greeted by a sign adorned with Jewish stars that pointed me in the direction of the congregation. I opened the door and immediately felt a sense of calm as I heard the congregation singing “Ma Tovu,” using the same tune I have heard my entire life. The sanctuary itself was very contemporary in style: The wood was light and there were large windows everywhere filling the space with natural light. I sat down and found a siddur that was in both Russian and English and began to follow the service just as I would at any Reform congregation in the United States. As I sang the Shema, I had goosebumps: The tune was a contemporary one, most likely the same one my campers would be singing in 10 hours in Seattle at URJ Camp Kalsman. Here I was in Russia, a young Jewish woman wearing a kippah and a handmade camp tallit, and I was able to pray sitting next to my male peer and sing my heart out to melodies I knew and loved. There was energy in the air that came from each one of the 35-40 individuals in the room. They were living their own Judaism – and it happened to look a lot like mine. As local Rabbi Sasha gave his D’var Torah entirely in Russian, I was able to reflect on the beauty that surrounded me. We don’t all pray the same way, and that’s OK. In fact, that is beautiful. Yet there is something powerful about travelling halfway around the world only to discover your own traditions, values, and songs. Being able to participate in these customs, within the setting of progressive Judaism, enhanced my understanding of the power of Am Yisrael.
Sasha Kopp is an early-childhood teacher and youth educator at Temple Beth Shalom in Needhan MA. She has spent many summers in Seattle at URJ Camp Kalsman but is spending this summer traveling with the JDC and NFTY-Mitzvah Corps Costa Rica.