Around the Jewish World: Hillel Assembly in Russia Marks Emergence of Jewish Students
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Around the Jewish World: Hillel Assembly in Russia Marks Emergence of Jewish Students

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Hillel in the former Soviet Union? In a sign of the resurgence of Jewish life here, more than 250 Jewish students from across the former Soviet Union gathered here recently for the first Hillel Student Leadership Congress.

“Students are gradually becoming the moving force behind” local organized Jewish life in many communities of the former Soviet Union, said Yevgenia Mikhalyova, Moscow’s Hillel director.

People over 40 have traditionally been at the helm of organized Jewish life since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

But since the region’s first Hillel center was established more than two years ago in Moscow, the international organization has seen a growth in Jewish student activism.

Three other student centers were subsequently set up in St. Petersburg, in Kiev, Ukraine, and in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

There are plans to expand the total to 24 within the next 18 months.

The main goal of the congress “was to expose Jewish students to Jewish history and culture, to strengthen their Jewish identity,” said Yossi Goldman, Hillel international assistant vice president and founder of the Hillel centers in the former Soviet Union.

The congress is a “vital element in a wider process of empowering the resurgent Jewish community with the leadership and skills needed to ensure its long-term vitality” in the former Soviet Union, Goldman added.

“The message coming out of this congress is that you can and should create your Jewish future. And you don’t have to wait for somebody else to do it for you.”

The four-day event was co-sponsored by Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

While some of the participants came from the four cities with existing Hillel centers, the majority represented remote communities located in Siberia, the Ural Mountains and the Russian Far East.

For many participants, the congress was their first opportunity to become familiar with Hillel and to learn about the resources available to develop their own local student programs.

The congress offered participating young Jewish men and women more than 50 skills workshops, a study session, leadership training seminars, Jewish identity workshops and Israeli song and dance seminars.

In the former Soviet Union, Hillel extends its programs beyond the university community to include young professionals as well.

Many young Jews here see Hillel programs as an opportunity to meet one another. In the last two years, these meetings have resulted in a few “Hillel” weddings.

At the congress, there was considerable sharing of experiences among the young activists.

“Most of those who have contacted our centers over the past two years are people that have their own ideas and projects,” said Mikhalyova of Moscow’s Hillel center.

“Hillel gives them a chance to find like-minded people and to see their projects work.”

During the congress, Leonid Gelfman, a 23-year-old postgraduate philology student and Russian language teacher at a St. Petersburg day school, spoke about how to publish a Hillel newspaper.

“For me, it’s important to combine my Jewish and professional interests,” said Gelfman, who is the editor of Dvarim, the publication of the St. Petersburg Hillel center.

Some of the Hillel activists already participate in social and cultural programs in their home communities.

Last year, Mikhail Gubenko, a 20-year-old sociology student from Kiev, organized a group of his fellow students to lead Shabbat and holiday programs for elderly Jews.

“We tell them about Shabbat and festivals, about Jewish history,” he said of the program, which involves about 25 young volunteers.

In a reversal of the traditional generational roles, grandchildren often teach their grandparents about Jewish topics, discussions that had been denied their elders during their lives under the Soviet regime, said Gubenko.

Since mass Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union began eight years ago, students have represented a significant portion of those opting to leave.

At the congress, some Jewish students said that although they would prefer to stay, they do not see a future for themselves in their native countries.

For Mikhail Gubenko from Kiev, Ukraine’s future appeared problematic.

“Professionally I don’t see any future for myself in Ukraine,” he said, referring to the country’s serious economic problems.

“I just want to have a normal life. But the current economic situation does not give me this option.”

Some students said they also do not see a long-term future for the Jewish student movement in the former Soviet Union.

“Everyone who gets involved with the Jewish movement will emigrate sooner or later,” said Svetlana Rabinovich, 18, a high school student from Minsk.

“This is especially so with Jewish youth, for whom the decision to emigrate is somewhat easier than for their parents.”

Said Igor Varkin, a 32-year-old postgraduate psychology student from the Siberian town of Tyumen: “Some join the movement having a wish to emigrate. Others are pushed toward emigration by the Jewish activities they get involved in.”

But many of the student activists want to be part of the Jewish future in the former Soviet Union.

“It’s hard to say now, but I’d prefer to stay after I graduate,” said Alexander Slutsky, 23, a law student from Yekaterinburg, a city of more than 1 million in the Ural Mountains.

“My future is here, in Russia,” said Gelfman, the editor of the Hillel newspaper in St. Petersburg.

For one student from the Far East, the Jewish student movement will ensure that those who want to stay will be able “to express themselves as Jews.”

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