Across the Former Soviet Union in Russia, Asking About Hillel is a Way to Ask, ‘are You Jewish’?

When Marina Drouz was taking a college entry exam a few years ago, she found herself sitting next to a girl who she thought could be Jewish.

Not sure how to satisfy her curiosity, Drouz asked if the girl had ever been to the local Hillel.

“I haven’t, but I could have,” the girl responded.

“I thought the word ‘Hillel’ would be a convenient test word for finding out if the person was Jewish,” explains Drouz, a 20-year-old economics student from St. Petersburg. “I just realized that someone my age would have known the word had she been Jewish — even if she never goes there.”

While it’s not the only group with a focus on Jewish youth, Hillel is arguably one of the most successful organizations of its kind in the former Soviet Union.

Eight and a half years after the first Hillel center opened in Moscow, the movement boasts a network of 27 full-time centers and a dozen additional affiliated youth groups devoted to bringing Judaism and Jewish experiences to young and mostly assimilated Jews in nine of the former Soviet republics.

More than 10,000 students regularly take part in various Hillel activities in the former Soviet Union.

But there are obstacles to overcome.

Drouz, who spends most of her free time at Hillel as a volunteer coordinator responsible for recruiting new members and running programs, recalls how her group in St. Petersburg once tried to set up a program on one of the campuses.

“It turned out that many students didn’t want to be open about their Judaism inside the school — some of those who helped to organize the event changed their mind in the last minute and didn’t even show up,” she says.

Hillel activities may include English-language lessons, psychology classes, writing workshops and various performing arts. Some Hillel groups publish their own newspapers.

Lisa Gudina, an activist in Odessa, Ukraine, says local Hillel leaders have to be resourceful to ensure an ongoing flow of new members.

Her group recently attracted some new members when it launched a brand-new program — an Irish step dance studio — after a tour by a professional step dance group launched this fad among local students.

Hillel in the former Soviet Union was established and operates with the support of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Unlike in the United States, where most Hillel chapters work with Jewish students on a particular campus, Hillel in the former Soviet Union operates community-based centers that reach out to a broader student population from various colleges.

More than 300 Jewish students gathered recently at a retreat near Moscow for the fifth annual Hillel Congress. The six-day program of the conference, titled “Am Echad — One People,” featured lectures on community building, leadership skills classes and discussions on Judaism and Soviet Jewish history.

Like many other Hillel activists, Ilya Rapoport, a 22-year-old medical student from Moscow, is familiar with other groups wooing younger Jews. He says Hillel places more emphasis on Jewish tradition than the other groups.

“Being Jewish to me means to have a certain amount of knowledge on Jewish tradition. That’s what I found in Hillel and couldn’t have in another Jewish youth club I go to,” Rapoport said.

In addition to classes in basic Judaism, Hillel groups celebrate Shabbat, lead holiday celebrations in their communities and conduct Passover seders throughout the former Soviet Union, offering many participants their first encounter with traditional Passover customs.

In the post-Communist Jewish reality, Hillel groups often play a crucial role in community building and ensuring Jewish continuity. This is especially true in some smaller communities, where Jewish life is not as rich as in Moscow or Kiev.

Yevgeny Rybalko, a 23-year-old Jewish student leader in the Siberian city of Tomsk, says his youth club conducts celebrations for the entire Jewish community, which numbers approximately 400 people.

“Otherwise we will continue to have a majority” of Jews “who feel quite comfortable without any Jewish knowledge or attachment to tradition,” he says.

In fact, some of those familiar with Hillel operations on U.S. campuses say Russian students who are active in Hillel have a stronger sense of community among themselves and are often more serious about their Judaism than their American counterparts, even if they are sometimes less knowledgeable.

Marina Teremets, a Brooklyn College senior who emigrated from Ukraine six years ago, was among a group of Soviet-born American Hillel students who participated in the conference.

She said the Hillel group on her campus is “more like a club, similar in a way to some other clubs you may join when at school.”

“What we saw here is more like a full-time community.”

Peter Greben, a recent university graduate from Moscow, says this focus on Judaism is what makes his involvement with the local Hillel especially meaningful to him.

“This is ironic, but when I lived in Jerusalem I had no interest in Judaism, I even developed a certain immunity against religion — like many Russians in Israel,” said Greben, 26, who made aliyah to Israel but later returned to Russia to attend college. “Having lived in Israel for four years, I had my first Shabbat experience, my first Passover seder in Moscow Hillel. My encounter with Judaism at Hillel was so accommodating that now I feel my Jewish life really began here.”

NEXT STORY