ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (Apr. 26)
When Lynn Schusterman and her family first set foot in the Soviet Union in 1985, it was a heavy step indeed. She and her daughter were layered in 12 pairs of control-top panty hose while her son and husband swelled in several pairs of jeans.
They shed the prized clothing inside the imposing Choral Synagogue, placing them into the arms of refuseniks for whom jeans and panty hose meant cash on the black market. Later in the trip, they handed over bags bloated with prayer books, maps of Israel and medicine concealed under such permissible literature as engineering books.
Twenty years and some 20 trips to the region later, Schusterman, one of the leading philanthropists involved with Jewish life in the region, has just completed a six-day return to Russia’s cultural capital, St. Petersburg, with two granddaughters to witness the evolution of the very underground movements she supported through the 1990s Jewish rebirth to today’s maturing Russian Jewish world.
“It all started here in 1985. To see what’s possible 20 years later is a miracle,” Schusterman said. “It’s about freedom and coming out of slavery. The whole story of Exodus is here. And I wanted my granddaughters to see it, just as their mom was with me in 1985.”
A quintessential example of this remarkable transformation is the Pesach Project, an initiative of Hillel in the former Soviet Union that offers seder tutelage for young Jewish university students. Those students have taken their new knowledge and run communal seders since the program’s 1996 inception, as a form of local empowerment.
FSU Hillel runs on a $1.5 million annual budget, supported in equal thirds by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Hillel International and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The foundation pumps about $1 million into the region each year, supporting non-sectarian “joys of Jewish living, giving and learning.”
The Pesach Project is not the only U.S.-based program that organizes seders in the former Soviet Union. Both the Reform movement, which this year sent 50 students from its Hebrew Union College, and Chabad, which sent 200 rabbinic students, ran seders in the region this year as well.
This year, St. Petersburg was home to the only international Pesach Project, hosting 24 young adults from its cohesive partnership communities — the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County and Israelis from the Safed region, who share a Partnership 2000 affiliation with Palm Beach. Those groups have come to Russia annually since 1997, and this year co-produced more than 30 seders in St. Petersburg, known as the Venice of the North for its extensive canals.
The Pesach Project, mirroring Russian Jewry at large, has seen a gradual professionalism since 1996 when unaffiliated Russian Jewish participants offered sausage sandwiches to a visiting Chabad delegation from England.
“One Chabad boy cooked an egg over the fire with two spoons,” said Misha Levin, director of Hillel in St. Petersburg, explaining that the boy didn’t want to use nonkosher cookware. “It was a shock from both ends, but now we know” more about the laws of kashrut.
Each of the 27 cities in the region that houses a Hillel also has a Pesach Project, but in such cosmopolitan centers such as Moscow and St. Petersburg Jewish knowledge is commonplace. In smaller, more remote places, though, where basic resources are hard to find, the project remains elementary.
In other words, Jewish knowledge is distributed across Russia in a pattern similar to the way the country’s wealth is distributed. There’s Moscow and St. Petersburg — and then there’s the rest of this sprawling nation, which spans 10 other time zones.
“In the start, every little act was a miracle. We went to community seders, showed matzah and people were amazed,” said Anna Purinson, 27, the director of Russian Hillel, who first because involved in the project as a student in 1996. “Now, in big cities they’re no longer satisfied with basics. They don’t want to consume, they want to produce” their own seders.
When the project started, “everyone thought we didn’t have enough skills and knowledge,” Levin says. His Hillel chapter, in St. Petersburg, is one of the organization’s most vibrant, with 600 active student members. “They weren’t only proven wrong, but now Jewish communities can conduct seders without us.
“We were like angels for these communities and now we’ re just counterparts. In some ways, it’s now more important for us than for them.”
One of the more warming outcomes of the project for Levin is a seder to which he has never gone. He heard about it from Vera, a Hillel graduate he hadn’t seen since 1997. “She’s been making seder in her grandmother’s home each year since,” Levin said.
That’s no faint accomplish in this vast nation, where Judaism still is mainly confined to festive communal settings. Because Russian Jews are still recovering from the fear of Soviet oppression that once haunted them, the seder has not yet been brought into most homes.
Purinson’s not impressed even by the largest gatherings — several hundred convened for one of Hillel’s showcased seders. She says, “These are amazing numbers — but knowing the number of Jewish students, it’s a poor number.”
For Schusterman, who spent her visit discussing texts with students and shuttling around to various Jewish centers as the April snowflakes fell, the visit provides a glance at the results of her philanthropy.
Take Alyona Arenkova, 26, who had no connection with her Jewish identity until her 2000 birthright israel trip. Birthright is another program partly funded by Schusterman. When she returned to St. Petersburg, Arenkova joined Hillel, founded a klezmer band and played piano tunes at seders for the project. Such dedication earned her a Charlie award — the honor was named after Schusterman’s late husband, Charles — that recognizes distinguished Birthright Alumni.
“I look at them as my children,” said Schusterman. “I used to dream about these seders. We Americans have a tendency to get blase or take Jewishness for granted.
“Russians didn’t always have this, so they’re bringing a joy to celebrating the holidays that we’ve lost in a way. It’s contagious. I love it. It’s so rewarding, and very emotional,” she said.
The lesson was hardly lost on Schusterman’s 10-year-old granddaughter, Abby Dow of Tulsa, Okla., who perhaps provided the most concise summation of the week. “In 1985 they were here helping Jews and now we’re just here celebrating with them,” she said.