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Kosher Quandaries: Russians Find Answers at U.S. Summer Camp

July 26, 2004
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“Caviar is very popular in Russia. Is sturgeon kosher?” asks 18-year-old Anna Dramchuk. “It’s controversial,” responds Dr. Abraham Havivi, an ordained rabbi and psychiatrist who is teaching a morning class on practical halachah, or Jewish law, at Lishma, an intensive yeshiva-type program at Camp Ramah in Ojai, Calif. “Different authorities have different answers.”

During her stay at Lishma, a four-week course for 18- to 25-year-olds, Anna is learning that different authorities frequently have different answers to tough questions.

Lishma, derived from the Hebrew phrase “Torah lishma,” or “Torah studied for its own sake,” was co-founded in 1999 by Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of Camp Ramah, and is co-sponsored by the camp and the University of Judaism’s Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies. This year 13 students are taking part in the fully funded program.

“People who come to Lishma have a spiritual hunger,”! Greyber says.

That includes Anna, who sits transfixed. So does her sister, Olga, 19, and her friend Irina Kononova,18. They are from Novosibirsk, Russia, and are the first foreign students to take part in the program.

While their English is excellent, the young women occasionally consult a Russian dictionary or Russian/Hebrew prayer book, or quietly lean over to ask each other questions. They take detailed notes in their Lishma sourcebooks, binders filled with 350 pages of Torah, Talmud and midrash.

“Kashrut is one of the more rule-bound and, therefore, arcane aspects of halachic practice,” Havivi says.

But the 13 students don’t shy away from even the most technical details. All are trying to formulate their own beliefs and patterns of religious practice, which vary.

For the three women, this is especially important, since they didn’t grow up in a Jewish milieu.

Kononova was born in Kazakhstan. When she was 6 years old, she heard her mother singing! in a strange language. she asked, “How did you learn that song? What does it mean?”

It was “Tumbalalaika,” the Yiddish folk song, and Irina recalls learning that both her mother and grandfather, whom she never knew, were Jewish. But she didn’t become interested in Judaism until a year ago, when she moved to Novosibirsk to attend university and met Anna Dramchuk.

The sisters, who also grew up in Kazakhstan, had a bit more exposure to Jewish traditions through their father and their grandmother, who observed Shabbat and holidays. Four years ago the family moved to Novosibirsk, though the grandmother remained in Kazakhstan.

In Novosibirsk, with its Jewish community of about 20,000, the three young women discovered what Olga calls “a second family.” While occasionally attending the Chabad-run synagogue, they initially spent much of their time at the Jewish Agency for Israel, where they learned Hebrew.

Now their Jewish lives center largely on the Hillel organization, which in Russia is communal, attracting students from a variety o! f universities as well as a contingent of elderly.

“But a lot of people in Russia are not really religious,” Kononova says. “There is no place in Novosibirsk where students may go and learn Torah.”

For these young women, Torah study is the most challenging and rewarding component of Lishma. It’s also the backbone of the program.

Standing before her Lishma class, Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, a lecturer at Ziegler, asks her students to break up into chevrutas, or two-person study groups, to read and discuss Leviticus 19:17-18.

Olga Dramchuk reads aloud, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen.”

She pores over the text with Dan Gold, 22, a Tufts University graduate with degrees in architecture and sociology who will soon become the new coordinator for a teen community service program at Los Angeles’ Bureau of Jewish Education.!

Camp Ramah has given the young Russian women far more than an app roach to studying Torah; it has given them an opportunity to be part of a vibrant, cohesive and religious Jewish community. They live, pray, study and socialize with the other Lishma students — from Texas, Minnesota, Washington, Colorado and California — and staff.

They also interact on a daily basis with the rest of Camp Ramah, including about 550 campers aged 7-15, along with 225 counselors and administrators.

“For me, being here is like a second birth. I don’t know even how to describe it, this feeling of not being alone, of being with people who share my thoughts and views on life and connection to God,” Kononova says.

During the first two weeks of the program, Jonah Steinberg, a professor at Boston’s Hebrew College, instructed students in lessons of the rabbinic sages. He also concentrated on ways to bridge heaven and earth, including kabbalah, mysticism and angelology.

Fields-Meyer is covering the second two weeks, dividing her lessons into three cate! gories covered in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers: Torah, avodah, or prayer, and gimilut chasadim, or acts of righteousness.

Additionally, various scholars present talks on Jewish identity and leadership several evenings each week.

On Tuesdays, students travel to Los Angeles to participate in social action programs.

Spiritual mentoring is also an important component of the program. Students meet in three half-hour sessions with the program’s two coordinators, rabbinical students Salomon Gruenwald and Rachel Bat-Or.

The program can change lives. Eighty students, including this summer’s group, have attended the Lishma program, with about 25 percent of alumni now involved in rabbinic studies or some other form of Jewish learning, according to Greyber.

When they return to Siberia, Anna Dramchuk and Kononova will begin their second year studying international relations at the Novosibirsk State Academy of Economics and Management. They hope to pursue caree! rs in diplomacy.

Olga Dramchuk will be a fourth-year student at the Siberian Independent University, where she is studying linguistics and preparing to become an interpreter.

They intend to put to use the skills and knowledge they’re gaining this summer.

At Hillel, the three young women already run twice-weekly programs for the elderly, called Beit Midrash, where they celebrate holidays and share reflections on stories from the Torah.

When they return home, they plan to create a second Beit Midrash program to teach Torah to other university students.

“It will be different because there are so many scholars here, and there will only be the three of us back home,” Anna says.

But they will have access to scholars from Israel and the United States twice each year when Hillel hosts 10-day conferences in Moscow and St. Petersburg for students from throughout the former Soviet Union.

Next year, Greyber hopes to expand the number of foreign students in Lishma and institute a camp-wide focus on Russian Jewry, concerned that th! is generation of young Jews is uninformed on the subject.

“There are dreams you dream for yourself and dreams God dreams for you,” Greyber says. “When I founded the program, I never thought it would have as far-reaching an impact. This must be one of God’s dreams.”

“Yes,” Olga Dramchuk adds. “God wants us to be here and to do something afterward. It’s our mission.”

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