Russian, U.S. students bridge miles in video confab

The video conference conversation revealed unexpected similarities:

Almost all of the students shared the experience of being more religiously identified than their parents. They also expressed hunger for a modern, intellectual mode of religious expression.

In one instance, all but one of the students from the Conservative movement's rabbinical seminary agreed that they were raised in homes where Judaism was "important."

The Russians laughed.

"Our families think we're crazy for talking about mitzvot and our Jewish roots," said Anna Neistat, the Moscow moderator who is a graduate of Project Judaica — a joint academic venture of JTS, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York and the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow.

But smiles spread throughout the room in New York as well.

"My parents think I'm crazy, too," whispered a Jewish-education student at JTS.

But it was evident that for the Russians, the phenomenon of Jewish revival is more intense.

"My husband and I try to keep mitzvot like kashrut," said Anya Sorokina, a fourth-year student of Project Judaica in Moscow. "Sometimes we do get a little family support. My very secular grandmother was excited about the Pesach seder this year."

Most of the American students in the room devote their lives to Jewish causes — many of them to helping Russian Jews.

As the camera was turned off after an hour of dialogue, the American students marveled at how inspiring the discussion was.

The same was true in Moscow.

The video conference program — the third in a series of such exchanges — is sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and JTS.

People in the United States "know virtually nothing about the social and academic Jewish reality" in Russia, said Eugene Weiner, an American who made aliyah to Israel and now heads special projects at the Moscow office of the JDC.

Video conferencing will help American Jews better understand the complexities and nuances of the Russian Jewish experience, he said.

For the Russians, the conference represents unprecedented opportunities to connect with the Jewish academic and religious world, he said.

"We could have interactive video seminars on holidays and classical Jewish texts," said Weiner, a Conservative rabbi who was one of the catalysts behind the video conferencing project.

"This medium can be used to hold seminars with people who otherwise are very hard to reach from Moscow," he said.

Amir Shaviv, JDC's assistant executive vice president for special operations, said after observing the exchange in New York: "The students in Moscow were exposed to a group of future rabbis, men and women, from pluralistic backgrounds and different upbringings. That is a significant message."

In Moscow, Neistat said to the JTS students as she closed the session, "We hope you come here to Moscow, and continue to teach us, and we hope you get something from us, too."