Celebrations | At long last, Russian emigres celebrate Jewish adulthood

Eugene Fukshansky was luckier than most Jews living in the former Soviet Union. His family taught him snippets of Jewish tradition and, in the late 1970s, he secretly studied what he could about the religion his country forbade him to practice.

When Fukshansky immigrated to the U.S. with his wife and two sons in 1990, he was ready to push forward. The family joined Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, and his younger son — who was 11 when they arrived — was the first in the family to have a bar mitzvah.

But he wasn’t the last.

Eugene Fukshansky reads from the Torah as Rabbi Ilana Baird assists. photo/natalia tsvibel

On June 22, Fukshansky and five other Russian Jewish émigrés had their b’nai mitzvah at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. The South Bay residents took weekly classes for nine months in preparation for the event — though the 66-year-old Fukshansky has been studying for years, he said, including taking classes at Kol Emeth.

So why the bar mitzvah too? “I wanted to support the initiative,” he said, referring to the pilot program funded through the S.F.-based Jewish Com-munity Federation’s Mishmash Com-munity Impact Grants Initiative.

“I think that my experience will help other people to do the same thing. It’s very positive for everybody,” he said.

And apparently it’s inspirational, as well.

Rabbi Ilana Baird, who worked with the b’nai mitzvah students and led the ceremony in the sanctuary at Beth Am, said that afterward, “People were asking, ‘When are you going to do it again?’ ”

In addition to Fukshansky, fellow participants were Vladimir Rappoport, who was moved to do so after his son became a bar mitzvah a year ago at Beth Am; Elena Basevich; Aleksandr Mlynash; and Lev and Alla Igoudin, husband and wife. Being a couple sometimes had its advantages, noted Baird, as one could encourage the other. For example, when it came time to read Hebrew, “He was not sure that he could do it,” Baird said with a laugh. But his wife pushed him on. She said, “We’ve come this far and we are doing it!”

Baird, 39, knows all too well how far all of the students have come. She, too, is from the former Soviet Union, first immigrating to Israel in 1993, where she founded Shirat HaYam–Carmel, a progressive congregation for Russian-speaking Jews in Haifa. A graduate of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion’s Israel Rabbinical Seminary, she and her husband brought the family to the U.S. two years ago, settling in Los Gatos. They are members of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga.

Working closely with Natalia Tsvibel, director of the émigré department at Beth Am, Baird helped design the b’nai mitzvah program that was initiated by Inna Benjaminson, who preceded Tsvibel as head of the department for 18 years.

The students learned Hebrew, the history of the Jewish people, customs, prayers and their meaning, Baird said. “They never learned anything like that [in the former Soviet Union],” she said, “so they were very eager to learn about Jewish peoplehood.” Eventually, “They all were reading from the Torah.”

Baird created a ceremony called “Torah from Generation to Generation.” Only in this case, it was primarily passed from the younger to older generation.

Some 60 people attended the lifecycle event.

“I was explaining that we are Russian Jews; when we came here, at first we didn’t want to think about ourselves — we wanted our kids to learn,” said Baird. But now, she said, the parents are taking time for themselves — sandwiching in lessons and studying, even though “they’re all working and traveling, and doing with family.

“It’s very unusual for Russian-speaking Jews to learn Judaism and do the ceremony,” Baird said. “That’s why I’m proud of this program.’’

“People are very, very happy,” she added. “They’re so proud of themselves. They are feeling Jewish. It’s wonderful to see all these faces.”

Tsvibel hopes to obtain funding to offer more Russian émigrés a similar opportunity. “The program is very rich,” she said. “It offers a very broad and detailed picture of what Judaism is.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.