Russian migrs go outdoors to get into Judaism

More than 130 adults and children spent a few days earlier this month building a communal sukkah, eating shared meals outside, singing songs and sleeping in tents under the stars.

And they did it all in Russian.

The Sukkot weekend retreat in Santa Rosa — a first of its kind — was organized for local Russian-speaking Jewish families through the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. It took place Oct. 2-4.

The expansive sukkah at the Russian family camp

The Bay Area has an estimated 50,000 Russian Jews, according to the federation, and in an attempt to engage them, it established the Russian Jewish Community program six years ago. Between 150 and 200 families participate in holiday celebrations, hikes, philanthropic opportunities and other programs.

The goal is to connect people with Jewish heritage while maintaining a connection with their Russian roots.

“The Russian-speaking community never really became integrated with the American Jewish community, but they’re finding their own way of expressing their Judaism — or at least finding out what does it mean for them to be Jewish,” said Irina Klay, the Russian Jewish Community program manager. “They want their children to learn where they came from and what they’re about.”

One of the oldest programs is “Passover in the Desert,” which was started five years ago by a group of volunteers from the federation’s Young Adult Program. Last year, about 140 people of all ages showed up to the site, in the hills off Highway 5 in the San Joaquin Valley, to build a camp they occupied for two days.

Attendees get to “experience Passover the way our ancestors experienced it,” Klay said.

The schedule includes a celebration in the sukkah. photos/urj camp newman

Last year, volunteers involved in the Passover program suggested a similar Sukkot celebration, and with support from the federation and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, “Sukkot Under the Stars” was planned.

Holding alternative, outdoor celebrations is a great way to reach Russian Jews, said Leo Hmelnitsky, a Bay Area resident in his early 40s who grew up in Moscow with no religious life whatsoever. Now a Shabbat observer and board member at Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, he was one of the volunteer organizers for the Sukkot event.

“The young Russian-speaking Jewish families and recent immigrants we invite might lack even basic Jewish education, thanks to 70 years of successful Soviet propaganda and oppression, and seldom fit into the institutional Jewish life of traditional synagogues,” he said.

The Sukkot celebration, originally scheduled for a campground near Middletown, nearly was called off after the Cobb Mountain site was badly damaged by the Valley Fire in September. However, to keep the event from being canceled, Camp Newman in Santa Rosa stepped in and offered its space.

“The timing of this couldn’t be more perfect,” said Ruben Arquilevich, executive director of URJ Camp Newman. “We were able to live the principles of Sukkot to the fullest by literally offering a Sukkat Shalom, a shelter of peace, to a community in need. We really do our utmost as a Jewish institution and community retreat center to practice the mitzvah of audacious hospitality and to be a fully inclusive, sacred space. We feel blessed that the Russian Jewish community was able to celebrate the holiday here.”

The weekend included a Kabbalat Shabbat service, story time for children, a campfire sing-along, hikes, a Sukkot-themed treasure hunt for kids, a Torah class and lectures for adults. Though both English and Russian are spoken at events, Russian-speaking teachers are brought in so the children can maintain a connection to their heritage, something that’s important to their families, Klay said.

“By celebrating Jewish holidays as a family, children feel and recognize themselves as part of the Jewish people,” said Svetlana Kroz, another volunteer organizer. “ ‘Let my people camp,’ we told ourselves … so we could look through the roof at the stars and tell the children about the world to which we belong.”

Russian Jewish Community. or (415) 512-623

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.