Art projects are one way Yom Rishon School brings Jewish studies alive. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)
Art projects are one way Yom Rishon School brings Jewish studies alive. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

In Palo Alto, a ‘first day’ of Jewish education — in Russian

Natalia Tsvibel is a whirling dervish of a teacher. Moving quickly around the room at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, eyes wide and arms spread wider, she speaks rapidly in Russian to the 30-some people seated around her in family groups: parents, grandparents and young children. Some of the girls are decked out in sparkly dresses, with bows in their hair. All lean forward expectantly, eyes trained on Tsvibel.

“Today we are learning about Shabbat,” she announces with gusto as she hands out one-page instructions on how to observe the weekly Jewish day of rest. “Who knows what Shabbat is?”

Hands go up quickly. Tsvibel calls on one girl who looks about 7. “It’s the main holiday,” the girl offers.

“For everyone? “ Tsvibel prompts. “For Jews,” another child chimes in.

This is Yom Rishon School, an independent family school teaching about Jewish holidays and traditions, conducted in Russian and aimed at the large and still growing Russian-speaking Jewish population on the Peninsula.

Emerging out of an emigre resettlement program launched in 1989 at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, it morphed into the nonprofit Yom Rishon School in 2014, two years after Tsvibel took it over with a mandate to strengthen the next generation’s connection to their Russian Jewish heritage and to the modern state of Israel. (Yom rishon is Hebrew for “first day,” referring to the family’s first steps toward living Jewishly.)

Since then, kids from pre-K groups through teenagers, together with their parents, have moved through several levels of monthly classes on Biblical heroes, Shabbat and holidays, and mitzvahs. They have sung songs, made artwork, visited museums and celebrated festive days together, all in Russian.

Today’s Shabbat class takes place on the sixth day of  Hanukkah. In the front of the room are tables laden with goodies and brightly colored Jewish ritual items: one table showcases plates of fruit and cups of grape juice; another is filled with candles to light; another has bowls of water to demonstrate hand-washing before meals; and yet another table displays menorahs — brought in by the students — some of them family heirlooms, some clearly handmade.

Part storyteller and part instructor, Tsvibel brings every child into the discussion. This is learning-by-doing; a large cardboard box beside one table contains a feather boa and other fancy dress items. She shares the items with the kids as they act out a Hasidic tale.

Natalia Tsvibel 'puts her heart and soul into it' at a recent class on Shabbat at Yom Rishon School. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)
Natalia Tsvibel ‘puts her heart and soul into it’ at a recent class on Shabbat at Yom Rishon School. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

“What do we do on Shabbat?” she asks one young girl, who carefully reads from the prepared sheet handed out earlier. “Invite guests?” the girl responds softly.

“Yes! Invite guests!” Tsvibel repeats, with a big smile. “And what else do we do?”

“Call our grandparents!” blurts out one boy, also reading from the sheet.

“Yes!” Tsvibel says. “Call your grandparents on Friday before Shabbat [starts] — for those of you lucky enough to have grandparents. Call them! It’s very, very important.”

Some of the children in the room have older relatives in Israel. Many families in the Yom Rishon School spent years in Israel before heading to the United States. Their children were either infants or not born yet when they left Israel; Russian is the language spoken in their homes.

That’s true for Russian-born Irina Liubovitch, who with her husband, Boris, has three children, all of them current or former Yom Rishon School students. She left Russia for Israel at age 10, and at 28 immigrated to the U.S., pregnant with her first son. He is now 14, and their girls are 10 and 6.

All of the children understand Hebrew, she says, but they speak and read Russian, the language spoken in their Santa Clara home. “So it’s much easier for them if the program is in Russian,” she notes.

“What I like is that it’s not really religious,” she continues. “They learn the holidays and traditions, and then we do them all at home. It’s really important for me that my kids know where we come from.”

Tsvibel also passed through Israel on her way to California. Born in Petrozavodsk, about 250 miles from St. Petersburg, she began teaching about Jewish life and traditions in 1991, when she was 18. Like others of her generation, she taught her parents and their friends, passing on the knowledge they got from the Israeli emissaries who poured in after the Iron Curtain fell.

After seven years in Israel, she immigrated to the United States 20 years ago. Her children were born here. But the language they speak at home is Russian.

When these parents hear their children talking about God, and about values, in Russian, they are amazed. It’s just wonderful.

Like Tsvibel, many parents in her school have been in the United States for years. Their English is fluent, as is that of their young children. So why hold these classes in Russian?

“That’s a complicated question,” Tsvibel tells J. “First of all, it’s an additional language, which comes with an additional culture, the Russian Jewish culture. They develop a language beyond ‘clean up your room,’ a vocabulary to discuss abstract topics, deep things. When these parents hear their children talking about God, and about values, in Russian, they are amazed. It’s just wonderful.

“Second, we Russians have a special style of teaching, beyond the language. It’s a more informal, more personal way of teaching.”

Julie Kantorovskiy, another Russian-born parent with kids in the school, agrees. Education in the Russian system, Jewish or not, is warmer, more personal, she says. She left Russia as a middle-school student with her parents, both teachers, in 1993; her father still keeps in touch with some of his former students, she says.

“And I don’t remember a single one of my American teachers’ names,” she notes, by way of contrast.

Her 5-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter have been at the Yom Rishon School since they were toddlers. They speak “pretty good Russian,” she says, and it’s important to her and her husband that they keep it up. And even more important, that they cement their relationship to Jewish life and culture.

“We don’t belong to synagogue,” she says. “Most Russian Jews do not.”

Like many of her compatriots, she and her parents got their Judaism through a JCC, in their case, the one in Palo Alto, where they celebrated Jewish holidays for years.

Now her own children get a year-round, structured Jewish education. The school is, she says, “amazing. No one else has the warmth and the environment and the connections [Tsvibel] has. I really like what she is doing here; she puts her heart and soul into it.”

When Yom Rishon School launched eight years ago, it received a three-year grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Now the school depends on fees paid by parents. Tsvibel doesn’t regret that; on the contrary, she thinks it’s important for parents to pay to learn about Judaism. That way they will value it more, she says philosophically.

Julie and Lev Kantorovskiy give their son a Shabbat blessing during a Yom Rishon class. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)
Julie and Lev Kantorovskiy give their son a Shabbat blessing during a Yom Rishon class. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

“The most important thing is that the parents also be here,” she says. “Judaism is a way of life, a family affair. This is for you, and for your family.”

At its height two years ago, the school had six teachers and 55 to 60 children. Classes were held at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, and Tsvibel would even teach in other nearby towns to accommodate parents’ needs. The Covid lockdown has hit the school hard. Classes were canceled in mid-2020 for an entire year, and when they resumed this fall, the school was down to 13 families and one group of 6- to 9-year-olds all enrolled in the My Jewish Discovery curriculum. Operations moved to the JCC in Palo Alto, and Tsvibel is the sole remaining teacher.

That’s a real shame, says Kantorovskiy. Her children loved the pre-school classes, where they sang songs and made art and listened to Jewish stories. “It was a real event for them,” she says. “My daughter says how much she misses that.”

Back in the classroom, the two-hour lesson nears its end. It’s time for the families to go through what would happen right before the Shabbat meal.

“On Shabbat, parents bless their children,” Tsvibel announces, before asking each family group to bless their sons and then their daughters, laying hands on the children’s heads and kissing them afterwards.

Then it’s Kiddush over the wine, Hamotzi over the challah, and another treat: borekas for everyone.

Then class is over and Tsvibel is alone, left to pack up her plates of fruit, her candles and plastic bowls, her boxes of costumes and art supplies. She brings it all, sets it all up and carts it all away — sometimes she has a helper, but more often than not, she’s a one-woman show.

“I go with my boxes of props,” she says. “Basically, I’m a maggid that goes from village to village with knowledge. The Talmud says you should teach Torah ‘until they beat you with sticks.’

“That’s what I’m doing.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].