It was the first few weeks of Grade 9 and I had just started attending a Jewish day school that my mother forced me to go to. I was miserable, I had no friends, and my lack of knowledge about anything Judaism-related made me feel very isolated. What does shviting mean? What is a mitzvah? Why do we have to find a red cow and burn it? My confusion hit its peak one October morning, when I observed the janitor building a hut in the middle of the courtyard. “Maybe people will have cult meetings there,” I remember thinking, sarcastically.
As was later explained to me in my rabbinics class, the hut was called a sukkah, and was meant for the celebration of Sukkot — though to be entirely honest, even now, years later, I couldn’t tell you exactly what the holiday is about.
Though I ended up having a wonderful time throughout my four years in high school, these early days at CHAT were confusing ones. Coming from a Russian background, I had grown up knowing very little about Judaism. Aside from infrequent Shabbat dinners and occasional trips to the synagogue, my Jewish identity manifested itself through my passion for learning about the Holocaust and Jewish history, spending much of my childhood and early teen years engrossed in Holocaust books and watching Schindler’s List.
However, my story is not unique. Many of the other Russian-speaking Jews that I grew up with also shared this disconnect to Judaism, especially as children. Though traditions vary from family to family, I found many of my peers whose parents hail from the Former Soviet Union did not know, or care, much about their Jewish roots.
As any person remotely familiar with history would know, communism and religion did not mix. Anti-religious campaigns were ever-present throughout the years of the U.S.S.R., and people of all faiths were forbidden from practising their religions and those who did, were often persecuted.
For many Jewish people living in the Soviet Union, this meant their Judaism had to take a back seat. Anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in Russian history, but during the years of the U.S.S.R., things were especially bad. Despite these adversities, there were a lot of resistance efforts done by various Jewish groups, that were largely Zionistically motivated. Planes were hijacked by Zionists that tried to get to Israel from the Soviet Union, and many people secretly distributed Hebrew books as well as religious material, like matzah. Soviet food was not exactly certified kosher, and the scarcity of resources did not allow people to be picky. Synagogues were not really safe spaces, either.
In most cases, Jews did their best to avoid standing out, and assimilate into society. Names were changed, documents forged, and people tried to Russify themselves as much as possible in order to survive. Often times this was a necessity, as many institutions and workplaces refused to hire Jewish people. Through no fault of their own, many Russian-speaking Jews lost their connection to their heritage.
Things changed when the Soviet Union collapsed and Jews were finally allowed to leave. As they emigrated to Israel, the United States, Canada and countries around Europe, many Russian-speaking Jews began to reconnect to their roots and learn more about the religion that for so long, they were forbidden from practising.
As years went by, more and more initiatives were created that were targeted toward this unique group in the Jewish community, but Russian-speaking Jews remain distinct largely because of their experience living under this atheistic dictatorship. Despite all this, many younger Russian-speaking Jews, the millennials and Gen Zs, who were raised outside of the Soviet Union, are taking steps towards becoming more observant and religious Jews.
For Marta Dubov, this process started with a brief moment at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. As she put her hand on the ancient wall, she felt her mind being filled with thoughts that were not coming from her own consciousness, but rather from a being above her. “This is when I realized that I couldn’t continue living a life where I did not believe in God, because this was a moment where I felt something else had inhabited me,” said Dubov. “It just made me think that I need to smarten up. How can I continue to say that there’s nothing out there when there is clearly something?”
Growing up in the Bathurst and Steeles area in Thornhill, Ont. Dubov was raised by a single mother who immigrated to Canada from Lithuania. Dubov’s first real exposure to a Jewish community, outside of her own friend group, was at the J.Academy camp, which is targeted toward the Russian-speaking Jewish community. “That was my first real connection, when it came to understanding what things were about,” said Dubov. “I still didn’t understand the biblical, rabbinical meaning behind the holidays and why Shabbat was a thing, but I liked the idea of sitting down and being with my friends on a friday night without our phones.”
However, it was only when Dubov went on a gap year as an 18-year-old that she really started to get more involved in the Jewish world. She spent the first three months of her gap year in Italy, where she would frequent the local Chabad, and though she initially felt uncomfortable and intimidated, she became increasingly involved there.
Later on, she went to Israel, and found herself in a youth hostel for orthodox Jewish women, located in Jerusalem’s old city. She was encouraged to take some classes at Yeshiva Aish HaTorah, and somewhat reluctantly, she agreed. “I showed up and I honestly think that Aish has the best rabbis in maybe the world,” said Dubov. “They really know how to get people to sit down, listen to them and be interested in what they’re saying, because they combine contemporary issues with Jewish thought.”
Now 21, Dubov is a student at Ryerson University and considers herself to be between traditional conservative and modern Orthodox. When she got to university, she slowly began the process of becoming more observant. Over time, she quit her job at a bar, which required her to work Fridays and Saturdays, and started to work at Allen’s Table, the kosher restaurant at the University of Toronto’s Hillel. She learned about the laws of Kashrut and trained as a Mashgiach, all the while meeting a lot of like-minded individuals that were her own age.
Dubov said community was something that she greatly craved, seeing as she does not have a lot of family in Canada. “I wanted more friends, I wanted to meet people I could relate to and find a common tongue with, and a really big part of that was becoming more observant,” said Dubov. “Through Hillel, I really started to build that community.”
Yet despite her increased immersion in the Jewish community, she still sometimes feels like an outsider. “I feel that every single weekend, when I can’t really read the Hebrew during Shabbat services and I can’t understand what people are saying,” she said.
Immigration is also a big part of it, as many of the people she has met have been in Canada for generations, and don’t really understand how difficult it was to be Jewish in Russia. “People do not know how bad it was in the Former Soviet Union, and how atheistic and how zero, zero knowledge there was,” said Dubov. “And sometimes people question me, asking me why I don’t know something. They kind of make me feel bad for not knowing, but I just never had the opportunity to learn.”
Yesy Tartakovsky-Gilels, a student at the University of Toronto, is undergoing a similar journey. Born in Netanya, she grew up in a Russian household. She describes her upbringing as secular, but very Zionist, as both her parents moved to Israel from the Former Soviet Union in the 1990s.
For her, the process of becoming more observant started two years ago, when she started to become more involved in pro-Israel movements on campus. It was on a Hasbara trip to Israel, that focused on Israeli activism, that she began to contemplate the reasoning behind her commitment to Israel. “I think many Jewish people have this problem where they care so much about Israel, but don’t really understand where that passion comes from,” said Tartakovsky-Gilels. “I came to the conclusion that a lot of it had to do with the fact that my values and morals align heavily with Jewish teachings and the Torah, and I thought, ‘what am I going to do to make sure that my kids and grandkids will feel the same passion towards their culture and Israel?’”
After this realization, Tartakovsky-Gilels decided to invest more time in her personal and spiritual growth. Initially, she studied the Torah without the intention of becoming more observant, but rather learning for the sake of understanding the Jewish people’s history. “I think you can’t have Zionism without understanding Jewish tradition or Jewish history, because so much of it is intertwined,” she said. “Anti-Semitism came from Jewish people being othered for their traditions, so you need to understand what it means to be Jewish before you can truly be a Zionist.”
Like Dubov, Tartakovsky-Gilels began studying with rabbis at Aish HaTorah. As she began to learn more, she found that many aspects of Judaism enhanced her life, and slowly began to infuse more of the Torah’s teachings into her lifestyle — she stopped working on Saturdays, started to dress more modestly and attending shul on a regular basis. “In terms of my outlook and how I lead my daily life, there is definitely a huge focus on Torah and Judaism,” she said. “But I really want to keep my Russian roots alive. I think you can have a healthy balance of both — for me, I don’t think it’s one of the other, you can absolutely have synergy with both.”
Tartakovsky-Gilels also became a lot more involved in the Jewish community, and found that despite her different upbringing, people were very accepting and supportive of her. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a family, regardless of what their upbringing was, that made feel like an outcast,” she said. “There’s a lot of understanding, and people were amazed to hear my story. Now, I have the pleasure of doing that for other students who are just starting off and looking for a place where they feel like they’re welcome.”
In many ways, Dubov and Tartakovsky-Gilels echo sentiments that many in the Russian-speaking community can relate to. People crave a sense of community and belonging, and some use their commitment to religion as a means of achieving this.
However, both Dubov and Tartakovsky-Gilels had some negative reactions from the people around them when they began this process of becoming more religious. They have lost friends, but they have also strengthened connections with others, especially with their families. “I think one of the biggest breakthrough moments was having my mother ask me how to light candles and starting to light candles for Shabbat, starting to host people on Friday nights, and attending shul on her own accord,” said Tartakovsky-Gilels. “Seeing my family transform made me realize there is something that I am doing right.”
Nevertheless, the two young women intend to raise their future families in observant Jewish households, while maintaining a strong connection to their Russian identity. “I have the privilege of being raised in Canada and we have the freedom to practise or to not practise,” said Dubov. “It’s all a choice that you get to make, whereas that choice was already made for people in the Soviet Union.”