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Many Soviets lost their connection to Judaism, but that’s been changing

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Russian immigrants in the late 1970s. (Jewish immigrant aid services of Toronto collection. Ontario Jewish Archives. Blankenstein family heritage centre)

For many Jewish people, living in the U.S.S.R. meant that their Judaism had to take a back seat. As a result, 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 Europe, many Russian-speaking Jews began to reconnect to their roots and learn more about the religion that had been robbed from them. Some younger Russian-speaking Jews, the millennials and gen-Zs, who were raised outside of the Soviet Union, are now becoming more religious.

According to Rabbi Avroham Zaltzman, the director of the Jewish-Russian Community Centre’s (JRCC) South Richmond Hill and Maple branch, located north of Toronto, younger people are typically more motivated to go through the process of becoming religiously observant, as they are more flexible and often more idealistic.

Many of the families that go to Rabbi Zaltzman’s synagogue are Russian-speaking and, over the last 10 years, his synagogue has hosted bar mitzvahs for approximately 150 youths. He said a few of them made changes in their lives – some keep Shabbat, others put on tefillin every day – but none have “made the entire trip” and ended up in a yeshivah. He has also witnessed several families who have become observant, so that their kids would be able to attend Jewish day schools and get a traditional Jewish education.

According to Rabbi Zaltzman, Russian-speaking Jews are often very sceptical and “don’t let themselves be fooled,” but once they have a religious epiphany, many are drawn to a more observant lifestyle.

For M. Dubov, 21, this process started when she visited 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 her own.

“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 north Toronto, Dubov was raised by a single mother who immigrated to Canada from Lithuania. Dubov’s first real exposure to the Jewish community, outside of her own friend group, was at the J Academy Camp, which caters to 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.”

But it wasn’t until 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 frequented the local Chabad.

Later on, she went to Israel and found herself in a youth hostel for Orthodox Jewish women 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.”

Dubov is now a student at Ryerson University in Toronto 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 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,” she said. “Through Hillel, I really started to build that community.”

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Rabbi Zaltzman believes that, “Today’s generation is not what it was two or three generations ago, they’re not idealistic, but still young people have ideals. If a young person cares about ideals, they’re much more willing to go the distance for it.”

Ideals were what motivated Jake Reznik to learn more about his Jewish heritage. Growing up in Vancouver, Reznik, 21, always knew he was Jewish, but for much of his life, it did not mean much to him. His parents, who came from Russia and Belarus, did not celebrate the holidays, keep Shabbat or attend any Jewish institutions, largely due to their own atheistic upbringing.

Throughout high school, Reznik started learning about Israel. When he began studying at the University of British Columbia (UBC), he become more involved in the Jewish community on campus, attending Hillel and Chabad events. As he made more Jewish friends and became increasingly integrated into the community, he started to learn more about Jewish religious traditions and customs.

Now, having just graduated, he is working to become more observant by trying to keep kosher, learning Hebrew and attempting to observe Shabbat. His goal is to attend synagogue services once a week and have a “big Jewish family.”

“I learned so much in no time, because I didn’t go to Jewish school, we didn’t really talk about it in my family,” he said. “Now I understand a little bit more, which is a small victory.”  He said much of his connection to Judaism came as a reaction to all the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric that he was exposed to in university. Tired of seeing so many apathetic Jewish students, Reznik decided to take action – he participated in a number of rallies and even served as the acting president of the Israel club on campus in his fourth year.

“For me, one of the most egregious things that people do is lie about Jewish history and Jewish ancestry, and specifically Israel,” said Reznik. “The anti-Semitism that I observed wasn’t necessarily just blind hatred of the Jews or Israel, but little half-truths or lies that would be permeated by blatantly anti-Israel clubs and resource groups that exist on campus.”

A turning point for Reznik came in 2017, when the UBC student union held a referendum on BDS. A lot of anti-Semitism exploded on campus and there were many events that spread anti-Israel propaganda.

In one session Reznik was “shocked at the vitriolic hate that existed in the small room of 60 people.” Israelis were accused of sending death squads to kill Palestinian civilians, while others praised the intifada and read out the names of all the Palestinians who were killed in the 2014 conflict in Gaza. Some speakers also stated that there is no relationship between Judaism and Zionism, that Jews belong in Europe and that pro-Israel students on campus are putting others in danger.

That week led to a lot of solidarity amongst Jewish students. “Just seeing the blatant and open anti-Semitism that existed, it finally brought what I was seeing on Facebook, at other universities, by other activists in other places – it put it in front of me for the first time and that was a very big moment for me,” said Reznik. “We can live in relative comfort right now, but nothing is guaranteed, nothing is permanent and we always have to fight for the existence of our future.”

His activism, combined with his increased involvement in Jewish events on campus and devotion to Israel, is ultimately what led him to pursue a lifestyle that is more Jewish than that of his parents.

“I see a lot of apathetic, non-involved Jews on campus and if I don’t stand up to those anti-Israel clubs, who else is it going to be? We don’t have the luxury of relying on other people, because we’re so small – somebody has to do it,” he said.

Rabbi Zaltzman agrees. “A young person gets exposed to something, and if they really care, they will want to explore it. Many people have the nature of being inquisitive, and if you’re inquisitive, you hear about something as weird as putting on tefillin every day and you ask questions.… That’s what I would think drives a young person to take on that change in their lives.”

Yesy Tartakovsky-Gilels

It was this sort of inquisitiveness that led Yesy Tartakovsky-Gilels, a student at the University of Toronto, down the path toward a more observant lifestyle. Born in Netanya, Israel, she grew up in a Russian-speaking 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.

Her process of becoming more observant started two years ago, when she got involved in pro-Israel movements on campus. It was on a Hasbara Fellowship trip to Israel 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,” she said. “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 with the intention of learning more about Jewish history, rather than becoming more observant.

“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 started studying at Aish HaTorah. As she began to learn more, she found that many aspects of Judaism enhanced her life. She slowly began to infuse more of the Torah’s teachings into her lifestyle – she stopped working on Saturdays, started to dress more modestly and began 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 or the other, you can absolutely have synergy with both.”

Tartakovsky-Gilels also got 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 me feel like an outcast,” she said. “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.”

Dubov and Tartakovsky-Gilels have had some negative reactions from the people around them when they began this process. They have lost some friends, but have also strengthened their connections with others, including 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.”

However, Reznik’s family is not particularly supportive of his interest in Judaism, as they believe he sometimes takes things too far. “They always caution me and tell me to be mindful and to always question the things that I do,” said Reznik. “I don’t plan to go to a yeshivah – my mom would lose it – it’s crossing some kind of line that exists.”

Nevertheless, the three intend to raise their future families in Jewish households, while maintaining a strong connection to their Russian identities.

“I have the privilege of being raised in Canada and we have the freedom to practise or not to 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.”

 

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