A Jew in St. Petersburg
The last time I’d been in St. Petersburg it was still called Leningrad. Much has changed, of course, yet not everything. Same snow. Same cold. Same expansive skies and vast territory.
The Jewish community has changed. Now they live in freedom. Many have moved to Israel or America. I was there for less than 24 hours as part of a speaking tour of European cities. I teach (mostly on Jewish pride, Raising Kids to LOVE being Jewish and other topics) but I also learn. Several interesting lessons come to mind.
#1: The lady running the little hotel I was staying at was very sweet. At 6 am, while I was waiting for my taxi to take me to the airport, I asked if she could let me into the breakfast area a little early (it opened at 8), motioning with my hands that I wanted to drink some tea. She smiled and happily did so…and returned with ham and cheese. I thanked her profusely, didn’t even try explaining (I don’t speak Russian anyway) and realized that despite my kippa, she simply had no idea that I wouldn’t be able to eat her breakfast. How many people on the planet have actually met a Jew?
#2: I spoke to a mixed group of young and older people. During the talk, I noticed that the people in the audience looked like me. Not exactly like me, of course, but the audience was filled with Russian Jews and if you go back a few generations, I’m a Russian Jew as well (mostly). My ancestors left for America and theirs stayed and lived through Communism. The roles could have easily been switched. There but for the grace of G-d go I … As one student said, I was one of the lucky ones. What an awesome obligation we have to those who stayed behind.
#3: St. Petersburg is not a small community by Western standards – perhaps 150,000 Jews! – but Communism’s effect is that the vast majority of those Jews are not connected to their heritage. They were denied a Jewish education, brainwashed against religion, and sometimes don’t even admit their Jewishness. For Jews who want their families to stay Jewish, I was told, the community does not feel particularly strong or large. The perennial question in smaller Jewish communities is, “Should I stay or should I go?” and it came up in every conversation I had with a young Jew. Most had friends and relatives in Israel. Some in America. For many of them, craving a stronger Jewish life, and a ‘step-up’ in standard of living, moving seems to make sense. Parents often encourage their kids to leave, despite their personal desire that the kids should stay. Not an easy situation. Furthermore, when the educated and motivated leave….what happens to the remaining community? Jewish communities on the move. A tough situation, and one we have known too well for thousands of years.
#4: The Rabbis I met run an impressive program called STARS which is having an amazing effect – students are given a stipend to spend a number of hours learning about Judaism instead of taking a part-time job. Many of these students barely knew they were Jewish before the program. Most are profoundly affected by regaining a connection to their heritage, and do their best to raise Jewish families. Some move to Israel. Supporting Jewish students’ Jewish education around the world is working wonders. The future of our people depends on it.
Doron Kornbluth is an internationally acclaimed speaker, bestselling author and “Jewish Inspiration” tour guide of Israel. Spread the word about Doron’s free newsletter. Sign up at www.doronkornbluth.com. Contact Doron at firstname.lastname@example.org.