by Yehudis Litvak.
My Soviet education was relentlessly atheist. I still remember my first grade teacher talking to us about religion.
“Raise your hand if your grandparents sometimes take you to church,” she said.
Several children raised their hands. Being Jewish, I had never been to church, so I didn’t. The word “synagogue” was not even in my vocabulary. The teacher urged the ones who had raised their hands to stop going. She told us that G-d didn’t exist, that He was invented by primitive people who did not have science to guide them, and that all forms of worship were no longer necessary in the progressive Soviet society that was so close the ideals of communism.
I was fortunate. The Soviet Union collapsed when I was a teenager, and I was able to attend a newly opened Jewish school and learn about my heritage. But many Jews who grew up in the former Soviet Union did not have this opportunity. And while my grandparents’ generation still remembered some mitzvos and traditions they grew up with, my parents’ generation was left with barely any trace of Judaism.
As a Russian-speaking religious Jew I’ve always felt an obligation to reach out to those Russian Jews who were less fortunate than me and who remained mostly ignorant of the beauty of their Jewish heritage. Twelve years ago, when my family moved to Los Angeles, I looked for ways to get involved in local Russian Jewish outreach. Then I met Moshe and Esther Davidoff who are passionate about bringing Russian Jews closer to Torah. They head Simxa Company, an educational organization for Russian-speaking Jews, and they organize annual Shabbatons where Russian Jews are able to connect and learn from other Russian-speaking Jews. I immediately offered to help, and I have been involved with Simxa Shabbatons ever since.
Simxa Shabbatons are held over the Thanksgiving weekend. This year’s Shabbaton was the fourteenth. Over three hundred people attended. The attendees were of all ages and stages in life, from young children to great-grandparents. They came from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, as well as Seattle, Chicago, and even Toronto. They ranged from unaffiliated to fully observant, with everything in between. But they shared a common background. Everyone came together to learn and grow, and one’s level of observance at that point in time did not truly matter.
The lecture rooms were full to capacity as the speakers taught and inspired the audience. This year’s Russian speaking lecturer was Rabbi Shimon Grilius, a well-known Soviet dissident who had spent five years in Soviet labor camps due to participation in the Jewish underground movement and who had become observant there. After his release, Rabbi Grilius moved to Israel, where he founded the first yeshiva for Russian-speaking Jews. Rabbi Grilius continues teaching all over the world. Simxa Shabbaton attendees had the privilege to learn from Rabbi Grilius over the weekend. His lectures were especially popular, perhaps because he teaches in Russian, providing a rare opportunity for the attendees to hear a world-renowned Torah teacher in their native language.
The lectures in English also drew large audiences. Chana Weisberg, a best-selling author and a sought-after speaker, shared a feminine perspective on Judaism, which elicited many questions and sparked lively discussions. Rabbi Sholom Rodal, of Chabad of Mount Olympus, touched on several controversial topics. His lectures were popular as well. Rabbi Rodal also led a bonfire for children on motzaei Shabbos, with songs and stories, and of course, roasted marshmallows.
Rabbi Yaakov Efraim Parisi brought a special energy to the Shabbaton with his lively l’chaims and many personal stories encouraging the attendees to remain strong in their Judaism even when dealing with the secular world. Rabbi Parisi is a former Christian pastor who began discovering discrepancies in Christian doctrines and eventually converted to Judaism. He shared his fascinating story with the audience, injecting his unique sense of humor and inspiring the listeners with his commitment to the truth.
Many Shabbaton attendees felt that they learned a lot from the speakers. “Their speeches were very educational and lively,” says Zhanna Kimelblat from Los Angeles. “In addition, another lecturer, Lifsha [Weissman], spent additional time with me after the lecture to clarify certain points in the siddur. That one on one mentoring was priceless.” Another attendee, Michael Sigal from Palos Verdes, says that the Shabbaton was a “great experience, fantastic learning.” Anna Levi, a psychologist from the San Fernando Valley, says, “It’s a great vacation because I am free to attend lectures with amazing speakers that give me a spiritual lift for the whole year, while my children are excited about enriching children’s activities and a full children’s program for all four days of the Shabbaton!”
Simxa Shabbatons provide baby-sitting and a fun-filled children’s program. The girls’ program this year was directed by Ms. Tzippy Kin and run by students of the Bais Yaakov of Los Angeles, and the boys’ program was directed by Rabbi Yisroel Majeski and Rabbi Dovid Morris. The programs included such activities as sports, a harbor cruise, a moon bounce, an animal show for younger children, a duct tape activity for older girls, and a Bas Mitzvah celebration for one of the attendees. “The children’s program was well organized, the girls were exceptional, very qualified,” says Jessica Yuz, a mother of a two-year-old girl.
Another aspect of the Shabbaton that keeps the attendees coming back year after year is the opportunity to connect with other Russian Jews and inspire and encourage each other as they learn more about Judaism. “We have first attended 10 years ago,” says Anna Levi, “and have been coming every year because we cannot miss reconnecting with wonderful families that have become our friends and their children – our children’s friends!” Jessica Yuz adds, “We get to see people from a similar background learning and growing so much more every year, and see their kids growing. We are always happy to see each other. For personal reasons, we weren’t able to come for two years. We felt so sad when we realized how much we missed.”
It is especially beautiful to see extended families get together at the Shabbaton. Russian Jews have close family ties, and often several generations attend the Shabbaton together. This year was particularly special for me because my mother and my sister and brother-in-law attended the Simxa Shabbaton for the first time. It was wonderful to spend the Shabbaton together as a family, and it was especially meaningful to attend a lecture together with my mother and my teenage daughter – three generations learning Torah together. To me, this is a powerful proof that the Soviet regime had completely failed in its attempt to eradicate religion. Not only did the younger generation discover Judaism, but even my parents’ generation, raised in the thick of Soviet propaganda, are no longer limited to their Soviet education. The light of Torah has reached us all.