It may seem counterintuitive for a Soviet-born American expat to direct a Jewish cultural center in Jerusalem catering mostly to Israelis. But then again, “Jewish culture” is difficult to pin down.
If the trick is to try to reconcile Judaism’s racial, cultural, religious and nationalistic facets — or at least make it marketable to as broad an audience as possible — it looks like David Rozenson, the CEO of Beit Avi Chai, is striking the right note.
His background has contributed to his aptitude for the job.
Rozenson’s escape to the United States when he was seven years old in 1978, like that of so many others, was grueling. His father was arrested on trumped-up charges after filing an application to leave the Soviet Union, and had no contact with his wife or children for a year. Upon his sudden release, the family was given three weeks to pack up and go, leaving most of their belongings behind.
When the family arrived at their new home in Cincinnati, Ohio, the sense of “otherness” was immediate.
“We looked different, we dressed differently. I was the Russian boy in an American class,” Rozenson says. “But eventually, I became an American.”
‘I was the Russian boy in an American class. But eventually, I became an American’
“Still, on the inside, you always feel a little bit like an outsider,” he says. “You get invited to people’s homes, where it’s an established Jewish community, probably third generation after immigration. They lived in big homes, we lived in a tiny apartment, I slept in the living room — you know, it’s the immigrant experience.
“I don’t know whether or not that helped me with my approach today. I think what really did it for me was just being close to a lot of different kinds of people,” Rozenson says.
That experience has carried over in his work at Beit Avi Chai.
“Even though it’s an institution for Israelis, I think there’s an added strength to being from the ‘outside,'” says Rozenson. “If one looks at the development of Israeli society, from Israel’s very early years, we see that this is a country of immigrants where ‘outsiders’ often played key roles in Israel’s development.”
Back into the iron
As an adult, Rozenson had every reason not to go back to the former Soviet Union.
But when the Avi Chai Foundation’s sole benefactor, philanthropist Zalman Bernstein, asked Rozenson to establish a presence in the FSU, he picked up with his wife and children and moved to Moscow, where he served as the foundation’s executive director for the next 13 years.
It was from there, far from his birthplace of Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — that Rozenson would create a cultural and intellectual network across Russia and the FSU aimed at reviving a Jewish identity that had been all but eradicated by the Iron Curtain.
At the same time, he completed a PhD in Russian literature from Moscow State University. Rozenson’s book on renowned Jewish-Russian writer Isaac Babel, “Babel: Man and Paradox,” was recognized as one of the top 10 nonfiction books published in Russia in 2015.
“I saw a community of people who were basically bereft of everything they had as a nation in the Soviet Union,” says Rozenson. “They didn’t have the opportunity to practice as Jews, they had to fight for any sort of connection, which turned out to be their peoplehood in a sense — it was their culture, the Jewish literature that was permitted at that time, the food, the music.
“There’s a music in Russia called ‘sem-sorok,’ and any time that it would be played at a wedding, people knew it was a Jewish wedding,” Rozenson says. “These things were very strong connectors that were used to keep a nation together that was so spread out among everybody else, while everyone was telling them that it was all so silly.”
Rozenson shared a vision with Bernstein of strengthening Jewish identity through culture — in all its forms — and of using any and all media as an educational springboard. It’s an approach he uses today as executive director of Beit Avi Chai, the foundation’s flagship cultural center and one of Jerusalem’s largest venues, which he has been heading since 2013.
But Rozenson also tells The Times of Israel that founder Bernstein believed — and Avi Chai’s work reflects this — that the key to maintaining Judaism through the generations is based on study.
“I think the cultural part is very important,” says Rozenson. “I grew up among people who were not religiously observant, but as I went into a Jewish educational setting, I realized that there was a part of Jewish culture that was missing. Without having our Jewish past, our Jewish heritage, even Jewish culture loses something. It just isn’t enough. It might be strong enough to keep us for a generation or two, but to keep going, we must be educated as Jews.”
‘To keep going, we must be educated as Jews’
With Rozenson’s help, the community of program leaders at Beit Avi Chai try to provide Jewish knowledge through a variety of platforms.
“We try to use every possible format: from programs that focus on Jewish study, literature, poetry, history, philosophy, music, humor, cinema, architecture, festivals that celebrate Jewish heritage and culture, to plays and activities on Jewish and Israeli themes for families and children,” he says.
It’s a viewing of collective Jewish accomplishment through a traditional lens, though not necessarily a religious one. Rozenson believes that a shared cultural history — including the religious roots — is empowering for Jews, especially in fusing their Jewish and Israeli identities, which he considers a priority.
“We take it as a given that there is great depth and value in Jewish study, there is beauty in Jewish life, that we as a people are tethered to our past, that Israel, no matter how difficult or challenging, is an essential part of our identity,” he says.
“And though we continue to develop as a people and a nation, struggling with all of today’s difficulties and challenges, greater knowledge of our heritage will strengthen our commitment to our people and our land.”
But religious observance is not one of the foundation’s imperatives. In fact, it isn’t even on the radar.
‘It’s not a question of whether somebody is religiously observant, or how they’re religiously observant’
“It’s not a question of whether somebody is religiously observant, or how they’re religiously observant. It’s just that a person’s identity can be strengthened by who a person is, and a Jewish person has all of these treasure chests that sometimes they’re unaware of in terms of study, in terms of where we come from, in terms of our history and our literature,” Rozenson says.
“The point of interest for us is whether our programs are filled with content, whether the format is engaging, whether the topic is presented in a manner that resonates with the wide and diverse Israeli public.”
Part of Rozenson’s reason for wanting to introduce the not-yet-interested to a deeper intellectual study of the culture is that he’d like to see a more democratic Judaism here.
“I find that in Israel there’s a very fascinating form of Judaism that’s unknown in America and unknown in Russia,” Rozenson says.
‘Every Israeli should have a seat at the table’
“There are many people here that are proud of their Judaism, identify as Jews, Israelis, have certain cultural traditions that they keep, and at the same time, serious Jewish study and anything beyond perhaps Israeli literature isn’t of interest,” he says.
“It is as if Judaism is shaped by only one segment of Israeli society, as if it is exclusively their territory, and all others are outsiders, rare visitors. Every Israeli should have a seat at the table and should know that it is theirs. Judaism isn’t about being territorial, Judaism is about embracing Jews,” he says.
The show must go on
Built by renowned architect Ada Karmi, the Beit Avi Chai building straddles the downtown area and Rehavia, and is close to the hip, artistic neighborhood of Nahlaot. Rozenson says the location makes the center accessible to residents across a variety of demographics throughout the city.
“We focus on Israelis — regular Israelis,” he says. “Whether it’s through music, cinema, family and children’s programs, all kinds of ongoing study and educational programs, all kinds of sessions by people coming from different worlds — architecture, philosophy, history, literature — all our programs are trying to fit in with that overall goal of enabling people to explore their own backgrounds and identities in a way that we hope will be meaningful to them.”
‘At the end of the day, it is all about people’
“At the end of the day,” Rozenson says, “it is all about people. Beit Avi Chai is blessed to have an impressive group of content staff, different from one another, who bring a variety of ideas and perspectives yet are united in the idea and ideals of our work. This is not to say that we do not make mistakes — we do. We all recognize that there is far more work to do and we are just in the beginning stages of our efforts.”
Beit Avi Chai has been successful in establishing itself as a cultural and intellectual hub with something to offer nearly everyone.
Rozenson spearheaded a recent initiative that has seen English-language programming offered once a month for Israel’s Anglo community. Events are increasingly aimed towards younger audiences – university students, soldiers, young professionals and new families. And an expanded curriculum that includes some Shabbat programs has been conspicuously conflict-free in a city known for its hypersensitivity to anything related to the day of rest.
“For us the Shabbat programming is not about religious services. There are plenty of synagogues in Jerusalem — that market is saturated,” says Rozenson. “Beit Avi Chai’s Shabbat programming is not religious; it is an opportunity for everyone to participate in the study of Jewish life and culture.”
“Still, there is no breaking of Shabbat. Our parking lot is closed, there’s nobody talking on the phones, there’s nobody turning on or off lights,” he says.
“The kind of programs that we do here, whether it’s going to be a Friday night program for students or programs for families — the first one that we did was about the concept of chatzot [midnight] and the various implications of chatzot both in Jewish mystical thought, writings and Jewish liturgy — we thought maybe 30 people would come. Over 120 people came.”
Shabbat afternoon programming is for children and families, and after Shabbat there are youth programs.
“Two weeks ago we had a program on Friday afternoon and more than 400 people turned out,” says Rozenson.
But it hasn’t all been simple for the newcomer, who describes challenges acclimating to a new environment here as comparable to life in the US and Russia.
‘There is an incredible energy in this city and this country’
“When I moved to Jerusalem, a far, far smaller city in a smaller country, I thought the work would be easier. I was in for a surprise. This is a very complicated city and a very complicated country, where seemingly little things can be blown out of proportion, society is sensitive, opinionated, people become alienated from one another and tend to live in like-minded communities and civility can run thin,” he says.
“On the other hand, there is an incredible energy in this city and this country, and one often needs to keep an even keel not to be thrown overboard.”