'It’s an important bridge'

Russian speakers relish a user-friendly Shavuot, and its pro-conversion message

An organization that helps build communities of newcomers from former Soviet countries has adapted the Jewish holiday’s all-night study tradition

Russian speakers perform havdala, a ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat, in Israel. (Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli)
Russian speakers perform havdala, a ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat, in Israel. (Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli)

Just months after immigrating to Israel from Ukraine, Viktoria Dripan already passed with flying colors the final exam of her first Hebrew language course.

But her language skills still don’t allow her to participate in one of the all-night Torah study sessions that take place in thousands of Israeli synagogues on the holiday of Shavuot, which this year will begin on Thursday.

However, she won’t be left out of that holiday study tradition, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. She and hundreds of other Russian-speaking newcomers to Israel are attending a series of Shavuot learning events in Russian, which are made for people with a rudimentary level of familiarity with Judaism.

The events are organized manually by a nonprofit called Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli for Israelis from Russian-speaking countries. It’s part of a robust package of community-building initiatives for the demographic, which belongs to one of Israel’s most productive and best-integrated waves of immigration despite lingering challenges in the status of many of its members within institutionalized Judaism.

On Wednesday night, Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli — Hebrew for “Israeli Friday and Shabbat” — hosted a pre-holiday online lectures series featuring 16 educators as well as Knesset members, rabbis and academics. The six-hour program, which Dripan, 24, followed, comprised dozens of 20-minute sessions styled after the TED Talk model and the Limmud Jewish learning conference model.

On the holiday itself, Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli’s Haifa branch — the organization has five chapters nationwide — is hosting a physical Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the Hebrew-language name of the Shavuot all-nighter. Whereas many synagogues in Israel focus during the Tikkun on traditional texts, like the Talmud, Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli also features seminars on such topics as Jewish history.

Ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover, participants in Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli rehearse the holiday’s traditional seder dinner in Bat Yam, 2023. (Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli)

This is more accessible than the Talmud to Dripan, who, like many of the newcomers from the former Soviet Union, is not Jewish according to Halacha, Jewish Orthodox law. Dripan, an English teacher who was born in the war-torn city of Donetsk in Ukraine and who now lives with her parents and brother in an apartment in Be’er Sheba, says she may undergo a conversion to Judaism. Right now, though, she has more pressing issues like finding work and perfecting her Hebrew.

“It was very difficult to be a part of a community,” Dripan told The Times of Israel. “During the first six months after we arrived last year in August, I felt depressed, even. But then I started finding friends, found Shishi Shabat Yisraeli and it really helped me emotionally.”

Shishi Shabat Yisraeli activities, which have about 15,000 participants nationwide, include weekend excursions, field trips, and lectures but also socializing at participants’ homes playing board games.

Naomi Yekelchik, a 33-year-old new mom from Haifa, was hungry for a community when she came to Israel nine years ago from Moldova. Only her father is Jewish, meaning she had to convert to Judaism to be considered Jewish in Israel, and therefore eligible to get married in Israel, which does not offer the option of a civil marriage.

She couldn’t join a synagogue before converting, which takes months and sometimes years. And she no longer had the Jewish cultural community to which she belonged in Moldova, she said. It left her feeling isolated during her first few months in Israel.

Immigrants from former Soviet countries attend a challah baking seminary in Israel in 2023. (Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli)

Her first Jewish community event in Israel nine years ago was a Shavuot lecture series organized by Shishi Shabat Yisraeli, said Yekelchik, a teacher who has a master’s degree in Jewish studies. She deepened her connection with the religion, by visiting holy sites in Jerusalem, where she settled after moving to Israel.

“But a large part of Judaism is being part of a community, and I was missing that,” she said. On Shavuot of 2014, she found it in a study session and a Tikkun that Shishi Shabat Yisraeli organized in Jerusalem, she said. She decided during that session that she would change her name from Katia to Naomi, a reference to Shavuot. Conversion is central to the holiday’s story, in which a woman named Naomi converts Ruth the Moabite to Judaism.

Naomi Yekelchik attends a Shishi Shabat Yisraeli seminar at the Dead Sea. (Courtesy of Yekelchik)

“Shishi Shabat Yisraeli events for Shavuot are a convenient stepping stone because the holiday can be daunting,” Yekelchik said. By adjusting the studies for Russian speakers with only basic knowledge of Judaism, “it allows them to participate in an important Jewish date that’s relevant to many from that group,” Yekelchik said. “It’s an important bridge.”

New immigrants from Russian-speaking countries raise toast during a community-building activity in Israel.
(Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli)

Yekelchik cherishes the time that she spent preparing for an Orthodox conversion, She says she has respect and appreciation for the rabbinical judges who oversaw her conversion.

Yet issues of conversion and Judaism remain a painful subject for many immigrants who came to Israel after the 1990 collapse of the former Soviet Union. Those immigrants and their descendants make up the bulk of about 510,000 Israelis who are defined by the government as “without religion” and can therefore not get married in Israel because the Chief Rabbinate does not consider them to be Jewish.

As hardliners increasingly gained control of the Rabbinate and the state’s Conversion Authority, the status of many Russian-speaking Israelis became a source of friction and frustration for thousands of converts and conversion applicants who feel unwelcome and at times mistreated by conversion authorities.

This issue, as well as widespread negative stereotypes about Russian speakers, has led many to feel some estrangement from Israeli society. But those problems pale in comparison to what many Israelis, including former deputy prime minister Avigdor Liberman – himself an immigrant from Moldova – consider one of Israel’s most successful immigration waves ever.

To many former Soviet Jews, the Iron Curtain’s collapse meant they would be free to practice their Judaism in a part of the world more conducive to it. Others merely used their Jewish ancestry to escape the societal upheaval and penury that followed Communism’s fall.

All were welcome in Israel, whose gross domestic product per capita in 1990 was about half of that of Western European nations. The Jewish state received about a million Russian speakers in the space of a decade, many of them penniless and lacking the necessary language skills. It created enormous challenges for the housing, education and welfare sectors, as well as societal and religious tensions.

Russian-speaking recent immigrants to Israel tour Shomron Regional Council in 2023. (Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli)

But the investment paid off for Israel, where hundreds of thousands of Soviet-educated, skilled, and hardworking people became part of the cutting-edge of science, medicine, high-tech and the arts. Three decades later, Israel’s GDP per capita equals and in some cases surpasses that of Western European nations.

Against this backdrop, later waves of Russian-speaking immigrants – the largest one after the 1990s is occurring now, with at least 60,000 of them who came to Israel since the war broke out last year between Russia and Ukraine – found a country with many more resources, best practices and Russian-speakers to greet them.

Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli was established in 2010 as a national educational initiative, at around the same time as a few other organizations geared toward integrating Russian speakers into Jewish and Israeli culture, including Limmud FSU and Masa FSU. Some organizations, like the One Million Lobby, are advocacy groups critical of institutionalized Judaism in Israel and the absence of a separation between religion and state.

Participants of the Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli organization for Russian-speaking Israelis tour the Negev Desert in Israel in 2022. (Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli)

But many Russian-speaking Israelis are open to deepening their connection with Judaism, according to Linda Pardes Friedburg, the founding director of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli, which she says creates warm communities for young newcomers, and provides them with quality Jewish and Israeli cultural content.

“It’s a curious thing: Although Russian-speaking immigrants come from a Soviet background, where religion was anathema, many of them are more open to Jewish wisdom and tradition than native Israelis, who are sometimes allergic to the subject because of how politicized religion has become in Israel,” said Pardes Friedburg, who was born in New Jersey and immigrated to Israel in 1990.

Linda Pardes Friedburg sings at a Havdala ceremony in Almog, an Israeli kibbutz near the Dead Sea. (Courtesy of Pardes Friedburg)

A former activist in the movement to free Soviet Jewry who taught herself Russian, she landed at Ben Gurion Airport at the same time as about 400 newcomers from the FSU, “who were sleeping on their suitcases as we waited to get our aliyah certificates,” she said, using the Hebrew-language term for immigrating to Israel under its law of return for Jews and their relatives.

She feels fortunate to be living through this remarkable, historical period of the Russian-speaking aliyah, Pardes Friedburg said, “to experience this unbelievably resilient and creative contingent of the Jewish People, and to be a part of their and our phenomenal success story.”

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