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Jews of the former USSR'Without a synagogue it's like you're at sea with no anchor'

Tel Aviv’s 1st Russian-speaking congregation says ‘da’ to young progressives

Cutting-edge and open-minded, Jewish Point challenges clichés that Israelis from former Soviet states don’t embrace spirituality, as it celebrates its ribbon cutting this week

  • Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation's new synagogue building in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)
    Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation's new synagogue building in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)
  • A man stands outside the Jewish Point congregation's new synagogue building, August 26, 2021. (Courtesy)
    A man stands outside the Jewish Point congregation's new synagogue building, August 26, 2021. (Courtesy)
  • A young boy learns how to make homemade candles for Rosh Hashanah at the grand opening of Jewish Point's synagogue in Tel Aviv, August 26, 2021. It is the city's first congregation geared specifically towards Russian speakers. (Courtesy)
    A young boy learns how to make homemade candles for Rosh Hashanah at the grand opening of Jewish Point's synagogue in Tel Aviv, August 26, 2021. It is the city's first congregation geared specifically towards Russian speakers. (Courtesy)
  • Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky, center, with his parents at the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation's new synagogue building in Tel Aviv. It is the city's first synagogue geared specifically towards Russian speakers. (Courtesy)
    Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky, center, with his parents at the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation's new synagogue building in Tel Aviv. It is the city's first synagogue geared specifically towards Russian speakers. (Courtesy)
  • Guests gather at the red carpet cocktail hour for the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation's new synagogue building in Tel Aviv, August 26, 2021. (Courtesy)
    Guests gather at the red carpet cocktail hour for the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation's new synagogue building in Tel Aviv, August 26, 2021. (Courtesy)
  • Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky addresses guests at the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation's new synagogue building in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)
    Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky addresses guests at the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation's new synagogue building in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)

It was an unlikely setting for a synagogue opening. Upward of 100 people milled around sipping cocktails in Tel Aviv’s swanky Sarona neighborhood on August 26 as a saxophonist serenaded them with the reedy tones of smooth jazz. A red carpet led up to the synagogue building, which was erected in the early 20th century in the former German Templer colony.

Passersby were surprised to see the glitzy event spilling out onto the street. They were even more surprised to discover they were witnessing a synagogue dedication.

There was plenty of reason to celebrate. Four years ago in May 2017, Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky, the leader of this new flock, was ordered to leave Russia by a Moscow district court. Now, the Chabad rabbi was inaugurating Tel Aviv’s first synagogue geared specifically toward Russian speakers.

Israel is home to an estimated 1.2 million citizens who immigrated from former Soviet states; Russian President Vladimir Putin estimated that number to be closer to 2 million. The Jewish state has also seen a strong resurgence in immigration from Russian-speaking countries in recent years, with many arrivals citing Putin’s authoritarianism as their reason for moving to Israel.

Khersonsky was ostensibly ousted from Russia for “setting up a for-profit foreign entity” without permission — a charge he denies, saying that he acted as a consultant on religious matters for existing Jewish institutions. And while the court called Khersonsky a national security threat, he believes the true reason he was told to leave may be related to his opinions about Russia’s changing political landscape following its annexation of the Crimea in 2014.

Following his expulsion from Russia, Khersonsky, an Israeli citizen, moved to Tel Aviv and formed a non-denominational Russian-speaking religious community under his Orthodox leadership called Jewish Point.

No faith in old clichés

Ever since the first post-Soviet wave of immigration to Israel in the 1990s, there has been a perception in the Jewish state that people from the former Soviet Union are non-Jewish, non-religious or anti-religion. This view persists, though a new generation of Russian speakers who grew up after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and who were raised with a different attitude toward religion, have made their way to Israel in great numbers.

The arrival of these young people is reflected in the growth of Russian-speaking Jewish communities in Israel. For example, three Orthodox Russian-speaking Jewish congregations have popped up in Jerusalem over the last decade — in the neighborhoods of Ramot and Neve Yaakov, and in the Nahalat Yaakov synagogue in the city center.

The founding of a Russian-speaking synagogue in Tel Aviv’s Sarona neighborhood, the beating heart of secular Israel, is a sign that the community is breaking out of the traditional religious enclaves. It also reflects the expectation that young Russian-speaking professionals need not live in Jerusalem to have a place to pray when the spirit moves them.

Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation’s new synagogue building in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)

“People need [to belong to a] synagogue,” said Khersonsky. “Jewish education, networks and events are perfect — but if you don’t have a synagogue, it’s like you’re in a seething sea without an anchor. For example, there are many Russians who call themselves secular, but at the same time, they need someplace where they can come on Yom Kippur, Passover, Shabbat. These people need a light synagogue, a home where they are awaited and smiled, where they are not scolded for their sins.”

According to historian Konstantin Bondar, the idea of a Russian synagogue in fashionable Sarona “until recently, seemed incredible.”

“I don’t think the Russian synagogue in Tel Aviv will dispel the myth that the Russians in Israel are anti-religious,” said Bondar, who came to celebrate the synagogue opening. “But it can give Judaism, the Jewish way of life, a super modern image based on the latest trends. The new generation doesn’t want to see dusty bookshelves. Young Russians want to see a rabbi who knows contemporary music, dresses stylishly and at the same time remains an expert in sacred texts.”

Hi-tech and mighty

The head of Jewish Point fits that description perfectly. Khersonsky speaks the language of technology and internet memes, supports Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and runs to keep fit.

He also specializes in developing Jewish educational tools using social media and the internet. Today he is developing an artificial intelligence platform that will answer questions that congregations typically ask of clergy. He jokingly calls this project “the salvation of the Jewish people.”

Khersonsky launched a crowdfunding campaign to rent “a small house in Sarona” in January of this year. During the coronavirus pandemic, his community gathered online. Life under a series of lockdowns taught Khersonsky and his team to optimize their digital presence, which resulted in a significant audience increase: 50,000 unique users from around the globe accessed their content each month.

This loyal community raised 20 percent of Khersonsky’s crowdfunding goal in just 24 hours. In July, the rabbi announced the campaign’s end — 748 people had raised NIS 700,000 ($218,000) to rent and maintain the synagogue for the Russian-Jewish community.

Guests gather at the red carpet cocktail hour for the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation’s new synagogue building in Tel Aviv, August 26, 2021. (Courtesy)

Khersonsky said his community’s NIS 1 million ($312,000) annual budget is raised almost exclusively through crowdfunding donations from Russian-speaking Israelis and Jews from the global Diaspora. The average gift is NIS 946 ($295); the median is NIS 200 ($62).

“I am proud that our project was not funded by money from wealthy sponsors,” Khersonsky said. “Not because it’s not good or not appreciated. But because when everyone contributes their hundred shekels, we get genuine social cooperation. This is a real community.”

From the Old Country to the new

Khersonsky was born to a Jewish family in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk. In 1991, at the age of 13, he immigrated to Israel with his parents. He graduated from a religious high school in the central Israeli town of Kfar Chabad, then studied at a rabbinical seminary in New York.

In 2002, Khersonsky was made rabbi of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. He was a pioneer of the Russian-language Jewish web presence, and served as the first online rabbi of Jewish.ru, a global Jewish center for Russian speakers. In 2008, he helped found a Jewish community called Among Friends in Moscow. This community became well-known for attracting a young crowd largely drawn from the business and tech communities.

Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky, center, with his parents at the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation’s new synagogue building in Tel Aviv. It is the city’s first synagogue geared specifically towards Russian speakers. (Courtesy)

Many of Jewish Point’s members know Khersonsky from Moscow.

“The core of our community is people who moved to Israel over the past five years,” Khersonsky said. “In Russia, they went to a Jewish kindergarten, a Jewish school, or a Jewish community center. Sometimes I realize that it was I who taught them Torah in that kindergarten or in that community center. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Spirituality tailored to accommodate constituents

Russian-speaking youth who immigrated to Israel to realize their creative or business visions are the foundation of Jewish Point. Many of them, such as 26-year-old Elina Levina, believe that Israel’s division into religious and secular groups has long been outdated.

“If there are Jews, then there must be a synagogue,” said Levina. “Dividing Jews into secular and religious is wrong.”

“I live in Jerusalem, and I understand very well how important it is to have a Russian-speaking religious community in order to understand what Judaism is in a language close to you,” she said. “For Tel Aviv, the presence of such a community is even more relevant, as most young immigrants from Russia prefer to live in the center of Israel, in Tel Aviv or nearby.”

Khersonsky envisions Jewish Point as an embassy for Russian-Jewish people in Tel-Aviv. In addition to the traditional synagogue prayers, Sabbath meals, and Torah studies, the synagogue will host eclectic events such as wine tastings with an included lesson on kosher, or master classes on making candles.

Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky addresses guests at the grand opening of the Jewish Point congregation’s new synagogue building in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)

“We are the YouTube of Russian-Jewish people, and the synagogue in Sarona is a platform where any person who is not at war with God or Judaism can realize their project or idea,” Khersonsky said.

The rabbi emphasizes the openness of his community. Indeed, there are LGBT rights activists and feminists among the Jewish Point constituency.

“Our synagogue is open to everyone, because we think it’s okay to disagree,” said Khersonsky. “I believe that Judaism, like a good outfit, should be tailored to suit the client. It must take into account the peculiarities of your figure, your soul. Forbidding is easy, but the real power is to look for individual options that are permissive, not prohibitive.”

Openness to ideas and opinions is the сoncept, said Khersonsky, which can lead people to the light of Judaism and God.

“One might say that we work like a Russian doll in reverse,” Khersonsky explained. “First, a person will come to us for a master class or a lecture, then he will want to work in the coworking space, and then he will want to stay for Shabbat.”

A young boy learns how to make homemade candles for Rosh Hashanah at the grand opening of Jewish Point’s synagogue in Tel Aviv, August 26, 2021. It is the city’s first congregation geared specifically towards Russian speakers. (Courtesy)

The opening ceremony followed a similar pattern. After soft music with cocktails and the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the guests, observing COVID restrictions, went inside the synagogue, where they listened to a lecture about Tel Aviv synagogues, took part in a lesson on making craft candles for Rosh Hashanah, and played a trivia game. In the end, there was an evening prayer service.

“The message that I want to convey to the people who come to our synagogue may sound paradoxical,” the rabbi said. “You receive by giving. It means you invest and get investment from all other members of the community. That is why, when I invite people to synagogue, I ask them to become more prosperous — in every sense of the word. I invite people to be surprised. To be surprised and say, ‘It was fantastic.'”

“In the end,” Khersovsky said, “a synagogue is a home for smiles. Sometimes there may not be a prayer quorum, but there must always be smiles.”

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