National Russian Shabbaton Draws 1,000 Participants
With the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, the Jews of Soviet Russia found themselves in a dire situation. Religious life had been stifled for decades, and with rampant food and supply shortages, both their spiritual and material selves were in danger. It was then that a small group of Chabad activists stranded behind the Iron Curtain in Samarkand—today, Uzbekistan—decided that they had to do something to assist their fellow Jews. A few men banded together, and the Chamah organization was born.
“It was right after the death of Stalin in 1953,” recalls Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman, who, led by Rabbi Moshe Nissilevitch, and together with Rabbis Moshiach Chudaitov and Binyomin Malachovski, founded the underground Jewish organization. “We didn’t believe that we would ever be allowed to leave that country, so we founded Chamah to assist the Jews still there.”
Contrary to the conventional wisdom of those times, Chamah outlasted the Soviet Empire and today continues with its work, providing Jewish education, social services and humanitarian aid to Russian Jews in the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union.
As the status of Russian Jewry shifted from oppression to one of immigration, Chamah changed its focus as well. Now, with Russian Jews living freely around the world, the organization has pivoted yet again.
This past weekend, Chamah, in partnership with the Lubavitch Youth Organization and its program director, Rabbi Kasriel Kastel, and with the participation of tens of Chabad emissaries from around North America, hosted the Fifth Annual National Russian Jewish Shabbaton at the Stamford Plaza Hotel and Conference Center in Stamford, Conn. The annual event drew more than 1,000 participants of all ages.
Despite snow and sleet dousing the Northeast and much of the country, the Shabbaton—which featured speakers such as Rabbi Boruch Gorin, spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union; Rabbi Tzvi Freeman of Chabad.org; and noted Kabbalah coach Shimona Tzukernik, as well as performances by singing sensation Lipa Schmeltzer and award-winning Israeli composer Zlata Razdolina—took place without a hitch.
‘Real Hunger for Knowledge’
“In the Soviet Union, we Russian Jews lost the opportunity to learn about our heritage, but even in the hardest of times there was always a strong connection to Yiddishkeit,” says Chamah’s program director Rabbi Benzion Laskin. “Here in America, we have the opportunity to learn and study our heritage, and you can see just by the growth of the Shabbaton year to year that there is a real hunger for that knowledge. No snowstorm was able to hold them back from attending.”
“Those were difficult times, following the scare of Stalin’s ‘Doctor’s Plot,’ ” explains Chamah’s executive vice president, Rabbi Moshiach Chudaitov, regarding Chamah’s beginnings and referring to Stalin’s infamous plan to frame Soviet Jewish doctors with the attempted murder of members of the Politburo, a scheme that collapsed with Stalin’s death in March of 1953.
“It was very cold, and so Rabbi Malachovski and I began delivering coal to Jewish homes that could not afford the amount that was needed through the winter.”
Yet getting them what they needed was far from simple. Citizens were provided with rationed coupons with which they could receive a small amount of coal to heat their tiny homes. The rations were never enough, and those with little money could not procure more on the black market. Bribing a man that worked at the Samarkand train station—where cars laden with tons of coal would arrive—the two managed to divert one truck containing 3 tons of coal, distributing it to families that may have otherwise suffered greatly.
“It was a very dangerous thing to do,” says Zaltzman. “But those were very dangerous times.”
Aside from that humanitarian aid, Chamah organized underground Torah classes in Samarkand and throughout the country. “Some people would travel to Samarkand to participate in a class or in a Chassidic farbrengen, and then take that energy and warmth back with them to their communities all around. They came sometimes from as far away as Leningrad [today, St. Petersburg] and Moscow.
Zaltzman notes that the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—supported the organization throughout its history, personally contributing $1,000 a month to the cause, starting with Nissilevitch’s arrival in Israel in 1971, where he re-established Chamah.
“People who were inspired by our activities in Russia—even by just a small interaction—later immigrated to Israel and to America. Today, there are thousands of families connected to their heritage because of that experience,” says Rabbi Binyomin Malachovski, the organization’s executive director.
Sharing a Common Bond
Russian Jews still feel a common bond—a feeling that shifts to the next generation, one that was born into freedom and plenty in the United States.
“By coming to America, Russian Jews did not lose their uniqueness as a community,” says Ronn Torossian, founder and CEO of 5W Public Relations in New York City, and one of the featured speakers at the Shabbaton. “Russians retained their sense of humor and their culture, and so the approach to reaching out to the Russian community has to be a unique one.”
Torossian, a public-relations guru who has been involved with the Russian Jewish community for the last seven years, explains that although American Jewry was instrumental in helping free Jews from the Soviet Union, not enough has been done to connect them to their heritage once they settled in the United States.
“I think American Jewry did a great job at ‘Let My People Go,’ but not nearly enough to ‘Let My People Know,’ ” says Torossian, who, though not Russian himself, is married to a Russian Jew. “The Russian Jewish community can add so much to the community at large, and we really need to do a better job at engaging them. The community is intensely hungry for Jewish content, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that the weekend Shabbaton, which is all about real Jewish content, was completely sold out.”
Laskin notes that the weekend has consistently been full since it was first organized in 2009. “The first year we wanted to make a Shabbaton, we thought we’d get 200 people,” he says. “Six hundred registered. It’s grown each year since then.”
An Indelible Mark
Chock full of spirituality, entertainment, workshops and talks—featuring both English-language lecturers and Russian ones—the weekend left an indelible mark on many of its attendees, none more than Marina Braverman, who met her husband Alex at the Shabbaton in 2011.
“We first met at a Friday-night singles event; that’s where the first connection was made,” describes Braverman, who was attending her second Shabbaton at the time. “We later met again through a rabbi who set us up, but that initial connection was made there.”
Born in Ukraine and raised in Brooklyn, Braverman was 9 when she immigrated to the United States, but she says she still feels connected to her Russian-Jewish heritage. Part of that shared experience, she notes, was what made the weekend comfortable for everyone, despite the variances in the attendees’ observance levels.
“We all shared an experience, and even though we all may be on different religious levels—some more and some less—we were all comfortable with each other,” she explains.
Braverman’s husband is also from Ukraine, and she says that connecting to that heritage is something that remains very important to her. “It will always be a part of me, and I would never want to distance myself from that,” she says. “When I have children, G‑d willing, I will try as much as possible for my children to speak Russian and understand that part of them. I’m very connected to my Russianness.”
Chudaitov adds that the 1,000 participants included 300 children; a special program for them was run at the same time as the general program.
“This Shabbaton brought together three generations: grandparents, who suffered the worst under Soviet oppression; parents, who immigrated here; and children, born here and now free to connect to their faith. Many of the grandparents had tears in their eyes, seeing their descendants so happy to be celebrating their Jewishness,” says Laskin.
For so many others, the weekend left life-long impressions, and hopefully, will keep them coming back.
“Many were inspired to add something significant in their Jewish lives,” explains Rabbi Kasriel Kastel. “Some are now planning on attending a yeshivah, others to begin putting on tefillin. On Sunday, we actually had a couple who have been married for 25 years sanctify their marriage with achupah at the Shabbaton. It was a very special moment when hundreds of the Shabbaton participants approached the chupah to request blessings during this holy time.”
Leah Negrimovsky, a Brooklyn College psychology major who attended for the first time, says “thanks to the Shabbaton, I realized how holy Shabbos is, and how lucky and proud I am to be a Jew. There were so many interesting lectures going on at once that it was difficult to choose one.”
For Braverman, the highlight remains the unique sense of unity she felt being together with so many other Jews who had experienced much of the same life she had. “Even though we were together for the whole Shabbos, the Havdalah ceremony at the end was very special. It brought everyone together, and we all shared one light,” she says. “It was beautiful.”