by Mordechai Tokarsky
On a chilly Monday night, at the tail end of the fall Jewish holiday season, hundreds of young Russian Jews, who most decidedly did not seem like synagogue regulars, came together to celebrate the holiday of Simchas Torah. Strangely, they seemed at home in the grand but dilapidated synagogue building which houses the RAJE center. They prayed, schmoozed, toasted l’chaims, and danced with the Torah on Ocean Parkway. Seeing young Jews celebrating Jewish life is always heartwarming, but this particular celebration deserves special mention, as it has a very special significance for Russian Jews, and its revival represents an important educational success for those who helped build RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience).
For our parents and grandparents in Soviet times, a holiday visit to a synagogue meant to risk losing their job, getting kicked out of school, or worse. However, for reasons no one can explain, even in the darkest of times, hundreds of young Russian Jews would gather in the synagogues on Simchas Torah, risking all to dance in the streets with Torah scrolls, the content of which most knew little about. It became an expression of Jewish pride and a unique Russian Jewish symbol of defiance! Sadly and ironically, this holiday was forgotten by their children and grandchildren who found freedom in America.
Six years ago, we started RAJE, with the lofty goal of ensuring that the next generation of Russian-American Jews would have a future as a dynamic part of the Jewish people. Our educational method was to create the RAJE Fellowship program and Israel trip, a semester-long program where hundreds of Russian Jewish American college students and young professionals can come together to learn, experience, and grow as Jews. The program provides a viable method for effectively overcoming widespread apathy and inspiring participants to get involved in Jewish life.
As it often falls out on a weeknight at the tail end of a long Jewish holiday season, reviving Simchas Torah as a holiday celebrated by young Russian Jews was a particular educational challenge for RAJE. So for the past few years, we included attendance at Simchas Torah among the program requirements for the RAJE Fellowship program. This typically resulted in large crowds of young people gathering to smoke and schmooze, while a few dozen more-committed peers would actually do some dancing with the Torah. This year the timing of the Jewish holidays caused us to delay the start of the RAJE Fellowship program until October 14, the Sunday after the holiday. Attending Simchas Torah was not a program requirement and we had a chance to find out if our efforts over the years had made a lasting impact.
As the crowd began to gather on Monday night, it was incredible to see faces of alumni from almost every semester and trip. The spirit and energy was contagious, as so many young Russian Jews, who did not grow up celebrating Simchas Torah, were now dancing and singing together in a Jewish community they could call their own.
There is a lot to be proud of in our work at RAJE, lots of nachas—seeing young Jews, Russian Jews, standing up in support of Israel, starting new Jewish families, building their own communities and taking on leadership roles in Jewish organizations. We can now add to this list the revival of a very special Russian Jewish tradition—young Russian Jews dancing with the Torah on Simchas Torah. Young people, who may now know just a bit more about the content of the Torah scrolls they are dancing with, vindicating the sacrifice of those who danced before them and kept the spirit of Jewish life alive in the darkness of the communist night.
Mordechai Tokarsky is the co-founder and Director of RAJE, the Russian American Jewish Experience (www.rajeusa.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.