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Pesach in St. Petersburg

Pesach in St. Petersburg – Reflections on Pesach in St Petersburg

So now it’s all over, and I’m back in Israel reflecting on what was an amazing experience.

Back in December I went to speak to Alex Kagan (director of FSU Programming for the WUPJ) about the fact that I wanted to go to Russia to help a community, his response was simply: “Nu Yalah” (So come on). I’m not sure that I actually thought it would really happen, but thanks to him, Debbie Pulik and the enthusiasm of Rabbi Michael Farbman, I was able to turn this trip into a reality. Of course none of it would have been possible without the communities and individuals who supported me financially, so I am very grateful to all of them.

In June, when I was in Moscow for the WUPJ conference, I was inspired by the development of Progressive Judaism there. Having returned and been involved with it on a grass roots level I am even more impressed than before. At certain points, in the synagogue or at the Shorashim school, I was struck by the fact that just over 15 years ago these people were living under a communist system, unable to fully express their Judaism. There has been a tremendous explosion of Jewish culture and practice in the FSU as a whole, and in St Petersburg in particular. In the course of six days I was involved in 2 Shabbat services and 10 Sedarim (5 at the synagogue and 5 at the school), how many Progressive communities around the world can claim to have been involved in so much activity over Pesach?

When I spoke to the community at the Kabbalat Shabbat service, I talked about the fact that we as a Jewish people are basically one big family, spread across the world. The way that the entire Jewish world rallies around communities in need is truly incredible, and one of the things which we, as Jews, should be most proud of. Despite the fact that we may live many miles apart, separated by more than just language, we still maintain a link which is built on blood, and our shared family heritage.

While in St Petersburg, I was treated as a member of the family by everyone that I met in the Progressive community. Although there was obviously a language barrier, in a mix of broken English and sign language, I was able to communicate with many members of the community, who just wanted to say hello and have a little chat. On the one day when I worked from the synagogue office, in four hours, I was offered more food and drink than I could have managed in the entire trip. In terms of the community I must make mention of Yuri, Masha, Zanna and Zina, all of whom took excellent care of me, guaranteeing that my Jewish mother had nothing to worry about.

While the St Petersburg Progressive Community made me feel part of their family, Rabbi Michael, Olga, Samuel and Robert welcomed me into their home and made me feel completely welcome, and looked after me – which is very important when you’re in a country and can’t speak the language. I could not have asked for better hosts, and I think that the St Petersburg community is very lucky to have the Farbman family to lead them forward.

I hope that I was able to give something to the St Petersburg community, because I am definitely taking a lot away with me. Although we often characterise it as a one-way street when it comes to working with the FSU (we in the ‘west’ are helping the FSU community to develop), the traffic is definitely moving in both directions. I am definitely richer for having spent the week there, and I am aware of how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to spend Pesach in St Petersburg, but I think that it is important that trips like this aren’t a one-off. We need to explore ways for Jewish communities around the world to share skills and expertise so as to support each other, and help each other to grow and develop. It says in the Talmud: “Kol Yisrael aravin zeh bazeh” – “All Israel are responsible one for the other.” We must help the Jewish communities in the FSU, and at the same time, we will see that they can really help us.

Once again I must say an enormous thank you to my sponsors: West London Synagogue, North Western Reform Synagogue, Kol Chai Hatch End Jewish Community, Edgware and District Reform Synagogue, South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue and Rabbi Danny Rich.

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