With a steady flow of Russian-speaking olim (immigrants) arriving in Israel every month over the past decade, and thousands of FSU olim in the past year alone, the educational/social initiative SSY (Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli in Hebrew; Israeli Weekend in English) has helped thousands of talented young immigrants integrate personally, culturally, and professionally into Israeli society.
“Back in Moldova, I was Jewish. Here in Israel, I am ‘Russian,’” says Daniel, 28, who arrived in Israel from his native Kishinev over a decade ago. “For years, I dreamed of being a proud Jew in my homeland; but when I arrived, I didn’t feel Jewish or proud. To everyone around me, I was ‘Russian.’ SSY changed all that.”
“For years, I dreamed of being a proud Jew in my homeland; but when I arrived, I didn’t feel Jewish or proud. To everyone around me, I was ‘Russian.’ SSY changed all that.”Daniel
Daniel is not the only one dealing with this challenge. Throughout the past decade, Israel has seen a steady stream of between 1,000 and 1,500 Russian-speaking immigrants every month – a fact not well known even to the Israeli public – well before the 60,000 FSU olim who arrived in 2022 and beyond the 1.5 million Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
While many first- and second-generation immigrants have integrated successfully into the tapestry of Israeli society, many others remained cloistered in their own enclaves, maintaining their Russian identity and language, and feel very estranged from Israeli society.
The absorption challenges faced by new FSU olim are imposing; without Russian-speaking supportive frameworks to help overcome them and make these struggling newcomers feel hopeful and welcome, many leave Israel in search of other opportunities.
SSY origins: How has this organization helped Russian-speaking Jews who immigrate to Israel?
For the past 12 years, SSY has been creating welcoming educational and empowering communities throughout Israel that remind young Russian-speaking olim of the reasons why they made aliyah and of their critical roles as links in the chain of Jewish and Israeli history.
SSY’s founder, Linda Pardes Friedburg, is an American immigrant who studied Russian in the Cold War years in her New Jersey high school and was active in the Soviet Jewry movement during her university studies in New York and Hebrew University.
In 1985, she was privileged to meet with refuseniks in Leningrad and Moscow, and later worked with Russian-speaking transmigrant children and adults in Ladispoli, Italy. She made aliyah in October 1990, weeks before the outbreak of the Gulf War, and waited in the Ben-Gurion Airport Arrivals terminal, along with 400 Russian-speaking olim, to receive her gas mask and new immigrant ID card.
In 1992, she married Zeev, a new immigrant from Bobruisk, Belarus, and the couple settled in Jerusalem. She joined the FSU Department of the AJJDC, coordinating Jewish educational projects in the FSU and participating in the historic Jewish renaissance taking place there, after 70 years of Soviet oppression.
Fast forward almost two decades, and two Russian-speaking workmen in their 20s came to assemble the couple’s new trampoline in their home in Neve Daniel. In the course of their conversation, the young men mentioned to Linda that they were both planning to leave Israel as soon as they graduated university because they felt “superfluous.”
“Israel’s great,” they said, “but we have no family here, and we can probably find better opportunities in other countries.”
She already knew that their remarks mirrored the sentiments of many other talented young Russian-speaking olim, in whom the Jewish world had invested hundreds of millions of dollars to bring on aliyah, but not enough to ensure their successful social and cultural absorption.
Feeling that something must be done, in September 2010, she gathered a group of Russian-speaking informal Jewish educators and activists for a communal brainstorming session. Based on a program Pardes Friedburg had initiated through the AJJDC during the 1990s, they decided to organize a Friday-Shabbat seminar for Russian-speaking olim in their 20s and 30s.
The program would include a professionally guided Friday hike, followed by an enriching, family-style Shabbat, replete with lectures and activities in the Russian language that would increase participants’ familiarity with Israel and Jewish life and enable them to network and meet new friends.
After much effort, the organizers found 35 suspicious, but curious, young people willing to attend. It rained the entire weekend, but the participants found themselves in their element – being creative, singing, discussing, playing games, exploring Israel and enjoying one another’s company.
“The atmosphere was electric, and we all returned home on an emotional-spiritual high,” recalls Ilya Lipetsker, who helped coordinate this first weekend and today serves as SSY’s operations director. “The seminar was all about finding a peer community, with no political or religious agenda at all, which was exactly what we were looking for.”
After receiving positive feedback, the group organized a second seminar two months later, and the waiting list to participate was very long.
“I was in Israel for over a decade, but I was still searching for a peer group that would make me feel at home,” says Eric, a photographer, who attended the second seminar. “Shishi-Shabbat introduced me to an entire community where I could get involved in Israeli life and make friends. It also opened up possibilities to explore the country and hear different perspectives on Jewish thought and traditions.
“After more than a decade, Shishi-Shabbat is still part of my life. It taught me a lot about Israel and Judaism, helped me forge new relationships with great people, make good friends and job connections. As a photographer, I got to travel to a wide variety of places, get great shots, and relax with like-minded people.”
Within a short time, what became known as SSY, or the Israeli Weekend Experience, expanded beyond weekend seminars to meet other important needs of the Russian-speaking immigrant community, such as business and conversational ulpans; holiday events for immigrants and lone soldiers without family in Israel; volunteer projects with Russian-speaking seniors; Shabbat meals hosted by olim for newer olim; professional mentoring; and the Argaman Jewish Cultural Project, which facilitates meetings between Israeli artists and olim to teach them about Israeli culture. This deepens their understanding of Israeli society and their own Jewish identities.
With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine last year, the young Russian-speaking members of SSY became the natural frontline for welcoming the new olim from the FSU who arrive to Israel every week. “We set up a national volunteer network to help match bureaucratic and personal olim needs to volunteers in their cities,” says Hedva, SSY’s Jerusalem volunteer coordinator, “and began running a weekly ‘Israel: A User Manual’ webinar on important topics, from renting apartments, higher education, and job hunting to Israeli supermarkets and understanding different Israeli holidays.”
Since its establishment in 2010, close to 14,000 Russian-speaking olim have participated in SSY’s Friday-Shabbat retreats, lectures, excursions, cultural projects, empowerment workshops, and holiday and volunteer events. SSY’s team of Russian-speaking city and project coordinators – all young olim themselves – run an average of 25 high-level informal, pluralistic Jewish and Zionist educational events and olim empowerment workshops every month in SSY’s branches in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Bat Yam and Beersheba.
Significantly, more than 60 young couples have met and begun new Israeli families through SSY.
Ayelet (Anna) Gerasymova first came to Israel with Masa Israel Journey in 2013. In her native Ukraine, she’d worked as a counselor for the Jewish Agency, which instilled in her the dream of settling in Israel and specifically Jerusalem, a city that she felt was replete with spirituality and meaning.
In Israel, she opted to serve in the army, even though she could have easily qualified for exemption. She became a non-commissioned officer, which was perfect since she’d been trained as a CPA in Ukraine and could continue in her field. After being honorably discharged, she was disappointed to discover that acclimating to civilian life in Israel was harder than expected. She shared her disillusionment with a friend who immediately suggested SSY, and thus began her connection to the organization.
“I’ll never forget that first seminar. It was a breath of fresh air. We hiked in Mitzpe Ramon – a breathtaking area – and the guide told us all about the region and its connection to Jewish history. On the way, I met and befriended a bunch of great guys and girls, all from different cities in the FSU. We each had our own story, and what united us were our mutual challenges and shared longing for community.
“[Shishi] Shabbat was awesome, and I was hooked. I began attending seminars, trips and events, celebrating Jewish holidays with peers and discovering Israel in a whole new light. Even during COVID, which was lonely and painful for people like us without local family, SSY united us with Zoom-based activities and lectures that helped us maintain our connection and deepen our Jewish-Israeli identities.”
She joined this volunteer effort and has been helping new olim get through bureaucracy and paperwork, offering the friendship and support which she lacked when she first came to Israel. She recently delivered a webinar on salaries and taxes, and since then has answered many people’s questions on the topic.
“Our goal here is to create a community that makes immigrants feel good in Israel, encouraged, appreciated, and part of a bigger picture,” says Lidia Shtelmach, a former Masa participant with no family in Israel, who today serves as the Haifa Shabbat host coordinator.
“When I finished my Masa program, I found myself alone in Haifa, with minimal Hebrew and very few acquaintances. I started to volunteer in the new Haifa chapter of Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli and became its coordinator. Today I run three to five activities every month for our warm community of hundreds of lone olim who support one another,” says Shtelmach.
“Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli is all about engaging young Russian-speaking olim in programs that celebrate Jewish and Israeli identity, encourage community-building and volunteerism, and develop talented young leadership for Israel and the Jewish people,” says founder Friedburg. “But it’s not just about us. Any Israeli can reach out to new olim – when you see them at work, on the bus or in synagogue. There are thousands of young olim from the FSU in Israel today, and they have the potential to positively transform the country.
“They are a miracle of history, and the silver lining of this horrible war. Many are also natural perfectionists, so they may hesitate to speak Hebrew before their language is flawless. But they are still determined to succeed, and with the community on board helping and showing appreciation towards them, we can facilitate that success and benefit not only them but Israel as a whole.”
Connecting to the upcoming holiday of Passover, she adds, “There is a beautiful teaching of the Baal Shem Tov that the Jews enslaved in Egypt needed to believe that the concept of redemption existed. Moses, who left Egypt and came back a free man with a broader, more ethical vision of the world, was himself that proof.
“The more examples that new olim meet of successful acculturation, love for other Jews, and rooted, Zionist leadership, the more they will bring this healing spirit to Israel and to their fellow olim whom they are helping to absorb every day.” ■