Man of action

Judging by his success in the FSU, new Beit Avi Chai executive director David Rozenson appears to have what it takes to accomplish the center’s goals for the future.

DAVID ROZENSON, executive director of Beit Avi Chai 521 (photo credit: Yevgeny Busygina)
DAVID ROZENSON, executive director of Beit Avi Chai 521
(photo credit: Yevgeny Busygina)
Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen.”
It was April 1903, when Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky gave a memorable speech in the “gold room” of the building that housed the literature society of which he was a member. Today, the building houses the Odessa Literature Museum. And it was here, in the very room that Jabotinsky declared his unwavering belief in the possibility of the restoration of a Jewish national state in Palestine, that Eshkolot held its latest Festival of Jewish Texts and Ideas for the first time in Odessa.
The festival, supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the Avi Chai Foundation, the Charities Aid Foundation and private sponsors, focused on Jewish personalities and the texts they gave birth to. Slow reading of classic texts penned by the literary giants of Jewish Odessa enabled participants to gain an understanding of the way in which this literature transformed Jewish life, and helped pave the way for the birth of the Jewish state.
With classes led by international and local scholars of repute, carefully selected students and young professionals (ages 18 to 45) had the option of selecting from three tracks, fostering in-depth study and discussion. The readings were accompanied by plenary lectures, workshops, evening “edutainment” programs and even visits to the homes and neighborhoods of those whose works were being studied.
DAVID ROZENSON, who took the helm of Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem in April and now serves as its executive director, is moving ahead after years of effort and subsequent success in Russia.
Over the past few years, Rozenson initiated a number of innovative projects geared to appeal to a wide, diverse, but largely unaffiliated Russian-speaking Jewish audience in the former Soviet Union. Recognizing that this audience represents the overwhelming majority of post-Soviet Jewry, the Avi Chai Foundation approved funding for a variety of programs to engage this elusive audience and to then try and cultivate a strong connection to Jewish life, study and ideas.
In addition to the many programs it supports, including but not limited to an Internet portal focusing on Jewish life, monthly educational programs, Jewish day-school programs, youth activities, book publishing and summer camps, the Avi Chai Foundation supports Eshkolot, an educational initiative with a specific focus on engaging Moscow’s university-age and young professional audience via a series of ongoing, structured, text-based Jewish study programs.
In describing the success of the Eshkolot program, Rozenson pauses for a moment, as if carefully selecting his words.
“We are trying to reach a very difficult-to-reach audience. And when we thought about ways of achieving this, from all the various studies that we did and after talking to as many young people as possible, we knew we had to identify a mechanism that was very much theirs.”
This wasn’t something that could be brought from abroad or created, he says. “It had to be something that was very much a part of who the participants are. And when we looked at the target audience – university students and young professionals – we saw that there was a whole layer that was very interested and that there was a real gap, a real lacuna, in programs that were serious in the same way that they studied other things seriously.
“So for the first couple of years, Eshkolot went to popular areas, where there already were young students and professionals. When they were in university frameworks, Eshkolot would be there, but it also went to the intellectual clubs and cafes. The whole idea was to go to the people. And once you go to them, without changing the character of the venue, you add Judaism as one of the components that is available there.
“After around three years, we saw exponential growth. People kept coming back and bringing their friends.
“Eshkolot is not like a university program which repeats itself year after year. We need to come up with new ideas every time. We were very fortunate to have [Eshkolot program director and assistant professor at Petersburg Institute of Jewish Studies] Simon Parizhsky, and very fortunate to have some of the people who work with him, in really being able to identify those areas that seem to resonate with this specific group that became easier to reach.
“We were actually surprised. It’s one thing for a person to come once because we do good promotion. But then when a person comes again and you see that you are slowly forming a core group of participants, and it’s all around Jewish study, we knew we were succeeding.”
In Russia, Rozenson explains, you can’t copy an existing model. “You have to create something that is unique to a specific place. When the festivals started, it was an idea that was born through all kinds of conversations with various funders. When you think of getting people together, you need to get them to gather around certain ideas. And the ideas have to be based on something that is not just centered around a speaker, but rather something that fits into a conceptual model that you’ve built for individual programs.
“So in Moscow we were able to do this twice a week, for two or three hours in the evening. But then we understood that we need to take people away and give them the possibility of really studying something intensely from beginning to end.
“For the first couple of seminars, we looked around where Eshkolot did most of its work, which was in Moscow. And then we went to St. Petersburg because of the fabulous Jewish archives and collections that are found there, both in the libraries and in the museums.
“You need to understand the context. For 70 years, there was no formal research in any Jewish studies. The creativity that had been here was completely cut off. So you had 70 years of real emptiness in terms of researching Judaism seriously. “We also wanted to be able to get closer to Israel, which is very important. Throughout the year Eshkolot brings a lot of academics from Israel to show the participants that it’s not all about politics. And that’s why Eshkolot brings in scholars from the US as well, to show that Jewish scholarship is serious. And there are lots of different gateways into Jewish life. And the mechanism of using Jewish scholarship as one of the gateways seemed to resonate with the students.”
In this way, he says, it made sense to hold the festival in Odessa. “So when we thought about where would be the next cool or interesting place for the Eshkolot participants, Odessa became the natural choice. Not only because we had people from here, but also if you walk through most cities in Israel, the main streets are named after famous personalities who were born or worked in Odessa.
“So we explored the idea of bringing the next Eshkolot Festival closer to Israel, and we also wanted to be sure it wouldn’t be watered down – that there would be serious content. And that’s the way the whole program is structured. We have the Hebrew University as an academic partner and [Hebrew literature] Prof. Aminadav Dykman was key. He and others from the university have lectured at some other Eshkolot events.
“In terms of the programmatic structure, the lecturers are younger and likely the future leaders in their fields – either in Israel or here, in terms of Jewish academia and Jewish scholarship. On the one hand it is to show the level you can reach, and on the other hand it is to show what Israel has done in the intellectual world – that it also about serious studying.
“The Jewish communities in Russia may have been very different in the last couple of hundred years. The Enlightenment overtook a large part of the Pale of Settlement where Jews were allowed to live freely, and in other places where fewer Jews were allowed to live, such as in larger cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. But the one thing that you never had, ever, in any of these communities, were uneducated Jews.
“And one thing we want to ensure, and what Eshkolot wants to ensure, is that we return as much as we can to that situation where a Jew in the modern world may know about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy. And participants should know as well not only about other intellectuals that are being discussed, but also about their Jewish roots.
One of Eshkolot’s aims, says Rozenson, is to attract a very wide and diverse audience – as Avi Chai does with many of the other programs it supports in the region.
“But we also try to ensure that with the diversity there is a strong understanding, that Jewish and Israeli studies are something which are the basis today of very extensive scholarship that is based on Jewish texts.
“And that’s why part of the program of Eshkolot – even though it’s a very intellectual program – always includes a Shabbat and visits to synagogues. It always includes Jewish historical landmarks that are not only architectural landmarks, but are also very much identity- type landmarks.
“In a city like Odessa, it is hard to walk the streets without stepping over something Jewish. And it’s not only because over 30 percent of the population in Odessa before World War II was Jewish, but also because there’s just such a flavor of Jewish life that I think runs through the fabric of life here today. So in addition to the lectures, there are also these tours just to show what and how it was.
Here, Rozenson leans forward and I sense he is looking to emphasize his next point.
“But to me, it’s not all about the nostalgia, about the past. For me it’s very much about the present and future. It is important for me that the participants see it as part of their future, not only part of their past, and certainly part of the present.”
The ultimate hope, he stresses, is that a few years down the line when these people make decisions, their decisions will be different because of the knowledge that they gained here.
“The wide diversity of the participants who come to Eshkolot is astounding. They were always there, they just needed the mechanism to push them. Eshkolot is not the answer to everything, but it is a small push in the direction of getting people directly involved. Hopefully once they have the knowledge, they become active in their own ways – whatever those ways may be – in furthering Jewish life and study.
This unique approach does not involve an agenda.
“Eshkolot does not have any agenda other than Jewish study, and really to show as much as we can what Jewish life is.
“Even the lecturers from various universities and who are among the most published and accomplished, come to tell others what they’ve studied. It’s a telling of what they’ve studied in order for others to join them in their study. And there’s a real spectrum of people. For us, it’s important for people to see that there are various models of the way Jewish life has developed. It’s also a way for them to see the various models they can pursue.
“It’s about working one-on-one and working together with the people you’ve come in touch with. It’s working on a close scale with the students through these programs, and on a larger scale via the Internet – which gives us an ability to interact with people wherever they may be. This is why you see a lot of the recorded and educational materials placed online as well. It’s always possible to be connected.
“Some people go to other programs and then that’s it, there’s no contact afterwards. We maintain that connection.”
The Jewish state, explains Rozenson, strongly figured in the equation. He wants people to see Israel as the natural place for them to go. And this is one of the reasons he connected with the Hebrew University.
“And to reach those that are most elusive,” he continues, “we need to go to them and not wait for them to come to us. Because people are so diverse, and in order not to lose people – we’re really fighting against the clock – if we can get people interested here in Jewish studies, then when they come to Israel it will also be about Jewish identity and Jewish study.
“Once a person becomes interested, we try to keep them in as much as possible.
And we’ve learned from others that it’s easy to lose people, so we try to retain them and use every imaginable system, whether it’s online registration or being in touch with them directly. It’s very important for us that once a person is in, they feel they themselves are important – and not just for the four or five days of the festival, but also after the festival.
“I don’t think we have any illusions that the overwhelming majority of people are going to become Jewishly connected 24/7. But if, on the bookshelf of their lives, Judaism and Jewish study become an important factor of what they do, and then they begin exploring further the areas they may have begun exploring through Eshkolot, that to us is already something which is very much worthwhile to invest in. And we’re glad there are others who have joined us in this effort.
“Running programs in a place like Odessa is so important since it is a place that is so full of Jewish life. But even when programs take place in St.
Petersburg or Moscow or elsewhere, we try to find a connection to the Jewish community. And there are many places in the former Soviet Union that have this recipe. In some places it is stronger than others, such as here in the Ukraine. The Jewish archives in Ukraine where all the Jewish marriages, divorces, deaths and of course births are recorded, are housed in a synagogue since that was the largest building in Odessa at the time. You walk down the street in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews.
“What’s sad is that the Jewish part of these buildings is largely gone. When we take participants to these buildings, and they see some small sign of the Judaism that once existed and thrived there, it’s not about the thriving Judaism of the past, but also about the thriving of Judaism of today and the future.”
TOGETHER WITH Avi Chai, the Genesis Philathropy Group also played a significant role.
“It was founded by wealthy Russian individuals, and when we learned about what they do, we thought we could either work in parallel or not cooperate on many things,” says Rozenson. “But then we realized that there were interests that crossed and that we had mutual goals, and that we could work together.”
“I would say it’s more Genesis than what we did. And [Genesis Philanthropy Group Israel executive director] Sana Britavsky took the ball and really became very excited about it. It was very much Sana’s idea to kind of see the mosaic of Jewish life here, and she had lots of connections that connected us to various people in Odessa.
“The Hebrew University had scholars that were doing research, writing and publishing about the people who were born here or were at least active in intellectual life here, and Prof. Dykman became very excited about it. He took the lead from the Hebrew University’s side, and Parizhsky took the lead from Eshkolot’s side. Our offices, between Genesis and the Avi Chai Foundation, took charge of thinking about the best way to structure it financially so that it would be viable.
At the end of the day, he points out, in anything you do, it always comes down to the people.
“Because we brought some Hebrew University high-caliber academics here, and together with some of the work that Avi Chai and Genesis do with some of the local universities here, we were able to get local high-caliber professors of Jewish studies.
“And in terms of the Jewish community here, they just opened up and welcomed us. They wanted us here. There are some who throw their life into Jewish studies and understand the importance of the program for its international implications.
“I do not want to take credit for it since others deserve the credit. I would give Genesis far more credit than we take for ourselves. They were so energized.”
He compares the events to the story of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his horse. “He would say to his driver, ‘Let the horses run where they may.’ The point was that wherever you go, you find the potential to strengthen Jewish life and Jewish study. And I feel privileged to have involvement in these kinds of programs.
“We try to have as many partnerships with people who have mutual goals. I hope in Israel we’ll be able to do the same thing.
Doesn’t that depend on funding then? “I find that if you have a good idea and you share it with others, it’s not about the money. It’s really about finding the right people. And then you find a way to raise the money that’s needed. It’s just getting to the people.
WHAT WILL the future bring? “We are going to continue partnering with Eshkolot and expanding in the future. And we are going to continue building new partnerships with others. And I become inspired by seeing this. This is what gives us the impetus to keep going. And thank God we have local staff that is outstanding.
“We’ve put together partnerships over time so the main programs will continue, including the Department of Jewish Culture at St. Petersburg State University and the Department of Jewish Studies at Moscow State University” – both wonderful accomplishments on their own, but even more so in light of the historical context.
“The leadership of existing programs there is being taken over by locals as part of the plan from the beginning, which would see them take the reins. These programs are about the people there. If they believe in it, then it will work.”
Rozenson talks about his vision for the center.
“Beit Avi Chai had a great director in Dani Danieli, and he put it on the map. His are impressive shoes to fill. I’d like to continue the cultural agenda, make it an attractive place culturally, and expand it at the same time. We are building on the success of the past years.”
Rozenson believes Beit Avi Chai can be a center for the creation, development and expression of Jewish culture and ideas.
“It’s a place for everyone and must continue to be a place for everyone,” he says. “There’s been a lot of work done on looking around and making sure the niche Beit Avi Chai fills is one that is unavailable in the Jerusalem scene.
“I hope it will be a place that generates a lot of thought on Jewish and Israeli culture, and will gather people together and focus much more on a younger audience, and offer them a way to express their Jewishness, Israeli culture and identity.
“Beit Avi Chai needs to be a place that generates creativity and ideas – not only through the staff but also through the participants. And here I see Beit Avi Chai’s unique role on the Jerusalem landscape. Making sure Avi Chai is available for those who want access to Jewish texts, culture, art, music, etc... We want to make sure there is that space for expression.”
Rozenson also hopes Beit Avi Chai will play a role in influencing young people to see Jerusalem as a place they can reside in comfortably.
“When we see an opportunity in front of us and we don’t use it,” he emphasizes, “it’s more a fault within ourselves and not a fault with the opportunity. It’s very much about going forward.”
Wright was correct. So was Jabotinsky. And so is Rozenson.