The Beit Avi Chai approach

Rozenson soon realized that if he was going to make genuine headway with Russian Jewry he would have to adopt a somewhat left-field angle.

David Rozenson took on the Beit Avi Chai mantle two-and-a-half years ago (photo credit: MAOZ VAYSTOOCH)
David Rozenson took on the Beit Avi Chai mantle two-and-a-half years ago
(photo credit: MAOZ VAYSTOOCH)
David Rozenson admits he didn’t know exactly what he was getting himself in to when he took over as CEO of Beit Avi Chai, but he says he has not been disappointed.
“Everybody in Russia told me there was no culture in Israel, especially not in Jerusalem,” he recalls. “So I came out here with very little expectation.”
When Rozenson took on the Beit Avi Chai mantle, twoand- a-half years ago, it was quite a learning curve, and quite a revelation.
“For the first six months I was a fly on the wall, just observing,” he says. “People took me to all sorts of cultural institutions, and I was amazed by what I found. I have to tell you, Moscow has 12 million people and Russia has around 144 million, it is a huge country.
Jerusalem is a city that is far more complicated, in many ways. You have to navigate so many things. I came in and I thought, who would have ever imagined that there is so much being done with good intention, and there is still a lot to do.”
The 40-something Rozenson is the ideal person to make comparisons between this part of the world and the former Soviet Union. He was born in the USSR and relocated to the US as a child in 1978, together with his parents and sister. He moved to Moscow in 2000, to administer the Avi Chai Foundation’s activities in Russia.
“I didn’t expect to stay more than a year or two – I ended up staying for 12 years. I was 29 years old. I was married with a couple of small children, and I went out there to just do some kind of landscaping for the foundation, just to see what was out there in the former Soviet Union.”
But, one thing led to another, and Rozenson soon found himself immersed – emotionally as well as professionally – in his Moscow-based endeavor.
“I fell in love with what I did,” he declares. “It is dangerous to fall in love with what you are doing. I think you lose a certain objectivity. You can’t fall in love with projects, but I think you can fall in love with your job.”
It was also the perfect place to acquire skills that he now applies in Jerusalem.
“We tried to reach the widest and most diverse Jewish audience in Russia, many of whom didn’t even know they were Jews.”
That demanded something of a softly-softly approach, devoid of any proselytizing undertones.
“We started with very regular projects, you know, run-ofthe- mill stuff – supporting the Jewish day schools, summer camps and that sort of thing.”
He says he and his cohorts still had their work cut out for them.
“They were not easy projects.”
Rozenson, who grew up in a secular home and is now Orthodox, soon realized that, if he was going to make genuine headway with Russian Jewry – affiliated and otherwise – he would have to adopt a somewhat left-field angle.
Genetics came to the rescue.
“I come from a family that loves to read,” he states.
“Together with some local partners there, the foundation supported a very large Jewish Israeli book fair. Over the years we brought in [Israeli authors] Meir Shalev and A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz.”
The literary line of attack did the trick.
“It was incredible. You saw all these [Jewish] people I never saw anywhere else, young people, intellectuals.”
The main event also had some secondary late evening slots, on a variety of topics, in cafés, bars and jazz venues. He was impressed by the ancillary activities and decided it was time to get in on the act.
“They had evening programs on Chinese philosophy, on German thought and Japanese architecture – anything you could think of, except for things that were Jewish and Israeli. Then [Israel Prize-winning Jewish mysticism historian and philosopher] Moshe Idel came out and talked about Kabbala, and the place was packed.”
The success, he says, was due to a winning combination of the topic, the guest speaker and the locale.
“People naturally felt very comfortable in these club cafés. This is where they were.
They weren’t coming to synagogues, they weren’t coming to Jewish community centers.
Suddenly, we saw all of these Jews coming out of the woodwork.”
Presumably, that was because they were allowed to make their way toward Jewish- themed activities of their own volition, and on their own terms.
“It was a non-threatening way,” notes Rozenson. “People were in their comfort zone. We started a bunch of programs and, parallel to that, we started a big website, on literature and culture. We didn’t deal in politics.”
It was an eye-opener about how to bring Jews in from the periphery.
“I realized that you make projects, so much, by sitting around tables and talking. All of a sudden, you started talking to people and they had these terrific ideas. Some had to be tested, and some failed, but overall I think we created a network there that today includes a lot of different projects, and a lot of different initiatives.”
That ground-level ethos has left its imprint on his approach to his current place of employment.
“Beit Avi Chai was already quite successful and it had already earned its place on the map of Jerusalem. But I wanted to see what else we could do. For example, there were no programs for families and children.
During the day this place wasn’t exactly empty, but it wasn’t being used to its full capacity.”
That soon changed as Rozenson and his staff initiated a Hebrew season-based event.
“We developed a monthly play, which is called Agadot Halevana (“Moon Legends”), which deals with themes around the Jewish calendar.
Every month they pick a topic that would be appropriate. It is for children age four to eight and the place is packed,” he says proudly.
Anything to do with books and writing, for the CEO, is also a natural place to kickstart any initiative.
“We have creative writing programs, all to do with Israeli and Jewish themes, programs that deal with Israeli literature for children. We just tested that, and the place was filled.
There are wonderful literary personalities here that bring Israeli literature to life. We had [literature researcher and professor] Bilha Ben-Eliyahu here.
She is wonderful.”
Rozenson says his experience in Moscow stands him in good stead in Jerusalem, although a certain degree of tweaking was required.
“My focus here is a little bit like it was in Russia, but for a different reason. In Russia we were searching for what we called ‘the physics students,’ the intellectuals that happened to be Jewish by birth but didn’t really know anything about Judaism. Here, what I try to focus on most, is people for whom Judaism may not be as meaningful as I think it could be.”
The younger crowd makes for a natural target.
“We have started a lot of youth programs, programs with the army, programs with shinshinim – shnat sherut [National Service Year] – programs for high school students, working directly with high schools, programs that strengthen Judaic aspects of teachers. We have a full day program for youth when they get their teudat zehut [ID card].
We look at what zehut means.
Is it just getting your identity card? Or is it far more meaningful than just being a Jew in a Jewish state?” The CEO says he wants to address as wide a swath as possible of the population.
“Our programs go across the board. They are pluralistic.
When we think about children’s programs we are thinking about children from all kinds of families. My thinking is that, for the more religious crowd in Jerusalem there are a lot of options. The feeling is that Judaism is, maybe, in the hands of a certain portion of the population. To me that’s kind of bothersome. I come from a family that’s not at all observant, but Judaism was something that was very important to me.”
Rozenson’s personal learning curve informs his professional mind-set.
“I had to go through learning the [Jewish] sources, understanding the sources and why it’s important to me, without in any way discriminating against Western culture, against contemporary thought.”
A glance at the Beit Avi Chai website indicates the man puts his money where his mouth is.
Next month, for example, there is a slot devoted to the work of late poet, translator and peace activist Dahlia Ravikovitch, an intriguing show presented by media personality Jackie Levy that fuses rock music with Jewish literature, the Talmud and art. Elsewhere, noted Israeli literature and culture researcher Prof.
Ariel Hirschfeld considers interfaces between Jewish and other cultures; preeminent liturgical music vocalist Rabbi Haim Louk is scheduled to perform; and the long-running, popular jazz series will have its swan song on February 2, when Paris-based Israeli saxophonist Shauli Einav joins forces with his opera singer wife Naama Liany in a program of songs made famous with late Yemen-born diva Shoshana Damari.
“I am fascinated by this place, and I firmly believe that the future of the Jewish people is here, in Israel,” Rozenson declares. “If we are real representatives, if we are able to speak about who we are with confidence and knowledge, while respecting others, we’ll have many more young people around our tables. We’ll have many more young people who are going to be the future leaders.”
The director has a vested interest.
“As many other people, I worry about my own children and their future here,” he says, referring to his six kids, aged six to 17. “I worry about the fact that they shouldn’t be brought up to be secluded, into this bubble that many Jewish communities like to form. I would like them to be able to be open with others, and to speak with respect to others, including with their Arab neighbors. Beit Avi Chai is focused on Jewish-Israeli culture but we live in this multicultural society and we have to respect that.”
That helps to keep him on his toes and enthused.
“I never imagined Jerusalem would be so fascinating, and have so much potential,” he says. “Beit Avi Chai is a place to create, develop and express Jewish and Israeli culture.”
He feels the work he and his institution undertake can have far-reaching impact.
“You can really change the world by exploring Jewish-Israeli ideas and culture, and through the study of Jewish texts. And you can change the world by changing people‘s hearts, and you can change the world by changing their imagination.
“I truly believe in that, and I’d like to do that here, at Beit Avi Chai, for the widest and most diverse audiences.” • For more information about Beit Avi Chai: