Weaving different worlds together

Beit Avi Chai’s director talks about his journey to Israel

Beit Avi Chai: A contemporary meeting point for Jewish and Israeli culture and ideas (photo credit: SHAI GETSOFF/BEIT AVI CHAI)
Beit Avi Chai: A contemporary meeting point for Jewish and Israeli culture and ideas
In the heart of Jerusalem’s cultural scene, Beit Avi Chai held a weeklong celebration July 3 to 9, marking 10 years of activity. Since 2007, the institution has been at the forefront of bringing Israeli and Jewish culture and ideas to life through a wide variety of programming. Established by the Avi Chai Foundation, the four-story building designed by architect Ada Karmi is home to monthly events that feature leading artists, thinkers, educators, musicians, cultural personalities and intellectual figures who draw in diverse audiences.
The institution has also become home for Dr. David Rozenson, who came to Israel from Russia four years ago to serve as the executive director and CEO of Beit Avi Chai. Rozenson’s office at Beit Avi Chai is personalized with artwork, photographs and historical objects from both Russia and Israel.
“Beit Avi Chai seeks to be a contemporary meeting point for Jewish and Israeli culture and ideas,” commented Rozenson in an interview with In Jerusalem. “Before I arrived in Jerusalem, I was told that there was little going on in terms of cultural activity here, but I see that there is so much potential,” he commented.
The Avi Chai Foundation, whose mission is to strengthen Judaism, Jewish tradition and literacy among Jews of differing religious orientations, was established by the late philanthropist and billionaire businessman Zalman Bernstein in 1984. The private foundation provides funding for innovative projects and programs in Israel, North America and the former Soviet Union.
Rozenson was born in St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, the cultural capital of Russia, and undertook a unique cross-continent journey that brought him to his current position as Beit Avi Chai’s director.
“Although I came here from Moscow, a city of around 13 million people, I never realized just how complicated Israel is,” he said.
Rozenson spent 12 years in Moscow, where he traveled across the former Soviet Union as the director of the Avi Chai Foundation, conducting research into Jewish life, and encouraging Jewish study and education among unaffiliated Jews while strengthening Jewish day schools and Hebrew-language instruction across the FSU.
“I was a kid when I left Russia,” he said. “When I returned to work there in Jewish education, I had to relearn everything about the culture again. But there was something about Russia that spoke to me – the country and culture were at once both familiar and foreign,” he said.
Rozenson left Russia in 1978 with his family under the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the law signed by US president Gerald Ford in 1975, which helped facilitate the emigration of Jews from the then Soviet Union. The Rozensons took with them more books than clothes to America.
The family, which was culturally Jewish but not religious, settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Rozenson encountered Judaism and Jewish heritage in a way that he never could back in his native country.
“In Russia, we read literature by Russian Jewish writers like Isaac Babel and Sholem Aleichem, but the first time I actually came into contact with Judaism was in America. At the Jewish day school, I became aware of the Hebrew language and Israel. Back in Russia, we could not speak about such things – you could be jailed for teaching Hebrew,” he explained.
Rozenson, who became observant, went on to study at Yeshiva University, and upon finishing his college studies in the US, traveled to Israel for yeshiva study in Ohr Torah Stone in Efrat. During his next seven years in Israel, he divided his time between learning in a yeshiva in Israel and teaching at Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s yeshiva in Moscow in the 1990s, as well as implementing Jewish educational programs in Siberia.
In the meantime, he married his wife Jenny, a psychologist who grew up in Australia, the daughter of Russian immigrants, and moved to Efrat. But when he took on the job as executive director for the Avi Chai Foundation in the FSU, Rozenson moved his family from Efrat to Moscow.
“To be Jewish in the FSU when we lived there was a very different experience compared to my childhood,” said Rozenson, who earned a PhD in Russian Literature from Moscow State Humanitarian University for his research work on Isaac Babel.
“At no point in Russian history has the Jewish community been as positively accepted as it has in recent years. The renaissance of Jewish life in Russia is incredible. When we lived in Russia, my children attended Jewish day schools and yeshivot, something I could never imagine doing as a child.”
During the time he headed the Avi Chai Foundation’s offices in the FSU, Rozenson led the launch of literary programs that entailed a Russian-language publishing initiative that translated Jewish and Israeli-themed literature, religious texts and children’s books. He also set up a café-based Jewish study program across Russia and an online website on Israeli and Jewish themes. Rozenson helped bring well-known Israeli authors such as David Grossman and Amos Oz to speak with Russian Jewish audiences.
“I realized that we had to find a way to reach young and well-educated, unaffiliated Jews. By using this cultural model, we were able to bring Judaism and Israel to a wider Jewish audience across Russia,” he said.
Rozenson himself was recognized for his work in Jewish education and activism by the city of his birth. In 2015, he traveled from Jerusalem to St. Petersburg, where he was the recipient of an honorary citizenship award at the city’s State Hermitage Museum. The award is given each year, recognizing people born in St. Petersburg for their contributions to Russian society.
While living abroad, Rozenson said that he and his wife always thought of returning to Israel. “We talked about living in Israel. Before we married, my wife had made aliya to Israel on her own. Our children knew how to speak Hebrew from the Jewish day school, but I knew that for me to return to Israel, I would have to do something meaningful.”
When the opportunity to work at Beit Avi Chai emerged, following the departure of the former director, Dani Danieli, Rozenson was selected as the next executive director of the institution.
“Israel is a country that was built upon immigrants, both in terms of culture and political leadership. Look at Natan Alterman, Leah Goldberg and cultural leaders in the Sephardic Jewish community – all these different groups of people have contributed to cultural life here in Israel,” said Rozenson, who today lives with his family in Jerusalem.
“I realized that my being an outsider, with my Russian and American background, has a place in that long tradition of immigrants contributing to this country.”
In Beit Avi Chai, Rozenson discovered an institution with an endless stream of cultural activity including a Piyyut Festival, eclectic musical events, Talmud and Parashat Hashavua study groups and lectures, as well as art and photography exhibitions, theatrical programs for adults and children and an interactive website. “There are so many things happening here and we’ve expanded on many of the different programs,” said the director.
“Through this center’s original and unique programming, there is a treasure trove of Jewish thought and heritage that interweaves with contemporary Israeli culture,” he further commented.
“The success here is not my own,” remarked Rozenson. “It is thanks to the diverse and qualified team of people working at Beit Avi Chai. Going on my fifth year as director, I see the first decade of Beit Avi Chai as just the beginning of very good things ahead.”
For more information on Beit Avi Chai’s summer schedule, including special events and programs for families and children: www.bac.org.il