Engaging Russian-speaking Jewry

Eliezer Lesovoy grapples with the unique challenges facing Jews of the former Soviet Union.

Eliezer Lesovoy (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Eliezer Lesovoy
A decade ago in Kiev, Max Lesovoy was leading three parallel lives.
A lecturer in German philology and a sought-after interpreter, he shuttled between the university and business meetings in a suit and a tie. In his second life, he was a rock star, writing songs and performing as a lead singer with a punk rock band. His third life was that of a Jewish student activist affiliated with the Orthodox community.
Today he goes by Eliezer – although close friends and family still call him Max. He has been calling Israel home for the past 10 years, and is one of the brightest stars in the Jewish education field here – and he doesit in Russian.
Lesovoy looks like a typical settler, with his crocheted kippa, checkered shirt and closely cropped beard. Yet his life story and intellectual world are anything but ordinary.
He travels and lectures widely, on subjects ranging from Jewish identity to turn-of-the-century German- Jewish poetry; he still writes earnest and poignant songs in which restrained wittiness betrays a powerful undercurrent of emotion. And as the educational director of the Jewish Agency’s Russian-Speaking Jewry Unit, Lesovoy designs and controls the content of all worldwide agency programming in Russian.
Accordingly a lot of his time, both on the job and off-duty, is spent with Russian-speaking students in Israel and in Jewish communities abroad. Many of them are either recent arrivals to Israel or are planning to move here.
For Lesovoy, the gap between the Law of Return and Jewish religious law, the challenges of making a life in Israel and, since February 2014, the impact of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine on Jewish communities there, are no mere news items. These sensitive issues directly impact his students, close friends and family in Israel, Kiev and Moscow.
WHEN LESOVOY and I meet at his home in Kfar Eldad, Gush Etzion, to talk about his personal take on the future of Russian-speaking Jewry, I ask him what being Jewish meant to him growing up in Kiev.
For the longest time, says Lesovoy, he thought “Jew” was a swear word that made people laugh. He began to understand what it really stood for when he was about 12 years old, and family friends started leaving for Israel.
Around the same time, his grandmother took him with her to Kamenets-Podolskiy in western Ukraine, where her whole family and that of his grandfather were killed by the Nazis in 1941. Marking their yahrzeit with relatives of others who perished there is his first Jewish memory.
Lesovoy’s family was highly educated and somewhat atypical: In his generation, it was a rarity to have Jewish grandparents on all sides.
He says his Zionism was prompted by the active national revival in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “I had many friends who were Ukrainian nationalists,” he explains. “I sympathized with them a lot, but felt their struggle was not mine; I identified more with Israel than with Ukraine. Eventually, I decided my place was in Israel.”
In addition to his senior position at the Jewish Agency, Lesovoy is involved in a number of educational initiatives that engage in Orthodox outreach in Israel and the former Soviet Union. Yet the overwhelming majority of young adults he works with are not observant.
Many of them, while entitled to aliya under the Law of Return, are not Jewish according to the strict definition of religious law. As such, tens of thousands of Russian Jews considered Jewish in their countries of origin have found their Jewishness doubted by both the Chief Rabbinate and the general public once they move to the Jewish state.
I ask Lesovoy how he envisions closing the gap between the Law of Return and Jewish law.
“The fact that many people fall through the cracks between the Law of Return and Halacha is a real problem and moral dilemma for Israel educators,” he says. “My position is considered way too liberal in the Russian-speaking observant community in Israel, but I firmly believe that conversions should be widely promoted. Even someone who cannot fully commit to a Torah-observant lifestyle should be encouraged to convert.”
Lesovoy is convinced that one must draw a distinction between someone accepting the yoke of collective responsibility for the Jewish people, and committing to observance of the minutiae of Jewish law. The former carries more weight, he says, and this position is firmly rooted in Halacha.
“People who live in Israel have made an active choice to be here,” he explains. “Whoever really feels out of place is free to move to another country. If they do not make that choice, and fully identify with the Jewish state, their Jewishness is an integral part of their identity, a fait accompli.”
Does Lesovoy promote moving to Israel through his educational work? Who are the people he has recently seen coming on aliya? “I am dead set against any propaganda, I never preach and never try to convince people to either become religious or to leave for Israel,” he says, echoing the frequent complaint that the Jewish Agency sold an idealized picture of life in Israel to potential immigrants. “I do share my personal view that Jews have an interesting, dynamic, constructive future only in Israel or in close connection with Israel, but I do not try to lure people to board the plane.”
Lesovoy believes that when Israel wanted to attract new immigrants, it did so indiscriminately – which accounts for some of the difficulty with integrating this aliya. The State of Israel and Zionist organizations “meant well,” he notes, “but used all means at their disposal. [As a consequence,] a lot of people had a somewhat childish perception of Israel before they moved here. Some saw it as a safe haven that no one can attack. Others thought Israel was going to be like [an idealized version of] Europe, where everyone was nice and kind and there were no anti-Semites.
“For both groups, it is difficult to accept reality, to see Israel attacked like it was last summer, and that Israel is more Middle Eastern than European. Israel is no paradise. I understand people who live in Ashkelon and after months of rocket attacks leave for Toronto or Moscow.”
While the wave of mass aliya is over, there is a steady trickle of immigrants from Russian-speaking countries, many of them young professionals. They are strikingly different from the immigrants of the ’90s.
Hailing from prosperous big cities, they are well-educated and well-traveled, and have many options available to them at home – yet often choose Israel over other countries that could offer them a better future financially.
Lesovoy says he has seen hundreds of young people whom he taught in the past make aliya over the last decade.
About half keep their jobs in Moscow, St. Petersburg or Kiev; many have supplementary income from renting out apartments they own. “Those from Kiev have a more difficult time doing so since rental prices have gone down [since early 2014] because of the war,” he explains. “Basically, they all make money overseas and travel a lot, but have chosen Israel as a place to live and bring up children.”
Moving to Israel is not the only choice young Russian- speaking Jews are making: Some are staying where they are, and some are moving elsewhere. Lesovoy believes that while Russian Jewry in the former Soviet Union will likely be reduced to a number of small Orthodox communities, the global world holds undeniable appeal for young professionals.
“There are many options for talented people, and the world is wide open. There are Jews from Moscow who bought agricultural land in Latvia; they breed chickens by day and make multimillion-dollar deals by email at night. I don’t think anyone can force all Jews to come to Israel, lock up the exit and say, ‘Here we are, all the world’s Jews are here.’ That is not happening anytime soon.”
When one talks about Russian Israelis, one certainly does not think about this latest aliya of professionals.
They are still a minor group compared to close to the almost one million Russian-speaking Jews who came to Israel in the early ’90s. Those Jews left behind a country that saw itself as a cultural superpower, but in reality was light years behind the free world in terms of access to information and economic development.
Soviet society was also staunchly anti-religious and profoundly anti-Semitic; expressions of any religious affiliation or Jewish identity had been severely and systematically punished since 1920s. After generations of anti-religious conditioning and assimilation, immigrants from the former Soviet Union faced Israel – a small, diverse and vibrant society that highly values community and tradition.
Lesovoy takes a somewhat pessimistic view of the integration of Russian-speakers into Israeli society: “Although a million people have a million different life stories, most of them did not integrate at all; they did not become a part of either the Jewish or Israeli world.
Their children have done better, and have become fully Israeli. They sometimes touch upon a fragment of Jewish tradition through their Israeli identity, but it does not always happen. Overall, the children feel very Israeli, but not at all Jewish.”
He believes the Israeli elite was somewhat shocked by the newcomers, and failed to embrace them.
“Israeli intellectuals have a deep connection with Russia, but for them, ‘Russians’ were characters in books of Meir Shalev, Amos Oz and Lea Goldberg.
They thought, ‘Our brothers are going to come and will bring with them the culture on which we were brought up.’ “In fact, the immigrants were people broken by the Soviet regime, who spent 70 years without [Shaul] Tchernichovsky and [Haim Nahman] Bialik. For Israeli academics, finding out that these new Russians bear no resemblance to their Russian cultural icons was a terrible disappointment.”
While the big aliya took place as the Soviet Union was falling apart, the Maidan revolution in Ukraine and tightening of freedoms in Russia are adding impetus to the current wave of immigration. The Russian aggression against Ukraine that started in late February is having a direct impact on Jewish communities there. Many of Lesovoy’s friends in Kiev have spent days and nights on Maidan, and he also has friends who can no longer go back to their Russian- occupied hometowns.
He explains, “There are many Jews who already died in the war, primarily on the Ukrainian side; some of my former students were killed in the hostilities. There are also whole communities who had to leave cities in eastern Ukraine that now lie in ruins [as a result of the war]. For instance, the Jewish community of Donetsk is in exile, partly in Kiev, partly in Dnepropetrovsk.
The community sticks together; people spend Shabbatot together and are trying to reopen the community kindergartens.
“Yet they understand that they have nowhere to go back to – their city is bombed out and it is not clear who is in charge.”
As we conclude the interview, I wonder what the future holds for Lesovoy’s friends in Ukraine, and for his family living in Kiev. To Lesovoy, the priorities are clear: “Thousands of Ukrainian Jews are going to move to Israel. I would prefer them to move here out of choice, not because they are trying to escape the war.
“But since the Jews are always escaping one war or another, it is important they find a way to make good lives for themselves here.”