Channeling Jewish minds

The Avi Chai foundation aims to ensure the future of Jewish life and culture in the FSU, after years of religious oppression, as unaffiliated Jews search for their roots and years for knowledge.

THE KNIZHNIKI 520 (photo credit: Avi Chai Foundation)
(photo credit: Avi Chai Foundation)
It is the year 270 CE in the bustling town of Tzipori located in the lower Galilee. A Jewish sage by the name of Elazar Ben-Pedat leaves his home and heads toward the marketplace. By the time he gets there and finds a place to sit and study, he is already deeply immersed in thought. During the course of the day, the sage attracts other Jews to join him and by evening he has led a group of students in Torah study. Instead of waiting for students to come to him, Elazar Ben- Pedat would go daily and seek them out in the market.
Fast-forward nearly 2,000 years to 2012.
In Moscow, there are popular hangouts where young and middle-aged people go to meet colleagues, work, surf the Internet, eat meals, attend cultural events and lectures and more. These places have a business model which cultivates the idea that patrons can stay as long as they want – literally the entire day. The venues are part club, part cafe, part art gallery, part book store and part concert hall.
The Eshkolot project, conceived in 2008, has two main elements. The first can be called, according to its organizers, the “approach of the Tzipori market.”
Eshkolot decided not to wait until a large percentage of the population would come to Jewish programs and become drawn to a Jewish place. Instead, it decided to go out to where the students are – to their environment – to reach these intellectuals.
The second element is called the “taste of ideas.” Eshkolot assumed it could not approach people and ask what they would like to learn, since most students do not know what the options are, for example, having no idea that medieval Hebrew poetry even exists.
The aim was not to have a large curriculum of subjects they can study, but rather to give them a taste of what is out there, of what is possible. This way, people could attend an event and gain a taste of what Jewish music, art and history are like. And then, if they like the taste, they can pursue it further and “order the main course.”
THE SETTING is a quiet suburban village just south of Moscow. I’ve been invited by the Avi Chai Foundation to attend a weekend study program, a Jewish Texts and Ideas Festival run by Eshkolot, one of the foundation’s subsidiary programs and a new educational initiative with a specific focus on engaging Moscow’s young, university-age and young professional audience via a series of ongoing structured, text-based Jewish study programs.
This is the fourth such festival and the sessions focused on studying in parallel Jewish and non-Jewish texts that share similar themes.
For instance, some plays by Hanoch Levin were read together with those by Daniel Kharms, a Soviet-era playwright.
In another session, stories by famed Jewish author Isaac Babel were compared to stories by Jorge Luis Borges, a well-known Argentinean writer.
Another one of the sessions at the program highlighted the similarities between traditional Ukrainian and Jewish dance.
The fact that there are similarities is logical, since many Jewish communities in Ukraine over the last few centuries adopted traditional local dances and incorporated them into their own.
Eshkolot provided full kosher meals during the festival, not because the students demanded it, but to offer that “taste” of kosher food together with the text-based studies. The organization also distributed umbrellas printed with its motto, “Read slow, think fast.”
EXPERIENCING THE type of programs run by Avi Chai would be incomplete without meeting the man behind the machine.
The first thing you notice about David Rozenson is his genuine smile. The indefatigable director of Avi Chai in the former Soviet Union and the incoming director of Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai, Rozenson is the winner of the 2010 Man of the Year Award given by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia and has worked hard to achieve the success he can look back on with pride.
Avi Chai (“my father is alive”) – the name of which is inspired by the biblical story of Joseph meeting his brothers – is an Israeli-American foundation that seeks to reconnect Jews to their heritage. The organization’s programs exist in North America, Israel and the FSU.
Rozenson, who is currently working on his doctorate, is a native of St. Petersberg who emigrated to the US in 1978 with his parents and sister and then moved to Moscow in 2000 to initiate and oversee Avi Chai’s philanthropic activities in the FSU. Earlier this year, Rozenson oversaw the opening of the Department of Jewish Culture at St. Petersberg State University – an accomplishment of extreme significance and enormous proportion, especially when viewed within the context of Soviet history.
In discussing the participants and the programs he oversees, Rozenson emphasized that Avi Chai’s main goal is not to make people religious, but rather to introduce them to Judaism in new and different ways than what is already being done elsewhere.
“When we talk about zero background in this country, we literally mean zero background. Here, Jewish tradition is outdated and outmoded. The youth here have a totally different experience. Young Russian Jews cannot be compared to those in America and Israel. Seventy years of communist rule wiped out Jewish history and wiped out nostalgia. These students are going to be the movers and shakers of tomorrow’s Russia, so the only language in which we can speak to them is the language they know.
“It took a long time, but eventually we developed the Eshkolot programs, which are focused fully on textual study and presented by a whole slew of people. We didn’t want the same usual suspects – we wanted new people to attend. We wanted what we call the ‘studentim shel physica’ [the physics students] – real intellectual students.
“If there is a small percentage of non- Jews that come to the program, it is better for us since they will have an appreciation for Judaism. And when they are in the driver’s seat of whatever institution, they will have had a positive experience with Judaism and Jewish texts.
“These programs are headed by local organizers. The Eshkolot festival and the book festival are theirs – not mine. Avi Chai has the privilege of supporting these programs, but they are run by others.”
AVI CHAI supports numerous programs that focus on Jewish history, life and culture and encourage scholarly, text-based study, hands-on experience and leadership skills.
Rozenson notes that there is a process involved and finding interested intellectual students is not a one-time effort.
“First, we have to find the students and then capture their attention. Then we need to engage them and, no less important, follow up with them.
Rozenson highlights many of Avi Chai’s activities, described later on in this article, and point out that, “for many of these participants, they are still searching. This is just the beginning for them,” he says.
Rozenson has forged partnerships for many of Avi Chai's programs in the FSU, including with Israel's Ministry of Education, the Leviev Fund, the Jewish Agency, the JDC, the Genesis Foundation and especially with a growing number of local donors of means, whom the world refers to as oligarchs but who for Rozenson and the Jewish community are men and women who are passionate and in love with their Judaism - and with the projects that they partner on with Avi Chai. Of note, the Eshkolot Festivals are supported in partnership with Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. "At a meeting with Lord Jacob Rothschild and his executive Ms. Sally Berkovic in his offices in London," Rozenson says, "Lord Rothschild was taken with the careful research conducted in our attempts to reach the elusive audience of young, well-educated but largely unaffiliated Jews in Russia. In turn, he directed his staff and committee to visit Russia, learn our work and the work of others from up close and it was actually due to his direct input that the Eshkolot Festivals were born. Without a top-rate leadership, nothing is possible; and without men like Lord Rothschild, little can be born."
Having been a close confidante of talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, among other prominent rabbis, coupled with his success in the FSU, which is obviously helped along by his warm personality, Rozenson clearly has the necessary skill sets to lead Avi Chai to its next destination down the road. ■