By Katerina Valdivieso
The sons and daughters of Russian Jewish immigrants converse over frothy beers at the Jewish Center in Brighton Beach. They are here, ostensibly, to study the books of Jewish law, something their parents could not do when they lived in the Soviet Union. The children of these immigrants, now mostly in their 20’s, are also here for something more: they are here to find themselves.
Biana Lupa, 25, came from Ukraine when she was three years old. She comes to this Brighton Beach synagogue’s program to learn Judaism. She says her parents were forced to live secular lives under the Soviet regime. Now, she wants to reclaim her Jewish tradition.
“I grew up in the States,” says Lupa, “I’m not Russian, but I don’t feel only American. Plus, I’m Jewish and my parents don’t observe Jewish traditions. I wanted to know who I was and I wanted to find a community of people like me to share with them my struggles.”
Lupa’s struggles come at a particularly emotional time. Although, Lupa questions her faith and her relationship with God at times, she finds comfort in a program in her synagogue called Russian American Jewish Experience or RAJE. It is a program that promotes Jewish values and traditions among young Russian Americans in the south of Brooklyn.
Rabbi Dovid Goldshteyn, one of the teachers of the Talmud in this synagogue, explains that, back in the Soviet Union, it was very hard to for Russian Jews to profess their faith in a secular society because the regime prohibited them from doing so. Hence, most of these immigrants had lost their religious tradition long before coming to America. “A hundred years ago all of our ancestors were Jewish Orthodox, living in terrible poverty conditions,” says Goldshteyn, adding that Judaism “was stolen from us by the soviet regime.”
RAJE is not the only organized group with the goal of connecting children of Jewish immigrants with their roots. The worldwide organization Ezra USA also has a center in Brighton Beach. But RAJE targets young adults and their outreach programs get very creative.
Every Tuesday evening, students congregate at this Jewish center to attend Rabbi Goldshteyn’s lectures about the Talmud and to drink beer. Rabbis and students sometimes cook a potlock. At other times, they order kosher food, but there are always kegs of beer around. Tuesday are known as Happy Tuesday.
Alexander Schiller, 23, comes to Happy Tuesday religiously. He says that drinking alcohol is part of being Russian and part of being Jewish. “Our parents made vodka in their bath tub,” says Schiller.
His view is echoed by another Russian American, Igor Komissarenko, who said that to him a big part of being Jewish means enjoying yourself. However, for Komissarenko, the search for a Jewish identity was unsuccessful. “I was curious for a while,” he says, “and then I lost interest.”
Komissarenko does not go to Happy Tuesdays, nor does he observe Jewish traditions. He was born in Ukraine and moved to America with his family when he was 8 years old. Today, he is 24 and he remains secular, like his parents.
When Komissarenko was 18 years old, he says, he worked at a kosher bakery in Avenue U. Rabbis constantly invited him for dinner or to observe Jewish holidays. But it did not take long before he realized the religious path was not for him. He said that after attending synagogue a few times he felt a bit of pressure by his peers to become observant.
“I wanted to be free, to be the way I want to be,” says Komissarenko.
For Erika Michelle Koltun, a life-death experience put an end to her quest of searching for an identity. Koltun’s best friend died in a car accident three years ago, exactly three weeks after she first started attending this Russian American Jewish Experience program. It was her best friend’s birthday and Koltun was invited to go out with her and some friends to celebrate on a Friday night. She debated between going to her party of observing the Sabbath.
“I decided to go to Sabbath instead,” says Koltun. “It was crazy! I was supposed to be with her. I was supposed to be in that car,” Koltun says.
When she looks back to the accident, however, Koltun admits that she had been “hanging out with the wrong people” at that time. She says she knows now for sure she was in the wrong path. Koltun wishes her friend was alive and what happened to her still hurts.
At the time of the accident the rabbis of her synagogue were teaching her that “if you keep Sabbath, Sabbath will keep you,” Koltun says. “When I was at the hospital I was so sad and angry I wanted to rip my star off my neck and my mother stopped me,” she said. “God protected me, my mom told me. God saved me from being dead.”
Koltun is now studying at the Yeshiva University, in Manhattan, and she is Orthodox. She said she still has a long way to go in her knowledge and her faith.
While Koltun has embraced her faith, not all Russian Americans do so. Many who come to this synagogue’s program are merely seeking to make sense of who they are. They search for answers in Judaism despite of what their parents think of this search.
Because they are secular, the parents of these young people are not always at ease with the possibility that their kids end up being Orthodox. Koltun’s parents are more supportive. “My mother started lighting candles on Friday night,” Koltun says, “Actually, it was my father who pushed to light the candles.”
Koltun hopes her parents follow her steps one day. But the small signs that they are showing lately are enough to make her happy.”
“Sometimes they go to a kosher restaurant and they would call me saying ‘Hey, we’re eating kosher.’ It’s really cute. Maybe one day,” says Koltun.
Alexander Schiller is dedicated to his Talmud studies, though his parents are not as thrilled as Koltun’s. Schiller’s mother was a teacher in Ukraine. His mother told him she was denied a job promotion back in Ukraine for being Jewish. Schiller says his parent’s faith has brought to them nothing but trouble. He says that here in the States his mother tells him sometimes to take his yarmulke off his head to show respect for others because they live in a Catholic neighborhood.
His father is still suspicious of his devoted attendance to synagogue. His father, he says, would tell him: “What do you do there, what do you do? Do you drink alcohol? Do you drink with the rabbi? You do marihuana? Why are you so happy?”
Schiller replies to his father that he is searching for what the Soviets took away form him.