A very unusual Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening prayer) took place at a nice hotel in Milan in May: About 1,000 young people aged 18-30 from all over Russia and several post-Soviet countries, together with Chabad emissaries and counselors, dined with Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar. When the time came to recite a short Torah lesson, one of the young men asked for permission to speak, went up to the stage and proceeded to propose to his girlfriend. This daring act was the signal for others: One after the other, four young men went up to the stage and, some of them kneeling, proposed to girls in the hall – all of whom accepted immediately.
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That was one of the highlights of the weeklong tour, which included a cruise on a luxury liner that sailed from Barcelona and docked in Sardinia and Nice, followed by a visit to Monaco, to the coast of Lake Maggiore in Italy and to Milan. The tour, which has now taken place for the past four years, concludes with a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp in what was Nazi-occupied Poland.
Young people from 45 cities who attended weekly lessons on Judaism in their communities over nine months, not missing more than 15 percent of them, received the trip as a bonus. It is paid for entirely by the organizer – Yahad, an arm of Chabad involved in activities for young people. For some youngsters, it was their first time outside of Russia.
The trips abroad – part of a program called Eurostars – have become Yahad’s flagship event in recent years.
“We give them a ‘good time’ with a Jewish perspective,” says Yahad head Rabbi Mendy Wilansky. “In Russia, there are many young people who didn’t even know they were Jewish and discovered it only recently. And even if they know they’re Jewish – they don’t know anything about Judaism. So we have a double challenge: to find these Jews; and to get them to understand what Judaism is.”
A third challenge, adds Wilansky, is “to strengthen the communities.” In other words, to encourage marriages between Jews.
Vika Berland and Reuven Fliorov are now a couple thanks to Eurostars: She's from Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia and he's from Nizhny Novgorod – 4.5 hours away by plane – and they almost certainly never would have met without the program. They first met on a trip to Spain and Portugal last year, and afterward at a seminar in Moscow. They continued to correspond until they met again on the cruise two months ago, and their wedding is now set for October.
That same Friday night, Berland recalls in a phone interview, Reuven “made a very nice speech, but I don’t remember a thing because I was in shock. He was the second to go onstage, but they remembered him more than the others and congratulated him longer than all the others,” she adds proudly.
Europe without Christianity
Eurostars initially tried to use local tour guides for its program. It soon realized, though, that this made it difficult to offer Jewish content on the tours, so instead it recruited tour guides from Israel.
Yehudit Weinstein-Gross is in charge of these tours and says she has a very simple way of handling sites like the Sacré-Coeur basilica in Paris or Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona: “We don’t go there," she says. "We plan the route in such a way that it’s completely suited to our content. In Barcelona, for example, we visit the Old City.” If the guides are asked about a Christian holy site, they direct the tourists' attention to the architectural aspects of the building.
Weinstein-Gross stresses that the young people won’t return from Barcelona without learning about the architectural activity of Antoni Gaudi, but only through an artificial link to Judaism.
Wilansky tells Haaretz the cost of the trip is $1,500-$2,000 per participant, meaning a total cost of between $1.5 million to $2 million. The number of participants is steadily increasing and has actually doubled compared to last year. The project's main sponsors are Brazilian-Jewish tycoon-philanthropist Elie Horn and Russian-Israeli businessman Yitzhak Mirilashvili (who is presently a suspect, along with his father Michael, in the Arye Dery corruption probe).
Berland, 21, who is now completing her studies in advertising and public relations, says her fiancé is more meticulous than she is when it comes to observing the commandments, though she recently began observing Shabbat and keeping kashrut, and intends to wear a wig after their wedding in October.
“My mother used to prepare chicken in cream, but now she no longer does because I don’t eat it,” she says, adding that although her parents haven’t become observant, they support her.
Dovid Feinberg, 28, a leader of the young Jewish community in Rostov-on-Don, was Russia's first Jewish youth leader and even counseled leaders from other communities. He was the one who convinced Vika to join the program – the jewel in the crown of the youth club's activity. She says she received many phone calls before agreeing to try and join the program.
They celebrate Jewish holy days and Kabbalat Shabbat at the club, and have meetings with the community rabbi (a Chabad emissary from Canada), as well as sports activities and subsidized classes to learn languages. It's meant to bring participants closer to Judaism in an informal way. Dozens of similar clubs have been established throughout Russia in recent years. One of the main objectives of the activities is to prevent assimilation, and to bring the young people closer to their faith.
“Our objective ultimately is to create a strong Jewish family, where the mother and father are Jewish according to halakha,” said Feinberg in a phone interview, referring to Jewish religious law. “But of course we aren’t telling the young people in the club, ‘You came here in order to start a Jewish family.’ The aim is to create a comfortable environment for communication.”
The marriage proposals that occurred in Milan that May evening weren’t merely serendipity, but actually a product of some very deliberate and calculated work. The trips to Europe regularly include three matchmakers, who do their best to help Jewish men and women from far-flung parts of Russia find a match. As part of this activity, the counselors usually organize lectures about relationships and even speed-dating events.
A kosher match isn't the only outcome the Eurostars organizers take pride in. Wilansky says that on that particular Shabbat in Milan, dozens of young women assumed Jewish names. “In the middle of the prayer service, Rabbi Berel Lazar said, ‘Every girl who wants a Jewish name and doesn’t have one yet can get a name here next to the Torah.’ One girl asked, then a second girl – and in the end about 40 young women took Jewish names, which is incredible," he says. "Nobody told them they have to, but the atmosphere was such that instead of Christina and Anastasia, now they have names like Rachel and Rivka.”
One woman who decided to change her name that evening was Edna Simha (Sirush) Sukiasian, 29, from the city of Samara. She is a history teacher with a Jewish mother and Armenian-Christian father. She joined the program at the start of the academic year, but soon became one of the counselors.
“My life was diversified before, but now Judaism takes up perhaps 40 percent of it,” she says, enthusiastically describing her connection to the community, tradition and new friends - and the Eurostars trip in which she participated.
She says the visit to Auschwitz was “a sad episode, but essential. When you go into those barracks, look at the mountains of hair, the glasses - you understand it’s part of you, that that’s how someone treated another human being,” she reflects. “And you, as an heir to all that - you can’t forget it. You can’t help but celebrate Rosh Hashanah, for example.”
She adds that when the group from Samara gathered in a circle and sang a Jewish song at Auschwitz, “I looked at the barbed wire and I understood: Although they died, we have an obligation. We have an obligation to continue somehow.”