Tel Aviv’s first Russian-speaking congregation says “da” to young progressives
It was an unlikely setting for the opening of a synagogue. Over 100 people gathered around sipping cocktails in Tel Aviv’s upscale Sarona district on August 26 as a saxophonist serenaded them with the slender tones of smooth jazz. A red carpet led to the synagogue building, erected in the early 20th century in the former German Templar colony.
Passers-by were surprised to see the glitzy event spread across the streets. They were even more surprised to find that they were attending a synagogue dedication.
There were many reasons to celebrate. Four years ago, in May 2017, Rabbi Yosef Khersonsky, the leader of this new herd, was ordered to leave Russia by a Moscow district court. Today, Rabbi Chabad inaugurated Tel Aviv’s first synagogue intended specifically for Russian speakers.
Israel is home to approximately 1.2 million citizens who immigrated from the former Soviet states; Russian President Vladimir Putin has estimated the number at nearly 2 million. The Jewish state has also seen a strong resurgence in immigration from Russian-speaking countries in recent years, with many arrivals citing Putin’s authoritarianism as the reason for moving to Israel.
Khersonsky was ostensibly ousted from Russia for “creating a foreign for-profit entity” without permission – a charge he denies, saying he acted as a consultant on religious issues to existing Jewish institutions. And although the tribunal called Khersonsky a threat to national security, he believes the real reason he was told to leave may be related to his views on the changing political landscape of Russia after its annexation of Russia. Crimea in 2014.
After his expulsion from Russia, Khersonsky, an Israeli citizen, moved to Tel Aviv and formed a non-denominational Russian-speaking religious community under his Orthodox leadership called Jewish Point.
No faith in the old clichés
Since the first wave of post-Soviet immigration to Israel in the 1990s, there has been a perception in the Jewish state that people in the former Soviet Union are non-Jews, non-religious, or anti-religious. . This view persists, although a new generation of Russian speakers who grew up after the collapse of the Soviet Union and who were brought up with a different attitude towards religion, have flocked to Israel in large numbers.
The arrival of these young people is reflected in the growth of Russian-speaking Jewish communities in Israel. For example, three Russian-speaking Orthodox Jewish congregations have appeared in Jerusalem over the past decade – in the Ramot and Neve Yaakov neighborhoods, and in the Nahalat Yaakov synagogue in the city center.
The founding of a Russian-speaking synagogue in Tel Aviv’s Sarona neighborhood, the beating heart of secular Israel, is a sign that the community is moving out of traditional religious enclaves. It also reflects the expectation that young Russian-speaking professionals do not need to live in Jerusalem to have a place to pray when the spirit animates them.
“People need [to belong to a] synagogue, ”Khersonsky said. “Jewish education, networks and events are great, but if you don’t have a synagogue, it’s like you’re in a bubbling sea without an anchor. For example, there are a lot of Russians who call themselves secular, but at the same time they need a place they can come to on Yom Kippur, Passover, Shabbat. These people need a bright synagogue, a house where they are expected and smiling, where they are not reprimanded for their sins.
According to historian Konstantin Bondar, the idea of a Russian synagogue in fashionable Sarona “until recently seemed incredible”.
“I don’t think the Russian synagogue in Tel Aviv will dispel the myth that Russians in Israel are anti-religious,” said Bondar, who came to celebrate the opening of the synagogue. “But it can give Judaism, the Jewish way of life, an ultramodern image based on the latest trends. The new generation doesn’t want to see dusty shelves. Young Russians want to see a rabbi who knows contemporary music, dresses stylishly and at the same time remains an expert in sacred texts.
Hi-tech and powerful
Jewish Point’s head fits that description perfectly. Khersonsky speaks the language of tech and internet memes, supports Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and runs to stay in shape.
He also specializes in the development of Jewish educational tools using social media and the Internet. Today, he’s developing an artificial intelligence platform that will answer questions congregations typically ask the clergy. He jokingly calls this project “the salvation of the Jewish people.”
Khersonsky launched a crowdfunding campaign to rent “a little house in Sarona” in January of this year. During the coronavirus pandemic, her community came together online. Living under a series of blocks taught Khersonsky and his team how to optimize their digital presence, which resulted in a significant increase in audiences: 50,000 unique users around the world accessed their content each month.
This loyal community raised 20% of Khersonsky’s crowdfunding goal in just 24 hours. In July, the rabbi announced the end of the campaign – 748 people had raised 700,000 shekels ($ 218,000) to rent and maintain the synagogue for the Russian Jewish community.
Khersonsky said his community’s one million shekels ($ 312,000) annual budget is raised almost exclusively through crowdfunding donations from Russian-speaking Israelis and Jews in the global diaspora. The average giveaway is 946 NIS ($ 295); the median is 200 NIS ($ 62).
“I am proud that our project was not funded with money from wealthy sponsors,” Khersonsky said. “Not because it’s not good or not appreciated. But because when everyone pays their hundred shekels, we get real social cooperation. It is a real community. “
From the old country to the new
Khersonsky was born into a Jewish family in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk. In 1991, at the age of 13, he immigrated to Israel with his parents. He graduated from a religious high school in the central Israeli town of Kfar Chabad, then studied at a rabbinical seminary in New York.
In 2002, Khersonsky was appointed rabbi of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia. He pioneered the Jewish presence in Russian on the web and was the first online rabbi of Jewish.ru, a global Jewish center for Russian speakers. In 2008, he helped found a Jewish community called Among Friends in Moscow. This community has become well known for attracting a young crowd largely from the business and tech communities.
Many members of Jewish Point know Khersonsky from Moscow.
“The heart of our community is made up of people who have moved to Israel in the past five years,” Khersonsky said. “In Russia, they went to a Jewish kindergarten, a Jewish school or a Jewish community center. Sometimes I realize that I was the one who taught them Torah in that kindergarten or community center. It is an incredible feeling.
Spirituality adapted to welcome voters
Young Russian speakers who immigrated to Israel to realize their creative or business visions are the foundation of Jewish Point. Many of them, like 26-year-old Elina Levina, believe that Israel’s division into religious and secular groups is long overdue.
“If there are Jews, then there must be a synagogue,” Levina said. “To divide the Jews into lay and religious is a mistake. “
“I live in Jerusalem and I understand very well how important it is to have a Russian-speaking religious community to understand what Judaism is in a language close to you,” she said. “For Tel Aviv, the presence of such a community is even more relevant, as most young Russian immigrants prefer to live in central Israel, in Tel Aviv or nearby.
Khersonsky envisions Jewish Point as an embassy for Russian Jews in Tel Aviv. In addition to traditional synagogue prayers, Sabbath meals, and Torah studies, the synagogue will host eclectic events such as wine tastings with an included lesson on kosher or master classes in candle-making.
“We are the YouTube of Russian Jews, and the Sarona Synagogue is a platform where anyone who is not at war with God or Judaism can carry out their project or idea,” Khersonsky said.
The rabbi insists on the openness of his community. Indeed, there are LGBT rights activists and feminists in the riding of Jewish Point.
“Our synagogue is open to everyone because we think it’s okay to disagree,” Khersonsky said. “I believe Judaism, like good attire, should be tailored to the client. It must take into account the peculiarities of your figure, your soul. Banning is easy, but the real power is to seek individual options that are permissive, not prohibitive. “
Openness to ideas and opinions is the concept, Khersonsky said, which can lead people to the light of Judaism and God.
“You could say that we are working like a Russian doll upside down,” Khersonsky explained. “First a person will come to us for a master class or a lecture, then they will want to work in the coworking space, and then they will want to stay for Shabbat.”
The opening ceremony followed a similar pattern. After soft music with cocktails and the inauguration ceremony, the guests, respecting COVID restrictions, entered the synagogue, where they listened to a lecture on Tel Aviv synagogues, participated in a lesson on the making of craft candles for Rosh Hashanah and played a trivia game. At the end there was an evening prayer service.
“The message that I want to convey to the people who come to our synagogue may seem paradoxical,” said the rabbi. “You receive by giving. This means that you are investing and getting investments from everyone else in the community. This is why when I invite people to the synagogue, I ask them to become more prosperous – in every sense of the word. I invite people to be surprised. To be surprised and to say: “It was fantastic”.
“Ultimately,” Khersovsky said, “a synagogue is a house for smiles. Sometimes there may not be a quorum of prayer, but there still has to be smiles. “