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A Russian-Jewish Journey from the FSU to a Bimah in L.A.

When 13 Russian-Jewish adults who grew up in the former Soviet Union were called to the bimah at Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica on March 15th, the only thing more poignant than the shining faces of the men and women was the sound of Cantor Samuel Cohen’s voice as he led the group in prayer.

Cantor Samuel Cohen rehearses with members of the inaugural Russian-Jewish B’nai Mitzvah project.

For many in the inaugural Russian-Jewish adult B’nai Mitzvah project, it was their first Shabbat service. “This program was able to provide us with the environment in which one was not judged for being Jewish and not knowing the Shabbat prayers. It inspired us to ask questions, and for that I will be forever grateful,” said Dina Brevdo, a Bat Mitzvah who is also a participant in the Russian Track of Federation’s Community Leadership Institute.

And for all of the participants, having grown up with little or no connection to their Jewish identity, taking part in the B’nai Mitzvah project was the culmination of a dream. “We are a living proof that the attempts to sever the link between us and our Jewishness failed miserably. After long years of non-connection, we are choosing to be Jewish,” said Svetlana Rapoport.

The B’nai Mitzvah project was organized by participants in our Federation’s inaugural Russian Jewish Community Leadership (RJCLP) program, which is now part of our Community Leadership Institute (CLI). These budding leaders opened up the program to participants of RuJuLA, a Russian-Jewish young adult network in Los Angeles committed to fostering a vibrant, diverse and meaningful community united by a common identity and desire to connect with our heritage. Both RJCLP and RuJuLA are supported by Jewish Federation Los Angeles, Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Jewish Agency for Israel. 

During the Shabbat service led by Rabbi Michael Gotlieb in the filled-to-capacity sanctuary, CLI Co-Chair Josh Feffer was called to read the Torah along with Federation’s Chief Program Officer Andrew Cushnir, who spoke to the congregation about the Russian Track of the CLI initiative. The warmly supportive congregation also heard class organizers and participants Svetlana Rapoport and Sasha Shteyn share their excitement and personal fulfillment in leading the group. The service was followed by a Kiddush luncheon and countless mazal tovs for the beaming B’nai Mitzvot.

Thanks to the leadership of Cantor Cohen, who had spent a year in the former Soviet Union, and the support of Rabbi Gotlieb, the eager learners studied together on a Jewish journey that started in one world and culminated in ours. But it’s just the beginning, as they plan on continuing to meet regularly to continue their Jewish education.

On behalf of our Jewish community, mazal tov to all the new B’nai Mitzvot: Dina Brevdo, Vadim Eydel, Bella Filler, Vladimir Khanenko, Maxim Levkov, Alla Levkova, Lilia Lukowsky, Alex Milyavskiy, Bella Nudel, Lubov Portnaya, Svetlana Rapoport, Gary Satanovsky and Sasha Shteyn.

For more information about the Community Leadership Institute or RuJuLA, contact our Federation’s Assistant Director of Russian Community Outreach, Sasha Zlobina, at SZlobina@JewishLA.org.

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