|Members of Cong. Beth Sholom’s Russian Jewish Club perform Sholom Aleichem’s “The Restaurant of Kasrilovka” during a 2001 celebration of the writer.|
During the 1980s, new Russian Jewish immigrants discovered they were free to practice their religion here but were unsure about how, after living through decades of Communist rule that suppressed any expression of religion.
Bella Rashin, a member of Cong. Beth Sholom in Teaneck and herself a Russian immigrant, invited others to meet at the synagogue in 1989 to explore their Jewish roots together. At its peak, the Russian Jewish Club attracted 150 people, who studied Jewish customs and Yiddish literature while maintaining their own Russian culture.
“She wanted to organize the Jewish people from the former Soviet Union,” said Maria Gertsenshteyn, the club’s current president. “They don’t know about Yiddishkeit. She was from a religious family and she wanted to tell them about Judaism, about Jewish holidays. She wanted them to be Jewish. This is the goal of the club.”
The Russian Jewish Club will mark 20 years of education and camaraderie at a celebration at the synagogue on Sunday, Oct. 25. The club’s approximately 70 members, along with guests, will listen to its choir sing in Hebrew and Russian and hear tributes from members about the work it has done.
In 1991, the club received a grant from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and arranged for classes at the synagogue on Hebrew reading, prayer, Jewish history, and Jewish community. In May 1994, with more than 30 World War II veterans attending the club, organizers held the first annual Victory Day celebration, marking the victory over Nazi Germany. In 1996, the club organized the choir, which has sung at the synagogue’s annual Shabbaton every year since 1997.
“I’ve always been touched by the Victory Day celebrations I go to, and the first time I heard the chorus sing songs in Hebrew in a strong Russian accent,” said Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Kenneth Berger. “They did it with such pride and sang ‘God Bless America’ expressing their appreciation for being here in the United States. Those are the [moments] that moved me.”
Rashin died from a brain tumor in 1997 and Gertsenshteyn took over the club.
“Every Shabbos I’m very glad I’m with Jewish people,” Gertsenshteyn said. “And I want other people to feel the same.”
Vladimir Yedidovich, a member of the club who died in July, wrote that one “of the most difficult things for the Jewish immigrant who comes to America is to feel Jewish.” In a piece that will appear in the anniversary dinner’s program, he continued to praise the work of the Russian Jewish Club for helping him and others reconnect with their Judaism.
“For years it’s been a great pride to the synagogue,” said Ruth Cowan, a member of Beth Sholom’s publicity committee. “It’s unique in terms of having these people who have so little [Jewish] background and would just disappear into American culture are refinding themselves in terms of their heritage.”
Berger, who has led Jewish education classes since the early days of the club, called it “part of the fabric” of the synagogue.
“They feel that this is their home,” he said. “That’s a wonderful thing, that these Russian immigrants all feel they have a Jewish home.”
A Jewish home is exactly what Gertsenshteyn considers Beth Sholom. She has been in the United States for 37 years and a member of Beth Sholom since 1992. Three years ago, she had a bat mitzvah with six other members of the club. Judaism, she said, is her life. That’s what the Russian Jewish Club does, she said.
“We continue what Bella began,” she said, “to be Jewish.”
For more information on the anniversary celebration, call (201) 833-2620.