Not long after a powerful storm knocked out trees and power across the state, a group of young people gathered together on a cold, soggy field at Project Adventure in Beverly. In an ad hoc mélange of differing levels of English, Russian and Hebrew, the group helped each other strap into harnesses, ascend the heights of a small cliff and then sail effortlessly through the air once they’d scaled the top.
Only on a mifgash (encounter) between two melting-pot cultures is such a truly unique set of sights and sounds even possible.
From October 17 to 22, 10 Russian-Jewish teens from across the North Shore welcomed back old friends: 15 Russian-Israeli students at the Ironi Aleph Education Center in Haifa, who had once hosted them for a few days after the end of their Y2I trip.
Now, as part of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies Boston-Haifa Connection, a 30-year-old partnership promoting relationships between the two respective communities, the Americans were able to return the favor, and teens who attended the 2018 and 2019 Y2I trips were able to host the Israelis they’d befriended.
In 2018, the first year the mifgash was offered as an optional extension of the trip for North Shore teens, there was no homestay; everyone stayed in a Haifa hotel. But this past summer there was, and the respective groups were able to compare and contrast Russian-Jewish home life in different places.
Gregory Vinitsker, a junior at Swampscott High School who participated in a homestay in Haifa this past summer, said that Russian parents everywhere are similar.
“We all had jokes about parents making fun of you in front of others, because that’s what happened to me; being overfed; having too much food at the table; getting gifts for everyone; making sure you give gifts to your families,” he said.
“There was the same Russian grandma there, asking if we were hungry, offering everyone food,” said Jessica Sapozhnik, a junior at Salem High School who also did a homestay in Haifa.
However, there were a few differences.
Vinitsker and Sapozhnik both noted that Israeli teens tend to go out more with their friends than Americans. Perhaps it’s to get a bit of breathing room from the antics detailed above. Most Israelis, especially in big cities like Haifa, live in relatively small apartments, so they were surprised to see how much space American suburbs offer.
“In Middleton, we’re not on top of each other in terms of the houses…. They were fascinated by the fact that I have stairs,” said Daniel Groysman, a senior at Masconomet Regional High School in Boxford.
Alan Chak, who also lives in Middleton and attends Masconomet, said that his Israeli friend Daniel’s “jaws dropped” when he drove him through the mansions of the wealthier section of town.
The Israelis were similarly impressed by the size, scope and cleanliness of Boston.
“They said they’d never seen anything like it,” said Chak. “It gave me a new appreciation for Boston. They said the architecture is completely different, and there’s crowds of people everywhere.”
They also explored Jewish life in and around Boston. For Boston-Haifa Connection Project Manager Marla Olsberg, it was important that the Israelis experience a number of different Jewish institutions to get a better sense of Jewish life in the Diaspora.
“It was very important to have the kids interact with different images of Judaism,” said Olsberg.
“There’s a lot of gray here, and in Israel, there’s a lot more black and white, and we really wanted them to see that a lot of people live in the gray,” she went on. “In Israel, you’re either religious or you’re secular, and they don’t see the middle.”
The teens visited the Epstein Hillel School and the JCC in Marblehead, and then attended a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service at Congregation Shirat Hayam, a Conservative synagogue in Swampscott with musical instruments and yoga on Shabbat. These were things that would be hard to find at most Israeli synagogues.
They later celebrated Simchat Torah at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, and met with Rabbi Marcia Plumb of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Brookline, which was the first time many of them met a female rabbi or saw a woman wearing a yarmulke.
This led to interesting discussions between the two groups about their own Jewish practices.
Judaism was banned in the Soviet Union, so both Russian-Americans and Russian-Israelis are largely secular. (Many of the Israelis said Kiddush for the first time in their lives while attending synagogue.) But the general secularism manifests itself differently in the two countries.
Many noted that Israelis live in a majority Jewish country, meaning that Judaism is all around them even if they don’t belong to a synagogue and eat sushi on Rosh Hashana, like the family of Groysman’s friend, Vladi Kalynskyy.
“In Israel, there’s such a large Jewish presence, and they don’t really see a need because life around them is so Jewish,” said Groysman. “But in the United States, we’re a much smaller group, so we tend to want to be doing more.”
Jewish studies are part of Israeli public school curriculums, so all young people there have a baseline understanding of the religion in a way that Americans who don’t attend Hebrew school do not. But the Israeli visitors got to experience a different type of education when they spent a morning at their American friends’ schools.
They were generally greeted warmly, and Olsberg noted that some principals came out to greet the students. In Chak’s American Government class, his friend Daniel spoke with the teacher about ways in which Israeli and American governments differ.
“[Daniel] said that there’s a lot more open-ended discussion with the teacher, so instead of the teacher lecturing the class, there are more students contributing,” said Chak.
Other Israelis said they found Americans to be more quiet and attentive in class; that American classes last too long; and the schools don’t give students enough time to socialize during the day.
Everyone pointed out that even though the Israelis immediately go on to serve in the military while Americans go to college, both groups have parents that place a high premium on the importance of education.
That was one of many aspects of Russian culture that helped the two groups bond despite all their differences.
“Even though we’re in two different parts of the world, the ways we’ve culturally assimilated into the countries that we live in, with our Russian backgrounds, are very similar – the candies, the foods, the shows, the toys,” said Groysman. “That was the extra connection that helped us make friends in the first place.”