“Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” When renowned Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus wrote those immortal words—inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty—she knew that even though they came under very different circumstances, and had many different beliefs, the main reason millions of immigrants fled to our shores was to seek a better life, a life of hope and opportunity. And for so many, a life free from the kind of persecution and pogroms, discrimination and economic hardship that forced millions of Russian Jews in the late 19th and 20th centuries to leave everything behind and come to America to start their lives all over again.
Thanks to their courage in facing the unknown, so many of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who came over in one of the first waves of Russian immigration are living the American Dream right here in our own community—and across the country—as a result. But what about those who came to Cincinnati in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s from what is now the former Soviet Union? Those who came with their elderly parents and young children and received help from our Jewish community in securing a place to live, a car, a job, English language lessons and even Jewish Day School and camp tuition? Whatever became of them?
“Thanks to the generosity of many individual donors, volunteers and local and national organizations, most of these families were able to get off to a great start, and went on to make wonderful lives for themselves. Their children are now successful young professionals, living and thriving in our community, many of whom are active participants in our Access events,” said Pam Saeks, director of Jewish Giving for The Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation. “Many of us grew up during the time of Bar and Bat Mitzvah ‘twinnings’ and worked to raise money to help rescue and resettle fellow Jews from the Soviet Union. We wrote letters, signed petitions and attended rallies in which we chanted ‘Let My People Go!’” she added. “Their path to political and religious freedom was made possible through the support of communities all over the world, just like ours, yet so few of our American-born young people today are aware of this important piece of modern Jewish history,” she continued.“We wanted an opportunity to celebrate the rich culture and tradition of our Russian young professionals and shed light on the amazing journey that brought them here.”
With this in mind, Access created CelebRUSSIAN Shabbat, a unique event that will take place on Friday, Dec. 16, at 7 p.m. at the Mayerson JCC, combining Jewish tradition with Russian culture. The event is free to all Jewish young professionals (YPs), ages 21-35, and is being billed as “the biggest blowout since the Iron Curtain came down!”
Participants will be treated to an authentic Russian dinner, complete with stuffed cabbage, borschst, blinches, Olivier salad and much more, plus vodka and other Russian-inspired drinks and live Russian music and entertainment. “This is our way of honoring all our young professionals of Russian heritage, as well as the many other Access participants whose ancestors came to this country so that they could make a better life for future generations to come,” explained Rachel Plowden, Access event coordinator. “Whether they’re of Russian descent or not, we are pulling out all the stops to insure that everyone has a fun and meaningful experience at this event!”
Max Yamson is one of 20 Russian-born or first generation young professionals who are on the CelebRUSSIAN host committee. Thanks to the support of the Jewish community, Yamson was able to attend Camp Livingston, Cincinnati’s Jewish community overnight camp, which he credits with helping him, and many others like him, develop their Jewish identity.
“My family immigrated to America when I was 9-years-old. The person I am today was not only influenced by the experiences I had growing up as a child in the former Soviet Union, but by the resources that were made available to my family and other families like mine by the Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, Camp Livingston and dozens more local and international Jewish agencies,” explained Yamson. “Access’ CelebRUSSIAN Shabbat is an amazing opportunity for young Jewish adults to experience the traditions and customs that I grew up with and many of their grandparents and great-grandparents grew up with. This is a very important part of Jewish history that must be remembered and preserved. My family and I are grateful that the Mayerson Foundation is taking the time and putting the resources into creating such a wonderful, one-of-a-kind experience!” he continued.“It’s really inspiring that Access is hosting a Shabbat that honors the cultures and traditions of not only the country in which I was born, but the traditions that we as Jews share the world over.”
Victoria Podolsky, another member of the host committee, invited a lot of her American friends to attend the event so they can learn more about her Russian culture. “I am so appreciative that Access and The Mayerson Foundation are organizing this Shabbat dinner to honor the Russian Jewish community. When I was asked to submit old family photos for a slideshow that will be playing at the event, I visited my grandmother’s apartment. As I searched through pictures of my family members who passed away before I had the chance to meet them, I was brought even closer to my Russian Jewish roots and my family, which reinforced the connection between my past and present,” she addeds. “I am really looking forward to this event and am proud that Access has chosen to showcase Russia at this event!”
Other members of the CelebRUSSIAN host committee include: Artem Barski, Sergey Chiripko, Alex Dal, George Fels, Irina and Jeremy Kanter, Vlad Leytus, Michael Loban, Gene and Jenny Masinovsky, Victoria Matsukevich, Irene Middendorf, Alex and Margarita Moksin, Jane Moksin, Jane Nemik, Eugene Pyatigorsky, Elaine Shapiro, Beatrice Terekhov and Jayne Yamson.
Access’ Got Shabbat dinner series give Jewish YPs a chance to wind down the work week together in a fun and casual atmosphere. These dinners provide the perfect opportunity for young professionals to meet new people while participating in a Jewish activity without any strings attached, regardless of their level of experience or observance. “It’s less about knowing the prayers and more about just being together in a Jewish context,” explained Plowden.“The only expectation we have is fun!”
Past Got Shabbat events have included Indian Summer Shabbat at Mayerson Hall on the campus of Hebrew Union College, Israeli Wine and Dine Shabbat at the Art of Entertaining in Oakley, Down on the Farm Shabbat at an organic, free-range farm in Loveland, and Shabbat ShaBark at Lakeside Lodge in Sharon Woods.
Next up, Mexican Fiesta Shabbat, including a host committee made up of some Access participants from Mexico City, and featuring authentic Mexican food, a mariachi band and more.
Space for this event is limited to the first 200 people and is expected to fill up. Reservations are required and will be given on a first come, first served basis. The event is open to Jewish young professionals, 21-35. Non-Jewish significant others are welcome.
For a video clip of another Russian Jews’ account of living in the former Soviet Union, click here.