Welcoming St. Petersburg Visitors

Tags: Russia, Overseas, Young Adults

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By Julie Jaslow Auerbach, Director of Overseas Missions and Education

“Dear Julie! Almost a year ago I was in your community in a group of the Capacity program. It was an incredible, unforgettable trip for me, which will always remain in my heart and my mind…”

And so began a recent letter to me from Mikhail Scharf, coordinator of the STARS program at the St. Petersburg, Russia, Chabad. Mikhail is one of a growing number of enthusiastic and driven young Jewish professionals building a renewed St. Petersburg Jewish community with our help. As a member of the first cohort of the “Capacity Building Project” last year, Mikhail studied principles such as building community values and setting community priorities while developing his own professional skills.

Mikhail’s letter continued… “I’m working on … STARS constantly, almost every waking moment. Yesterday we set an absolute record for attendance of the educational STARS program… at the session dedicated to the memory of the victims of Auschwitz…”

The Project’s year-long program of study, developed in partnership with our community, includes a week-long “internship” in Cleveland to learn from and be mentored by senior Cleveland professionals and lay leaders. Here Mikhail learned the importance of getting “out of his comfort zone” to try new things. Young people in Russia like Mikhail may attend Jewish Agency summer camps, Birthright and JDC leadership programs, but they still live under the cultural shadow of previous generations – and this affects their attitudes and their efforts. Experiences that open the inquisitive young Russian minds enable them to envision untold possibilities. And this is a huge goal of the Cleveland visit.

Mikhail’s letter continued, sharing with me his view of how in the Diaspora, we are part of a war to keep every Jew including the assimilated engaged. “How much is the preservation of every Jew, I do not know,” he wrote.

It makes me so proud to know that our community’s dollars are contributing to Mikhail’s development as a Jewish communal professional! We inspire him and he then inspires others. This is capacity building.

As I work on the itinerary for the visit of Cohort 2 of the Capacity Building Project, I find myself appreciating Mikhail’s words even more. “I want to thank you for what you have given me,” Mikhail wrote.

On March 9 a new group of young Jewish professionals from St. Petersburg will arrive in Cleveland. Through numerous emails and skyped conversations, my Russian colleagues and I have developed their year-long program and Cleveland internship. Together we bridge a vast cultural gap. Those of us in Cleveland will undoubtedly have our impact on the Russian visitors. So, too, will we be affected. We will be inspired by our visitors’ determination to build a self-sustaining Jewish community. We will be challenged by their questions and perhaps even rethink our own current practices. And in the end we will feel tremendous pride watching new colleagues become thoughtful Jewish community leaders in post-Communist St. Petersburg. I know that I will.

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