Here We Are All Jews: 175 Russ­ian — Jew­ish Journeys

  • Review
By – February 27, 2023

Rab­bi Jonathan Porath jour­neyed to the Sovi­et Union and post – Sovi­et Rus­sia 175 times between 1965 and 2019. What began as a Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty student’s inter­est in the Russ­ian lan­guage and his James Bond – like image of Rus­sia devel­oped into a life­long com­mit­ment to Sovi­et Jewry.

As a young man, Porath was asked to serve as a Unit­ed Syn­a­gogue Youth (USY) leader, tak­ing small select groups of Amer­i­can high school stu­dents on numer­ous mis­sions to the Sovi­et Union. Their pro­fessed aim was to vis­it as tourists, but they secret­ly hoped to con­nect with Sovi­et Jews. They encoun­tered an iso­lat­ed Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion who lived in fear of strangers. Near­ly sev­en decades of Sovi­et rule had all but stamped out their reli­gion. Rab­bis with aged and dwin­dling con­gre­ga­tions had to remain apo­lit­i­cal; gov­ern­ment-backed rit­u­al direc­tors report­ed to the author­i­ties; and spies and trai­tors were always a threat. Many Jews were not aware of their her­itage or were oth­er­wise afraid to admit to it. They ate matzah on Passover, but they had no under­stand­ing of the Exo­dus. When Porath and his group gave sub­tle signs of their Judaism — like mak­ing small Hebrew bibles vis­i­ble in their back pock­ets, for exam­ple, or show­ing tzitz­it under their shirts — one such con­tin­gent approached. Porath and the USY stu­dents sup­plied these brave, curi­ous Jews with Jew­ish objects of their own.

In the 1980s, after act­ing as a pul­pit rab­bi in the US — just like his father and grand­fa­ther before him — Porath and his fam­i­ly made aliyah to Israel. And when the Sovi­et Union col­lapsed, Porath’s Russ­ian expe­ri­ences served him well. He became a val­ued mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Committee’s work to rebuild Jew­ish life in Russ­ian com­mu­ni­ties. Porath was inspired by Elie Wiesel’s Jews of Silence, which recounts a year­ly, state-sanc­tioned Sim­chat Torah cel­e­bra­tion at the Moscow syn­a­gogue — an event that drew thou­sands of Jews. The rab­bi lat­er forged a rev­er­en­tial friend­ship with Wiesel, who encour­aged him to chron­i­cle his Russ­ian jour­neys and write this mem­oir. Over the years, Porath always assured his fel­low Jews that they were not alone and not for­got­ten. His efforts reached Sovi­et Jews, Israeli olim (immi­grants) in his Jerusalem neigh­bor­hood, and then lat­er those Jews who remained in the post – Sovi­et Union.

Here We Are All Jews is a high­ly per­son­al col­lec­tion of Porath’s expe­ri­ences, cov­er­ing fifty years of vis­its to big cities, tiny enclaves, and far-flung regions of Siberia and Geor­gia, and Ukraine. He recalls form­ing rela­tion­ships with reli­gious lead­ers, gov­ern­ment offi­cials, stu­dents, refuseniks, the young and old, and prac­tic­ing and sec­u­lar Jews — all while seek­ing to revive the Jew­ish spir­it and reli­gion. Rab­bi Porath bor­rowed the title of his book from a con­ver­sa­tion he had with a group of Ukrain­ian school chil­dren. In 1992, he asked them if they liked the state-run school they were in the pre­vi­ous year, or if they pre­ferred the Jew­ish school they were now attend­ing. Here,” they replied. Here we are all Jews.” Their answer encap­su­lat­ed Porath’s long mis­sion to instill pride and iden­ti­ty in Sovi­et Jews.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

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