by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
Last month, for the second time, I attended Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union), a gathering of Russian-speaking and Russian-adjacent Jews from all walks of life. Last year, after teaching a session on mikveh, I enjoyed my newfound notoriety as “the mikveh lady,” as I came to be known. I met other Russian-Jews building a mikveh in Philadelphia; I heard a fascinating lecture on Christianity at the time of Second Temple Judaism; I danced; I sang. I left determined to return.
And so I did. For me, this year’s Limmud felt completely different. Let’s start with the obvious: I wasn’t a newbie anymore. Perhaps more relevant, however, was that I signed up to volunteer. I was inspired by my previous experience, and I wanted to contribute to its sustainability in some way. Selfishly, I also realized that volunteering would feel good.
I do not typically like conferences. The large crowds of people I don’t know often leave me feeling like I’m at a sad, crowded carnival. However, this carnival is different; it is my carnival.
Limmud FSU is one of the few Jewish communal spaces organized primarily by and for Russian-speaking Jews (RSJs). The American Jewish community has long expressed its disappointment that RSJs haven’t successfully integrated and assimilated into American Jewry. Unfortunately, I hear these disappointed musings frequently.
As the Russian Jewish community grows, and our concerns also grow beyond social services and language acquisition, organizations like Limmud FSU are examples of our ability to create unique content that reflects our cultural heritage. Is it perfect? Of course not. Some people want more Russian-language programming, more borscht, shorter lines for sushi on Saturday night, etc. But as I said, this is my carnival and these are problems I happily embrace.
With this perspective bolstering my enthusiasm to volunteer, I signed up for one of the most frenzied jobs at the conference: registration. As soon as I arrived, I went to work. Hundreds of people poured in at once: elderly couples, families with children of all ages, young adults, presenters, journalists, comedians and artists. I was excited to be the one to welcome them.
Whenever I find myself at the front door of Mayyim Hayyim or when I host a meal at my house, I know the unique joy of getting someone across a threshold. Whether you are about to get naked and jump into a mikveh, or share a cozy meal, the unknown can be unnerving. It feels good to watch someone’s face relax when you greet them warmly. I also like to think it’s something I inherited from traditional Russian Jewish culture. How many times have I entered a relative’s home for a meal and had every single thing possible offered to me: slippers for my feet, a three course meal, vodka, cognac, wine, seltzer, or something else? You like this shirt? You can have it! It’s cold outside, take my jacket!
Being attentive and welcoming, whether in my home, at a conference, or at work, isn’t just a cultural tick. In a strange and unexpected way, it isn’t dissimilar to feeling empowered. It is a good feeling to know I can bring something valuable to another human’s experience. The desire to welcome grows from a burgeoning sense of belonging and a responsibility to the place I’m in and the people in it. I feel it at Mayyim Hayyim every day, and this year, I was surprised to feel it at a conference. Who knows where I’ll feel it next?
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.