Imagine discussing Torah and the finer points of theology near the top of the world as the day fades away into an 11 p.m. sunset. Imagine bestowing a Hebrew name on a teenager — or an adult — who doesn’t speak a word of English, but who has traveled up to 27 hours by train to experience that very privilege. Imagine being perhaps the first female rabbi to conduct a Shabbat service in the region.
Matt Rosenberg and Rachel Safman no longer need to imagine. The two students at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University (AJU) lived the experience, and they have the photographs and the memories to prove it.
The two rabbinical students, ambassadors as well as learners themselves, spent a week in early July in Novosibirsk as part of the annual Bar/Bat Mitzvah Project in Siberia. Created by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) under the auspices of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson at AJU, the JDC raises money to bring 50 children — and, in certain cases, their parents — to a weeklong family camp.
The week’s activities are a mixture of drama, dance, music, games and religious services. The campers learn a basic haftarah portion, Hebrew songs and Israeli dance, and they get “writing time” to document the experience. At week’s end, the students are called to the Torah, recite the Shema and are called by their newly given Hebrew name.
“Not to minimize the ceremony itself, but even to be in a camp with that many other people who identify as Jews is mind-blowing,” Safman said. “That was the first exposure that those kids had to such a Jewish presence in one place.”
“There are 70,000 Jewish people in a country that once comprised half the Jewish population of the world,” added Elaine Berke, the JDC board member who for six years has raised the $100,000 per year necessary to make the program happen. “And a lot of them are still very interested in being Jewish or at least understanding what that is.”
Every year at AJU, the call goes out to the rabbinical students for volunteers to lead the program. The well-traveled Rosenberg, a fifth-year student who professes to “have been a geographer in a past life,” hit the reply button on his e-mail practically the moment the e-mail hit his inbox.
“I hope to inspire others as I was inspired,” said Rosenberg, a native of Sacramento. “I’ve been biding my time until I was far enough along in the program, and I replied almost immediately.”
Safman had plenty of international experience as well. Trained in medical sociology and having spent 10 years in Southeast Asia as an academic before entering the rabbinate, Safman said she would have applied in years past but for the fact that, prior to 2011, the program had been for male students only. She might have found out about the change sooner, but a frustrated Safman had begun deleting the Siberia e-mails unopened.
“This is the first time that the community itself has actually been faced with the question, directly, as to what they would think about a woman who was also a rabbi,” Safman said. “In their mind, until I appeared on the scene or probably before my arrival when they heard there was going to be a woman participating, I don’t think it ever occurred to them that the concept of combination of female and rabbi would ever mesh.”
Although the program has now been in existence six years — serving some 350 campers — each new pair of rabbinical students has to somewhat reinvent the week’s activities “on the fly” based on the campers’ backgrounds, knowledge and interests. And on the rabbis’. Because Rosenberg’s father’s yahrzeit fell during the camp week, Rosenberg recited the Mourner’s Kaddish during one of the evening services.
“In addition to the regular weekday services, we were able to talk about the components of every service: morning, afternoon and evening. So it was another teaching opportunity,” Rosenberg said. “We had a special Q-and-A session with some of the kids who knew the most about Judaism. So we spent a couple of hours discussing loftier topics.”
As the first female rabbinical student to participate in the program, Safman used the opportunity to conduct a session on the changing roles of women in Jewish life. The discussion, which was attended primarily by parents, was another eye-opening experience.
“For an hour and a half, we engaged in a passionate discussion of what it meant to be a Jewish woman and what possibilities there were for female participation in public Jewish life as well as [women’s] role in the home and the family,” Safman said. “Just saying to them it matters for a woman to be in a place where she can actually pray and participate, that it matters for her own spiritual development, was something significant — not just as support and reflection of her husband’s spirituality.”
As neither Rosenberg nor Safman speaks Russian, the sessions were conducted with the aid of translators. Potential language barriers did not, however, prevent the students from approaching the two rabbis outside of sessions.
“They became very comfortable with the translators, and we did have lot of people coming up to us after sessions and asking us different questions or stopping us in elevators,” Rosenberg said. “I think I was amazed at that aspect, how comfortable they were coming up to us.”
For Rosenberg, one of the week’s most profound experiences was being asked by a young Jewish couple whether it was true that only Orthodox Jews could be married under the chuppah (wedding canopy).
“That’s what they had heard, and it just broke our heart,” Rosenberg said, “that these two young Jewish kids who were obviously in love thought they weren’t able to have a Jewish wedding.”