For FSU Families, A Smorgasbord

July 8, 2014


The Sultanovs of Almaty, Kazakhstan, are the kind of family any Jewish Community Center would dream of having as members.

For years, young Arina, 9, and Rafael, 7, have attended singing and dancing classes at the city’s Hesed — one of the JCC-style social welfare centers that JDC coordinates throughout the former Soviet Union. Their parents Irina and Rinat frequently volunteer at holiday celebrations and special events, tailoring costumes, scripting skits, decorating venues, and more.

But the family’s experience at a JDC family retreat last summer brought their Jewish engagement to a new and deeper level, 31-year-old Irina said.

“It’s hard to express what changed for us exactly,” she said. “But the retreat made us feel even closer with out community. The bonds we made there are really strong. I feel like we’re part of something really great.”

The Almaty event was one of 80-plus family retreats held throughout the former Soviet Union last summer that attracted more than 6,400 participants. The programs offer Jewish families the chance to fully immerse themselves in Jewish communal life, away from the pressures of work and school.

In many places throughout the FSU, small Jewish communities lack access to formal Jewish programming. Larger regional family retreats can help to bridge the gap, said Ilana Levi, JDC’s representative in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

“Family retreats are the cornerstone that supports all community work — such a small stone, but a critical one,” she said. “I think the family retreats are like the air for our local Hesed social welfare centers. You do not always think about the air, but hey, try not to breathe!”

Levi said she’s struck by the big and bold ideas on display at the retreats.

“Our region lacks many things — we do not have a sea or sandy beaches, we don’t have many Jewish renewal specialists — but we have lots of creativity,” she said. “Our retreats turn into Ancient Judea — like this program in Almaty, or a shtetl feel in Tashkent, or a labyrinth of streets like my beloved Jerusalem, which I once saw in Bishkek. People here learn from each other.“

The retreat the Sultanovs attended was designed for young families and was hosted by the Almaty Jewish community at a resort on the shores of Lake Kapchagay, in eastern Kazakhstan. About 160 participants from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and Ukraine, came together for a week of Jewish exploration and learning.

At the retreat, activities included lectures on the history of the Maccabees’ revolt and the significance of the Temple in Jerusalem; family sports tournaments; Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah ceremonies; and more.

For already active Hesed participants like the Sultanovs, the retreats are a chance to shake up the status quo, Levi said.

“The retreat is a chance to spend a joyful week with your family, as well as a wonderful opportunity to express creativity and imagination when your day-to-day life may give you few chances to do so,” she said.

It’s also a powerful link between different generations, she added.

“The retreat is also a chance to meet people and make friends. At these programs, you see young couples walking hand in hand along the shores of a lake or by the beach,” she said. “And today’s young men and women will tomorrow make their kids part of the community.”

That’s certainly the case for the Sultanovs. Shortly after their family retreat experience, Irina gave birth to Ratmir, now eight months old.

The family couldn’t be more excited to return to the retreat this summer — this time, as a family of five.

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