Jewish Life in St. Petersburg: A New Story

October 10, 2012


For the past two years, Masha Aryeva, 39, has been the Director of the Yesod Jewish Community Center (JCC)—the first-rate, central hub of Jewish life in the cosmopolitan city of St. Petersburg, Russia.

Born and raised in St. Petersburg, and having worked and traveled in more than 30 countries, Masha shares a unique perspective on Jewish life in her home town today, and the strategies and challenges for the road ahead.

Q: Your venture into the Jewish professional sphere is fairly recent. Tell us a little about yourself and what brought you to Yesod?

A: I come from a large Jewish family, though we were completely assimilated Russians. For the first 37 years of my life I never went to synagogue or Jewish school, and we rarely celebrated a Jewish holiday.

Professionally, my background is in advertising and marketing. I studied Liberal Arts for several years in Atlanta, GA and then International Business in Montreal, Canada. Over the last 15 years I’ve traveled and worked in over 30 countries.

My “Aha! moment” came when my daughter, who is now almost three, was born. My husband and I decided to stop living out of our suitcases while traveling the world and to plant roots at home in St. Petersburg.

That’s when I encountered JDC, quite accidentally, through a friend. I went from not knowing what a JCC was to my curiosity being piqued as soon as I stepped foot into Yesod. From the outset, I loved the space and the concept—that there’s a place in the city where anyone of any age, background, or socioeconomic level is completely welcome—and that there is always something for everyone going on.

Q: What do you think is the most unique aspect of Yesod?

A: Our doors are open! We do not distinguish between nationalities or inquire how people are coming to Jewish life, history, culture, etc. We just care that you’re interested in Jewish identity. There isn’t anything else like this in our city. There are community centers and cultural institutions aligned with different embassies but no place that welcomes people from all backgrounds like our JCC.

When the opportunity for a director position arose in June 2010, I was really excited about Yesod and the new challenge.

Q: As an outside observer, how have you seen Jewish cultural life evolve in your city over the past 20 years?

A: Without a doubt, Jewish life has changed ideologically here. Twenty years ago people who identified as Jewish were people who were emigrating from here and going to Israel. Those who remained went to anything that was labeled Jewish—regardless of the quality or educators’ level of expertise—because there was so little, it was all so new, and people were so eager to learn anything they could.

Today, people who identify as Jewish and have decided not to leave are participating in Jewish life much more decisively. There are many cultural options for people in our city, and our JCC participants (many of them are middle class families) have been acculturated to a very sophisticated level of cultural programming. They are people who’ve been to Israel and the US, who may have made Aliyah and returned, who’ve traveled and seen things. Today people here are ready to pay to attend events with the expectation that they will be really interesting and worthwhile. In other words, people these days are seeking not only the content, but also the high quality of our programs.

Q: What audience do you target with your programs and cultural offerings?

A: Our target audience is families, who we hope to engage to ensure the sustainability of Yesod (which means foundation in Hebrew and is exactly what we’re looking to lay here in St. Petersburg) for many years ahead.

Previously, Jewish programs, be they educational or entertaining, would divide people according to age groups. Today we are strongly family-oriented. This approach brings people in larger numbers than if we were to target individuals, and keeps them within our center for a long time.

Q: So you seek to make Yesod a part of family life for your audience?

A: We want Yesod to be the family’s “third place” (besides home and work) where they spend a significant portion of their time. Many of our programs engage the family as a whole so they can have a variety of ways to spend time together, such as summer retreats, Jewish holiday events, and Shabbatons. Others allow every member of the family to delve into their own interests: Mom can go to hear Klezmer music, while dad goes to a lecture on Jewish education, as the older kid makes his way to youth group and the younger child enjoys a studio art class. The idea is that when the family walks in there is something for each of them going on simultaneously, which is different from any other organization where people are segmented by ages, income levels, etc.

Q: What are some of the offerings you include within your walls?

A: The Yesod campus is very large, home to the five largest Jewish organizations in St. Petersburg. It includes facilities such as a multi-faceted atrium and concert hall, a library (which facilitates the Open Jewish Educational Center EITAN), a kindergarten and day care center, and a gym, to name just a few features.

In this one place people can get help, an education, find entertainment, and learn Hebrew and just about any kind of Jewish content they’d be interested in.

Q: Does your family come to Yesod, too?

A: Absolutely. My daughter goes to kindergarten here. My husband comes to classes, lectures on culture, talks by visiting journalists…

Q: Do you have challenges engaging young people?

A: Certainly we face this question, as I think every community does.

We have organizations on our campus for kids and youth alike. We have a Hillel, where we constantly have programs that engage young people. We also have a Madrichim school where young, enthusiastic, talented people receive training in education, psychology, and Judaism to become counselors for our summer programs, Shabbatons, and other long-term activities.

But, generally, rather than segmenting young people apart and targeting them independently, we try to reach them by reaching out to families as the whole.

We are looking at things with a long view. So we invest a lot in our kindergarten and early education because we hope the children will then continue to come as they go through school, become teens, turn into young adults and then eventually bring their own families.

Q: What did you do for Sukkot at Yesod?

A: We had programs for everyone, of course! We had an evening of Jazz, youth club activities, and Sukkahs with arts and crafts for kids. There was a whole slew of programs throughout the week of the holiday and people brought their families and friends.

We also had a big Shabbaton where some 30 families got together to spend a weekend learning holiday traditions, sharing meals in a Sukkah, and exploring their Jewish identity in an open environment.

Q: Yesod seems to be at the forefront of a new chapter of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. What do you want the Jewish community in the US to know about Jewish life in St. Petersburg today?

A: Twenty years ago the story for us was about basic needs and assistance. Our people needed help to survive and we are grateful the assistance was there.

Today, it’s about shared experiences—something very different.

Certainly there are people in our community who still have a very hard time making ends meet and we continue to need assistance today because we are not self-sustaining yet. The support from JDC, Federations, and individual donors is keeping us afloat. But the kind of support we receive now is what’s given us an opportunity to build a center like this (we opened our doors in 2005) for people who’ve chosen not to leave this country, who are choosing how they want to live Jewishly for the long term. These are people thinking about community, education, and emotional connection. They are our audience now.

Q: As you look ahead, what are some of your greatest challenges?

A: The idea of philanthropy, which is so integral to our community becoming self-sustaining, is still very new here. We need to instill community responsibility into the new generation. Unfortunately, this takes a very long time, particularly in a people that spent 70 years unlearning it because all communal institutions and welfare were provided free of charge under communism.

In the US it took several centuries and many generations to cultivate this ethic but now it is part of the social fabric, with thousands of funds and non-profits. Americans can choose whether they contribute on a sectarian or non-sectarian basis, donate money or time, help the environment or even adopt a child. The point is the sense of obligation to contribute to community is there.

But here I think this still needs a few generations.

Over the past twenty years, as we’ve been learning from scratch and getting every kind of support. Paradoxically, people here have gotten used to receiving assistance, which has set us back a bit because people are not used to giving back.

My last time in the US, I saw about 10 different JCCs of every size and scale. I know we are at least 100 years behind institutions like the 92nd Street Y, which is some 150 years old and is completely supported by donor funds. In the US people participating in Jewish life have been doing so for generations. There is continuity and loyalty. We don’t have that yet.

For most people who walk through our doors it is their first entry into Jewish life. We haven’t had three generations grow up in our JCC. It is extremely difficult to cultivate a sense of responsibility in others and it takes a great deal of time. This is another reason we work with families as a whole at Yesod, and communal responsibility is a lesson in every program, part of every discussion.

But we’re at the very beginning of that road…

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories