Global Jewish Reflections | Dancing in Russia, Balancing Family Reunion and Global Jewish Responsibility

When Sarah Allen was 26, she traveled to Russia and danced with a stranger at a Passover seder in Tver — an encounter that continues to inspire her today.

By Sarah Allen - JDC Board Relations Team | December 18, 2020

Sarah Allen dances with a member of the Jewish community of Tver, Russia in 2003.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

There is a picture I have from a trip to the former Soviet Union (FSU) in 2003. I was there as the Hillel staff person for what was known as the Pesach Project, then a partnership between JDC and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. I had traveled with 20 students to Moscow, from which they journeyed to many parts of Russia conducting Passover Seders together with local Jewish students across the region.

The photo was taken at a community Seder in Tver, a city between Moscow and St. Petersburg. In it, I am dancing with an older gentleman wearing a striped button-down shirt, a tie, and a white satin kippah on his head. He is smiling, and so am I as we look at something out of range. I do not remember the song or how I ended up dancing with him. We did not share a language, but somewhere in the space between his smile and mine, the matzah on the table, and coming together to share an ancient Jewish tradition, we recognized each other and danced.

I thought of this as I came across the simple words in the middle of this week’s Torah portion of Miketz: ‘And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.’

By the time we read these words in the text, Joseph has been disconnected from his family for at least 15 years, and probably more. He has been sold to another tribe, brought to Egypt, served as a slave in the home of a government minister, been sent to jail, and now is the leading minister in the country. And while Joseph has spent years making sure that the people of Egypt would make it through a famine, his family back in the land of Israel is now suffering the effects of the same famine, with little food to sustain them.

That’s the context for a group of 10 brothers who come to Egypt seeking relief and support. I find myself wondering how Joseph recognized them as his own: Was it uncommon to find a family with so many brothers? Could they have spoken with an accent that somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard and connected to? Was it a particular word that they used

My dance partner was instantly familiar, instantly family. He could have easily been my grandfather if not for the accident of birth.

Back in Tver, my dance partner was instantly familiar, instantly family. He could have easily been my grandfather if not for the accident of birth. And he was recognizable to me, even across miles and an ocean and language we did not share.

I wonder what he thought of me. Was I a ‘Joseph’ to him? Someone he did not recognize and someone he couldn’t believe was part of the same family of Jews he knew? Or was I family, too? What was my job right there at that moment? Was it to teach him or learn from him? To provide him with food and nourishment as Joseph did for his brothers?

If I could meet him again today, 17 years later, I would tell him about the joy he brought me in this family reunion of sorts. I would tell him that the young professional he’d danced with, all of 26 at the time, was now working for the very same partner organization that had brought me to his city in the first place. I’d tell him our reunion was the beginning of a lifetime of dedication to helping other members of my global Jewish community find the recognition of their ‘brother’ and connect.

Sarah Allen

Ultimately, this is a story of relationship and responsibility — the relationships between Joseph and his brothers, between the brothers and their father Jacob, between Jacob and Joseph …  and, of course, the very real question of obligation. In the moment Joseph recognized his brothers, what was his responsibility to the relationship with them?

That photo of my dance with a stranger-who-was-not-a-stranger serves as my reminder of the relationship I have with the entire Jewish people and my obligation to ensure the safety and sustenance of the entire community. It is an honor to be part of JDC, an organization that makes the fulfillment of this obligation possible and has been making it a priority for more than 100 years.

JDC makes encounters like my dance possible every day. I hope we can all find these kind of moments in our own lives.

Sarah Allen has worked for JDC both in Israel and in New York and currently specializes in education and engagement for JDC’s Board members. She is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and lived and worked in Israel for almost 20 years before moving to New York in 2016.

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories