Global Jewish Reflections | Finding Digital Jewish Community From Florida to Russia: A Tale of Two St. Petersburgs

A year into quarantine, JDC-Weitzman Fellow Aaron Torop discovered a digital Jewish world that spanned the globe.

By Aaron Torop - Rabbinical student, HUC-JIR | June 25, 2021

Aaron Torop and his fiancée, Madeline Budman, pose for a photo while exploring Budapest, Hungary.

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

During Passover 5780 (April 2020), most of us were still figuring out this new Zoom world. We scrambled to put together meaningful seders and Passover celebrations however we could. When we ended our seders, we said, “Next year in Jerusalem – and in person.” Little did we know that Passover 5781 would end up largely being the same. Though we were much closer to returning to in-person events, few of us were traveling, few of us were vaccinated, and many once again observed Passover online.

But this time, rabbinical students like me once again had The Pesach Project.

A partnership between JDC and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), The Pesach Project sends rabbinical and cantorial students to the former Soviet Union (FSU) to cultivate lasting relationships between students and community members as they celebrate Passover together. It’s also an opportunity for students to provide Jewish education to these communities (some of which are quite small) and connect with rabbinical students who live in Germany and Russia, attending Abraham Geiger College and the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies.

In 2020, the program was simply cancelled, but in 2021, with international travel still largely unfeasible, JDC Entwine innovated their program in a way that allowed us to engage these Jewish communities anew: digital discussions. JDC Entwine partnered American rabbinical and cantorial students with Jewish students and leaders halfway across the world to promote community and conversation.

We got a glimpse of each other’s lives, discovering that, despite our different locations, we had much in common.

As a native of St. Petersburg, Florida, I was privileged to have weekly conversations with a young Jewish leader in St. Petersburg, Russia. I helped him practice his English, and we built a relationship in the months before and after Passover, talking about everything from Judaism to art, sports to space exploration, travel, cultural differences, and more. Through WhatsApp, we got a glimpse of each other’s lives, discovering that, despite our different locations, we had much in common.

Similarly, while during our Passover seders in 2020 we were all trying to stay afloat, we were ready for Passover 2021. As JDC-Weitzman Fellows, we concluded Passover with an FSU-wide community seder. Progressive Jewish communities from across the FSU joined the program from their homes, or in small groups, to celebrate Passover together through song, four cups of celebration, and teaching. As Fellows, we each worked with a rabbi or local rabbinical student to prepare a short teaching (to be taught in translation).

Aaron, left, poses for a photo with Jamie Field, another JDC-Weitzman Fellow, in Jerusalem.

This has been a highlight of my JDC experience. The opportunity to collaborate with rabbinical students from around the world, and to celebrate Passover with diverse communities, demonstrated the commonalities we all shared as the Jewish people. Despite language and cultural barriers, we connected over common music, shared our unique customs, and came together to dream what it would mean to be truly free.

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, provides a framework that JDC has used, and one that we can all turn to, as we figure out how to respond to changes and challenges in our community. In the text, King Balak hires Balaam to curse Israel. In the middle of the story, Balaam’s donkey refuses to walk, seeing an angel in the middle of the road that Balaam cannot. The donkey then speaks to Balaam, helping him to see the angel in their way. Finally, when Balaam arrives to curse Israel, he blesses them instead, including the lines from our morning prayers: “Ma tovu ohalecha ya’akov, misknotecha Yisrael – “How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”

Indeed, this past year at JDC has been about uncovering the angels in the road that we did not see before and turning our curses into blessings. While JDC-Weitzman Fellows like me were unable to travel, we leveraged technology in new ways to build relationships around the world, allowing us to sustain dialogue and create new programs. Instead of simply hitting pause, we deepened our connections to the global Jewish community, taking a digital trip to Argentina (complete with a cooking class), joining community programs in the FSU, and learning from JDC leaders across the globe. We discovered the angels in our road: the digital tools and the people who make this work possible.

Aaron delivers a d’var torah at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.

When at times we felt separated and isolated, we also discovered how to build and sustain digital communities, reminding us that our tents are indeed beautiful, and that a digital tent connects Jewish people everywhere.

JDC helped pitch this tent, and I am grateful for that. What once was a curse is now a blessing.

Aaron Torop is a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, OH, and a Weitzman-JDC Fellow for Global Jewish Leadership. Prior to HUC, Aaron spent a summer working with the Jewish community in Melbourne, Australia, and was an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Aaron lives in Cincinnati with his fiancée and fellow HUC student Madeline Budman.

The JDC-Weitzman Fellowship, a partnership between Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and JDC, helps prepare up-and-coming rabbinic, cantorial, and Jewish education students to respond to global issues facing 21st-century Jewry.

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