This journey is taking me in directions I hadn’t imagined. Last Friday, in Odessa, I led for the third time in five weeks a Jewish Renewal style Kabbalat Shabbat ritual. I led the first one at the Beit Grand Jewish Cultural Center. About twenty-five young adults were in attendance. A few who weren’t able to make it then asked if I could lead another one. I led one at a friends apartment in an artist collective. We began with ten and the numbers grew to about twenty-five over the course of the ritual. Those in attendance as well as others who weren’t able to attend that one asked if we could do it again. So back by popular demand was Odessa’s third Jewish Renewal style Kabbalat Shabbat.
The first one at the JCC introduced a group of Jews already involved in Jewish community to a new style of practice they hadn’t experienced yet. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, cities in the former Soviet states which still have a Jewish population have been experiencing a Jewish cultural revival. This is true in particular for Odessa and Kiev here in Ukraine, the country which birthed Chasidism back in the 18th century. While this region was at one point a cultural hub for Judaism, in their revival they’re looking to the modern hubs (Israel and the U.S.) for guidance and help remembering and recovering their Jewish cultural traditions. Orthodox Rabbis are imported from Israel and the U.S. to lead the Orthodox congregations here. JDC brings fellows from the U.S. to help guide the cultural programming at the JCCs.
During dinner after a community Kabbalat Shabbat service I attended at the Hillel of Odessa, the person who facilitated it asked how it compared to services I attend in the U.S. I didn’t compare, but I explained to her that in the U.S. we have a new movement gaining a lot of traction, called Jewish Renewal. I described how it draws from the mystical and earth-based traditions of Judaism and brings services to life through beautifully soulful prayer songs. This peaked her interest and the interest of others at our table.
The conversation led to a plan being hashed out for me to lead an informal Kabbalat Shabbat service to give them a taste of what this Jewish Renewal movement is about. A few weeks later, the local JCC was hosting Odessa’s first Jewish Renewal style Kabbalat Shabbat. To note: I had previously only co-led one Shabbat service in my life, with friends in my home in Oakland. But being the only person in Odessa who was actively involved in, let alone knew anything about, the Jewish Renewal movement made me the resident expert. I emailed my mentor back in the Bay for help with resources, I borrowed a guitar, and got to preparing.
The other two Kabbalat Shabbat gatherings were in apartments of friends from communities of artists, dancers, mystics, and the like, and introduced many to Shabbat for their first time. I’ve been meeting a lot of people here through different and overlapping communities. I found a Contact Improv Dance community and have been attending classes/jams and getting to know the people who frequent. I’ve been going to banya weekly with a group I connected with through some people in the dance community. I went to a mystical drum jam I found out about through someone in the group that goes to banya. I met a guy who runs an artist collective through one of the people I met at the drum jam.
As I get to know the locals, it usually comes out that I’m Jewish. Either through them asking when my parents left the Soviet Union. (There was a big wave of Jews who got out in ‘79. So when I tell them my parents left in ‘79 and they look at my face, they connect the dots: “Ah, you’re Jewish, yeah?”) Or I mention it in conversation. I’m open about it, which is a far cry from my youth when I was afraid to claim my Jewishness. With some frequency, the next thing that happens is they reveal that they have Jewish roots too. I’ve met a number of Odessans who are either half or a quarter Jewish, but aren’t open about it until they see my openness about my Jewishness. Then they tell me.
One of these folks, whose grandfather miraculously escaped from Auschwitz, wanted to come to the Shabbat service that I led at Beit Grand, but he couldn’t make it. He’s heading to India for a month, and he really wanted to experience what this Jewish Renewal Shabbat is all about before he and I part ways, so I offered to lead another one.
I invited the others who revealed their Jewish roots to me. I’ve known these people for only a short time. When I ask if they knew that so and so also has Jewish roots, a person they’ve known for much longer than I have, more often than not the answer was “no” with a look of excited surprise. They just welcomed in Shabbat together for the first time as a community, some of them welcoming in Shabbat for the first time in their lives. It was a huge honor to get to bring them together in this way. Some non-Jews who have a reverence for the Jewish cultural history of Odessa and an interest in mystical traditions also attended and experienced Shabbat for their first time.
They’re asking me when we’re going to do it again. They want more. There’s a hunger for the heart and wisdom of our ancestors that often gets forgotten in the form that so many are attached to. I’m considering leading one more before I move on from Odessa and continue on the path.
Here’s a video snippet from the second one I led, made by the artist who hosted us. He has German-Jewish ancestry and had never been to a Shabbat service before, but was eager to host one when he heard what Jewish Renewal rituals are like. Note: the bulk of the crowd is not seen here as they arrived and joined in shortly after this prayer song, following the Shabbos bride clearly.