A Russian Shabbat
Over 75 people have participated in the very first communal Shabbat Dinner for Russian-speaking Jews in Melbourne called Subbotnik*.
Held at the Yeshivah Centre building in East St Kilda, the volunteer-driven Shabbat Dinner united families and singles, children and seniors, religious and secular, and everyone else in between.
The initiative was inspired by the international Shabbos Project, which brought together Jewish people from all walks of life in 2014.
Volunteer Avi Bendetsky said, “On the Shabbos Project weekend, I saw hundreds of people putting down their phones and sharing the Shabbos meal together, as well as singing and dancing at the havdallah ceremony at Caulfield Park… It was mesmerising. And then I thought, ‘We should bring the beauty of Shabbos to Russian speakers in our community!’”
In February, a group of community activists formed the Subbotnik Organising Committee, including Rabbi Boruch and Nechama Shapiro, Avi and Sarah Bendetsky, Yaron and Zlata Gluzman, Arthur and Sheina Shisman and Dr Yosef Raymon.
“Our idea was simple – to share the Shabbat joy in the most inclusive way,” said Rabbi Boruch Shapiro. “Everyone was welcomed to come help with event organisation, shopping and cooking. Everyone belonged and everyone mattered.”
Thanks to social media and SBS Radio coverage, the Subbotnik ideas quickly spread online, signifying the social and cultural need for such events in the Russian-speaking community circles.
“When I started the Subbotnik Facebook page in March, I hoped to attract about 30 participants,” said volunteer Sarah Bendetsky. “And already a week later, I began to receive phone calls from all over the city, with people willing to register, volunteer, support us financially and take the Subbotnik initiative to other cities and countries. At one stage we had to close registration because we couldn’t fit any more interested people. Clearly, the potential was huge, which encouraged us to continue in great spirits.”
Volunteer Nechama Shapiro said, “We cut the catering costs by cooking in our homes, which made the admission tickets much more affordable, with adult tickets ranging from $24-$30 for a 4-course meal. We also decided to focus on Russian-Jewish cuisine, which would be both kosher and igniting the sparks of childhood memories, from Russian potato salad and fruit compote to freshly baked challahs and chicken soup with kneidlach.”
A few days before the first communal dinner, volunteers gathered to shop, cook, set the tables and decorate the hall. So too, a special children’s program was organised to educate the young guests about Shabbat in a fun way.
“It was a very warm celebration, where people from various backgrounds could share a delicious meal and catch the glimpses of glowing candles, ask questions about Judaism and genuinely feel at home,” said volunteer Sheina Shisman.
“Witnessing the tremendous success of our first function was really moving,” said volunteer Zlata Gluzman. “People enjoyed each other’s company, shared stories and made new friendships. As an organiser, I can’t ask for more.”
Currently, the Subbotnik Organising Committee is putting together the next event with plans to offer monthly communal Shabbat Dinners and holiday celebrations “with Russian flavour” on a regular basis.
“I feel that Subbotnik starts a new chapter in the history of the Australian Russian Jewish community,” said participant Roman Kostenetsky. “Out of 120,000 Australian Jews, nearly 30,000 have Russian roots. The Subbotnik event brought us all closer and I will definitely come again.”
“For over 70 years of Communism regime, the Russian-speaking Jews were denied a chance to practice Jewish lifestyle and express their faith, at risk of being jailed or executed,” said volunteer Arthur Shisman. “Often, Jewish traditions were kept secretly by running ‘underground’ Seders and passing grandma’s gefilte fish recipes from generation to generation. That’s why today, when we live in a free society, it’s our goal to bring back our rich Jewish heritage to our community through the Subbotnik initiative.”
The Subbotnik team extends its gratitude to businesses, community organisations and volunteers for their generous support including: the Yeshivah Centre, Kangarusski Russian Speaking Jewish Community in Australia, BAS N MORE Bookkeeping Services, Vectra Transport, Savion Cakes and Bagels, Margarita’s Home Loans, Rishon Foods, Astoria Paper Goods, The Shook, Leader Russian Sunday School, VO DESIGN and many others.
To find out more about Subbotnik and to help the initiative by donating and volunteering, please contact Sarah Bendetsky on 0468333770, visit the Subbotnik Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Subbotnik – a Russian term for volunteering action commonly held on Saturdays.