Rina Lyampe, an artist who emigrated from Moscow 15 years ago, leans over her pupils, holding one’s paintbrush and giving another one advice – always in Russian. Children are painting apples, symbolic of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year: “All art projects are connected to Jewish values,” Lyampe explains.
Lyampe is the art teacher at Sunday Shkola, a Jewish Sunday school taught in Russian, in Manhattan. When the Park East Synagogue started it three years ago, Sunday Shkola had about 12 children. In just two years, the school has tripled its enrollment and is looking to expand.
Park East, a modern Orthodox congregation, stands in front of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations. Its senior rabbi, Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor, has been working for the liberation and integration of Russian Jews ever since 1965.
“If God placed the Soviet mission in front of my synagogue, I should not ignore it,” he explains.
“Now, we have seen the miracle,” Schneier says. Russian Jewish immigrants, “whose parents were deprived of Jewish education in the Soviet Union, have the opportunity to learn their Jewish identity in the Russian language.”
Sunday Shkola claims to be the first and only Jewish Sunday school in the U.S. to teach exclusively in Russian. Children are separated in four age groups from 3 to 9 years old, and split their Sunday mornings between sessions of arts, dance, Russian language, study of Jewish texts and math.
Noam Shumark is in charge of the oldest group. She reads them stories and poems in Russian that expose them to Jewish history and the meaning of their traditions. “We try to keep it as fun as possible,” she says, describing the school as an “introduction” to Judaism.
Only two or three children who attend the Sunday Shkola are also enrolled at the synagogue’s Day School, and many of the other children come from families that are not well acquainted with Jewish traditions, explains Rabbi Benyamin Goldsmith, junior rabbi at the synagogue. At only 28, he is the mind behind the Sunday Shkola. “So what?” he says. “Mark Zuckerberg is the same age and he changed the world.”
Goldsmith was already requested to franchise the school, from local activists in Cleveland and Baltimore. He attributes the success of his “educational start-up” to a subtle mix of Russian language, high educational values and unobtrusive religious learning.
Goldsmith was brought up in Moscow by a father who was chief rabbi and president of the Conference of European Rabbis and a mother who founded a Jewish day school. Many among the staff and parents believe that his roots enable him to understand the needs of the Russian-Jewish community.
“What Benji is doing is right,” says Galina Spektor, math teacher at the Park East Synagogue day school for 16 years and a volunteer at the Sunday Shkola. “Step by step.”
Spektor was not always convinced by the pertinence of the program. “I am part of the generation who did not want our children to go back, or to speak the language,” she explains. She immigrated 23 years ago, but still resents Russia for the discrimination she and her husband suffered for years because “Jewish” was listed on their passports.
Goldsmith, for whom the Sunday Shkola is only an addition to his daily role of junior rabbi at the synagogue, which is not specifically dedicated to Russian Jews, says he is cautious to tailor the program to avoid any reminder of this past to the parents: “Rituals, by definition, freaks them out,” he explains.
When Soviet Jews emigrated in the U.S. in the late 80s after they became eligible for refugee status, they “did not meet the expectations of the Jewish establishment,” explains Sam Kliger, director of Russian Jewish Community Affairs at the global Jewish advocacy group AJC. They were “unprepared and shocked” by an overly religious Jewish education, and ran away from it.
Twenty years later, Kliger says that studies he conducted for the UJA showed that “affiliation is increasing,” in part because of the young Russian Jews’ search for their roots.
Jane Romashov, a parent at the Sunday Shkola, was brought up in Moscow during the Soviet Union. She learned in shock that she was Jewish from a girl in her class, who had heard it from her parents. Her mother never mentioned it to her.
“I don’t have to hide if from her now,” she says while she watches her daughter dance “Gangnam style” as the teacher marks the rhythm in Russian.
Victoria Rishman, who waits to pick up her daughter, feels the same way: She doesn’t want her child “to feel foundationless, like I used to.”
Natasha Krampf remembers her child coming home from school and asking her to celebrate Shabbat — “we had to put Grandma on speaker phone” to carry out the request, she explains, laughing.
Snejana Sevak says she enjoys the Sunday Shkola because “it gives a taste of how our schooling used to be,” and of the Jewish values to her children, but just “a taste of it.” She says “being involved does not mean being involved religiously,” and that her two children who are at the Sunday Shkola otherwise receive a secular education.
But she says, “You want to be able to answer your children’s questions as they are learning.”
That fits in with Goldsmith’s belief that educating their children will eventually help educate the parents. “Kids are the future,” he says. “If kids want to do Rosh Hashanah, so will their parents.”