At The Hermitage, An Award for Jewish Activism

"Son" of S. Petersburg Recognized for Contribution to Jewish Education, Culture

At The Hermitage, An Award for Jewish Activism

David Rozenson accepts the award at The Hermitage. Photo credit: Nikolai Busygin/Russian Associated Press

Jerusalem, Israel

February 10, 2015

Every year the World Wide Association for St. Petersburg Leadership endows a handful of individuals —“sons” or “daughters” of the city noted for their contribution to society—with membership in its distinguished association. Within its rank and file are Russian President Vladimir Putin, social and cultural personalities and leading St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad)-born activists.

Last week, David Rozenson, 43, the Executive Director and CEO of Beit Avi Chai, a cultural and educational center in Jerusalem, made the trip from Jerusalem to St. Petersburg, where Dr. Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage Museum conferred the award. 

Born in Leningrad of communist Russia when Jews were persecuted for being Jews, the kippah-clad father of six, an ordained yeshiva graduate, received the prize, grateful above all for a detail that few were aware of: the scheduled date of the ceremony at The Hermitage had been moved from Friday night to Thursday, to accommodate Rozenson’s Shabbat observance. 

In a conversation with Baila Olidort following the award, David Rozenson reflected on the implications of the award, and his own experience as a son of the city.

BO: In many respects, Westerners today see Russia as reverting to its old ways. And yet you were awarded this prize for your contribution to things Jews by Russia’s arbiters of culture at the Hermitage. More importantly, it was your Jewish observance that prompted them to change the date of the award. 

DR: Yes, when I was notified of the award, I wrote back to them that as a religious Jew, it would unfortunately be impossible for me to be present at the event. It took my breath away when I learned that they called our office in Moscow and said they decided to change the date to Thursday. For an award under the patronage of the leading museum in Russia, if not the world, to make a change like that out of respect for Jewish practice was quite astounding.

There’s this Russian paradox —on the one hand there is concern about its political and economic direction, on the other there is a respect that comes, I would say from the President himself, to all kinds of ethnic groups, including the Jewish community. The growth of Jewish life in Russia is astonishing, and to see such respect on a personal, cultural level towards Jews, who, in the past, were blamed and scapegoated when things went wrong, is a fact that cannot be ignored nor taken for granted.

BO: As anti-Semitism now threatens Jewish life in many European countries, you seem to see a different pattern in Russia.  

DR: The proof is in the actions of the Russian government and leadership. As head of the Avi Chai Foundations’s office in the former Soviet Union, I met with many individuals, and rarely found disrespect towards projects that brought Jewish/Israeli educational and culture into the public sphere, even in places where formerly anything that related to Jewish life was taboo. 

Among the projects that I worked on, for example, we tried to help attain legitimate status for academic Jewish life. Following much back and forth, we came into a dialogue on the matter with the Rector of the St Petersburg State University, a university where my mother, as Jew, was not accepted to study medicine in her youth. 

I well remember when together with Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, who has been instrumental and plays a key role in enabling many of these changes, we once again met with the Rector. After some hesitation, he eventually agreed to open a full-fledged Department of Jewish Culture in a University where one would never imagine that the study of Judaism could be a legitimate academic pursuit. 

Many other projects, religious and academic in nature, drawing Russian Jews who would have otherwise never taken part in Jewish activity nor acknowledge their Jewish identities, have since opened. Twenty years ago this would have been impossible to imagine. And consider the number of synagogues, community centers, Jewish day schools, programs for Jewish youth that have sprouted in Russia. True, the political and economic situation is difficult, we must keep our eyes wide open but we must also be fully appreciative of these developments.

BO: You yourself recently earned your PhD in Russian literature, and you just finished a book based on your doctoral thesis on Isaac Babel. 

DR: Yes, I received my PhD from Moscow State Humanitarian University. The book is going to be published in Russian in March. The working title in English is In Search of Isaac Babel. In Russian, it’s Babel: Man and Paradox –I think it sounds far better in Russian.

BO: Why Babel?

DR: In his Leningrad apartment, where I would often sleep, my grandfather kept old copies of stories by Babel (and other writers, many of whom were forbidden). Literature was always an important part of my home. When we left Russia, we took more books than items of clothing or I think anything else. And the work of this outstandingly talented, powerful writer, brutally silenced by Stalin’s henchmen, intrigued me. 

My book focuses on the battle raging within this famous Russian author, his struggle between his Jewish identity and the non-Jewish world that he yearned to be a part of. At the end, I argue that he was not able to let go of his Jewish past and love of his people and he couldn’t fully assimilate or integrate into the secular Russian society.

BO: Today perhaps, he wouldn’t find himself torn in this existential struggle. How do you imagine Babel’s life and work if he were living in Russia today?

DR: I am not so sure. While the political and social landscape is certainly quite different, it is not easy for talented people, those who are on a real search, to find ways for the two worlds to peacefully coexist. That is why so many tend to move toward closed communities, where people live and think in similar ways. 

At the same time, the ability to live with knowledge and pride in one’s religious traditions, and to be able to understand and investigate a world far different from one's own is possible today. It can be done seamlessly as long as one is confident and proud of their own identity, and is not afraid of “the other.” 

In Babel’s case, he thought he needed to leave the Jewish home of his birth – and perhaps he did – in order to assimilate into “real” society. Today, one can choose to live in both, but it is not easy, and I wonder, given all that is taking place, the choice that Babel would make. Perhaps a subject for another next book…

BO: You left Russia in 1978 under the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, and you came to New York. But you had little knowledge of Jewish life or tradition at that point. 

DR: When we landed in the U.S., there were representatives of Jewish Family Services on one side of the plank waiting to greet us with a bag of soap and sundry to take care of our physical hygiene, and on the other hand you had a Chabad shliach who was there to sign us up to the local Jewish day school, to take care of our souls. Without that shliach on the ground, without that voice of prescience to foresee and be concerned with our Jewish soul, I probably never would have been part of the Jewish world. 

BO: Jews who’ve left Russia are often eager to erase that part of their past from their personal history. But you went back to Russia?

DR: I did—for 12 years as Executive Director of Avi Chai Foundation in the FSU where we worked to support Jewish day schools, summer camps, Jewish publication, academic Jewish studies. There was always something that pulled me back and it was as if my whole life experience up to that point was a preparation for a return, even if brief, to the land that my parents needed to escape from. 

BO: And during that time you were raising your own children in Moscow, but in very different circumstances from your own childhood.

DR: When I was growing up in Russian State schools, I could never imagine the Jewish life that my children experienced in Jewish day schools and yeshivas in Moscow would ever be possible. I of course did not even know what a yeshiva was. Without the shluchim and other Jewish organizations in these cities who live to make Jewish life legitimate, normal and acceptable, doing so much to show that you can live both as a Jew and a part of Russian society, none of this would have taken place.

BO: Who were the role models, the leadership figures in your life that inspired you?

DR: I was taught, by my parents, teachers, and others not to be afraid and have always found that if one walks with pride in what they do, little can stand in their way. One of course also need blessing, and thank G-d, I feel blessed in being able to give back since so many invested in me. I am also blessed with a great family, my mother, my wife and my children.

And I had the privilege to meet and to admire the Lubavitcher Rebbe from up close. The Rebbe was the voice of prescience. A leader who taught me that finding one more Jew, even for a little boy who reached the shores of America, is worth dedicating your life to. I never met anyone else like him, who never gave up, even in the darkest of times, on the Jewish people…

BO: And the results of his persistence are apparent in the revival that you describe, which must be enormously gratifying and vindicating especially to someone like yourself who recalls those dark days. But the damage to Jewish life by Russia’s long history of religious oppression means that so many Jews have disappeared to assimilation. Not even knowing that one is Jewish, which is so often the case in Russia, makes the work of Jewish outreach there even more difficult.

DR: Exactly. When I flew back to Jerusalem after receiving the award, an older man approached me on the plane to tell me that he and his colleagues were at the ceremony the previous evening. We spoke and he asked about the kippah on my head and what it means. It turns out he was flying to Israel for the first time as he had business interests that he wanted to pursue. 

After some social niceties, I asked him if he was Jewish. “No,” he was not, he told me. Then, as an afterthought, he added, “Actually, the only person in my family who is Jewish is my mother…” 

So the award was well worth it. Just to meet this one Jew…

BO: What responsibility comes with being named a son of this great city? 

DR: Well, as I said in my remarks at The Hermitage, each of us has a responsibility to know and honor our own tradition, and on the other hand, as members of society, to respect the tradition of others. And to do so publicly, without any fear. In the venerable halls and the beautiful theater of the Hermitage, I never even considered that I would need to remove my kippah to accept the award. Those present showed every respect, underlining, once again, that if we carry ourselves with pride in our religious convictions, they enrich us and are respected by those around us. This is what makes for a peaceful society.

BO: And the privileges of this award?

DR: Once a year I get to shoot a cannon into the Neva River. 

Baila Olidort is Director of Communications at Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters

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