"But I have tickets to Paul McCartney's concert," I responded to a friend imploring me to attend Limmud FSU, which recently drew hundreds of Russian Jews to the Hamptons.
Then, when he told me that the elite of the Russian Jewish community would be there, curiosity took over. Paul McCartney would have to wait.
So there I was, at 5 a.m., trying to decide what to wear before I boarded the bus for Long Island. Heels? No heels? Glasses? Contacts? I have to look presentable; I represent Davai. We are only a couple of years old, but we are already the main outlet for Russian- speaking Jewish young professionals in Philadelphia.
The van was small, but it fit the 15 of us. The other 10 Philadelphia participants were meeting us there. We were all sleepy, though excited, and we slowly woke up to each others' chatter. Pictures, jokes, laughter … we were starting to feel like family.
Upon arrival, we were amazed at the number of people already there. What a chance to meet and connect to other Jews of Russian descent just like myself.
The opening ceremony was inspiring. First came a woman who sang Yiddish songs. Then, another musician started playing the shofar and a keyboard. It was strange — people started smiling and looking around, then suddenly, he began an unforgettable performance on multiple instruments.
Then came Garrett Reisman, a NASA astronaut — the first speaker of the day. We thought we would hear a long biographical speech. We were wrong. His presentation resembled more a comedy show than a lecture, yet it was informational and moving. The pictures and videos left everyone with a smile. His accomplishments impressed us, his stories intrigued us, his easy-going character won our hearts.
While he wasn't a Russian Jew, he is a Jew — and quite an accomplished one from the United States, our new home. I was touched by his inspiring story. That's our guy — our Jewish guy — up there in space! Our glory!
When it was time for lunch, a childhood fear came rushing back: I didn't know anyone; who would I sit with? For many of us, it's difficult to meet others due to our cultural differences as immigrants. But here, there were hundreds of people just like me — who fled the Soviet Union, crossed the ocean and are building new lives as American Jews.
Then came the moment of decision-making. Five lectures to attend out of 45 different choices. I chose one called the "Origins of Russian Jews," which turned out to be an interesting speech about proposed theories and history. I actually missed the next lecture, getting lost in a fascinating discussion with other participants.
By the time it was over, I understood the impact that Limmud FSU makes on the Russian Jewish community and the Jewish community overall, and I was proud to be a part of it. I was also proud to be a part of Davai, which tries to fulfill the same mission locally.
We are a young organization and have a lot to learn and accomplish. We are a piece of that chain that puts Jews together, helping Russian American Jews explore their identity and find their place within the greater American Jewish community.
Limmud FSU was an inspiration. Limmud FSU was a step. Limmud FSU was a memorable adventure of connecting our present world to the world of our ancestors that feels like home to the soul of each one of us.
Maria Breyman is a graduate student at LaSalle University, a substitute teacher at Council Rock School District and a drama teacher at the Klein JCC. She volunteers at Davai.