Avraham Eli Tukachinsky

Every time prospective Brandeis students ask me whether I’m happy with my undergraduate experience, it is easy to explain to them my satisfaction through the BGI fellowship. Nowhere else would I find a more supportive group to discuss my interests in Judaism, Zionism, and Russian culture. It allowed me to separate my religiosity from love of Israel and from heritage. During a retreat, for instance, I discovered how Russian Jews often value the importance of family in maintaining Shabbat, over a practice like attending services. I decided which traits (Russian, Jewish, Israeli, American, artistic, scientific) were most vital in my long-term goals and self-identification. Russian-Judaism emerged as a far-reaching association that connected the greatest number of my values related to academics, family, sports, friendship, and career goals.

Hebrew SeniorLife - Beyond BGI meetings, I applied the language used in discussing these emotional, personal, and spiritual issues to our work with senior citizens at Hebrew SeniorLife at Roslindale. HSL is a not-for-profit senior organization with a commitment to excellence in lifelong learning and teaching—yet in September 2011 it held an entire floor of Russian speakers isolated from most outside social interactions. Our goal was to learn the resident’s personal histories in order to learn about common heritage, values, and beliefs among Russian-speaking Jews. The detailed account of a veteran-medic who survived threats to her life led me to appreciate the importance of innovative thinking and sociability. Her battle with prejudice and life-saving friendships painted a tangible picture of the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union. A spiritual reawakening defined many of these survivors’ visits to Israel. The chief geriatrician for the Russian wing deemed our final product—a richly designed scrapbook—not only as a way to pass on the stories of the elderly, but to inform nurses and staff of a Russian-speaker’s legacy. By finding interest in their treasured memories and past accomplishments, nurses honored and respected residents rather than treating them as invalids or diseases. Thanks to the BGI, I found transportation to the center through Lisa Fay as well as an inspirational guide in Professor Dubinina for goal-setting and Russian grammar. I hope more of Brandeis’s Russian language scholars, Judaic studies, and Premed students appreciate the rich cultural history that’s waiting to be discovered in these seniors. Our multigenerational community served as an important model for how seniors and students could benefit from enhanced learning.

Gesher Connection - On the other end of the generational spectrum, I loved educating Russian-speaking children of the Boston Gesher Program. BGI organized a meeting with leaders from Greater Boston Jewish organizations, one of which exposed me to opportunities to reach kids through the COJECO. I agreed to provide informal education to émigré children ages 3-6, and gained experience in dealing with Russian-speaking families who have a wide range of exposure to Jewish practice. I introduced Jewish traditions by biblical story-telling, and elaborated on their relevance through games and crafts. As luck would have it, not all the kids were English-speaking—I had to adjust by frequently translating directions into Russian.

Children’s Book - In memories of childhood, I often associate holidays with food and symbols. Only when my Cantor invited my family for a fun child-friendly Seder did my siblings and I view Passover as more than a tedious reading marathon. Through games, stories, and discussions, we depended on each other to connect to Jewish values of unity, God, joy in life, and respect for history. I created a book to create more awareness of these holiday values in Russian-speaking households. I illustrated how to enjoy and understand the Passover Seder through a pluralistic and original approach to Passover observance. With each page I captured a symbolic image relating to holiday tradition by illustrating and translating narrative from English to Russian. BGI faculty and staff generously offered me advice and printing funds. I ultimately distributed copies of the work to day care centers and synagogues in New York and Boston, and learned that creating personal deadlines boosted my productivity.

Friendships - It was transformative to identify with an ambitious and hard-working body of students. I would never have connected with aspiring Jewish organizers like Judah Khaykin (Hornstein Graduate) had it not been for this program. I enjoyed understanding his perspectives from international trips, and sharing his interest in Klezmer music (I didn’t know the tunes I’d heard at home originated as far back as the 15th Century!). From BGI administrators, I want to inherit Dan Terris’s diplomatic and goal-oriented approach in advancing my future ventures, as well as Lisa Fay’s generosity in time and energy. Their efforts were crucial for organizing our events and meetings with BGI fellows. I appreciate Victor Vitkin’s reliability as a director and advisor whether I was editing my book or meeting with Jewish leaders. Irina Dubinina’s inspiration and energy bring me pride and desire to further understand Russian and Jewish culture. Their guidance motivated me to engage my kindred Russian-Jewish community in Greater Boston and beyond.

Future Through this network - I was ultimately able to find a full-time position as Research Associate in the Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife. Not only will I contribute to discoveries in age-related disease, but I will also preserve my relationship with the Russian-speaking floor. On Fridays, I will remain an active Russian-speaking teacher in Jewish education at Gesher Boston Day Cares. By staying in touch with Brandeis Genesis community, I hope to answer my remaining questions: How can we help dissolve the language barrier between Former Soviet and American Jewry? What motivates Jews of the FSU to become synagogue members? How can we instill Jewish pride in Russian Jews?