Sushi Shabbat and Moroccan Shabbat at Cambridge University proved a successful formula to draw Jewish students to the Shabbat table. So last weekend, the Cambridge University Chabad Society hosted a Russian Shabbat. The society’s director Rabbi Reuven Leigh explains, “We felt it would be an appropriate way to say thank you to those Russian students who have helped make our first year in Cambridge such a success.”
The society now boasts a membership of over 150 and has had to move to larger premises to accommodate the growing number of students attracted to the Chabad House.
The society’s president Peretz Partensky, a graduate philosophy student, has been a driving force in promoting awareness of Chabad at the University. “I had no experience practicing Judaism in Russia. I did not even know that it was a religion. For us, it was just a nationality which had to be specified in your identity papers.
“In the process of immigration from Russia, my family spent a good deal of time in Italy, where we befriended some Chabadniks, and through them learned about Judaism as the religion.”
The distinctive Russian cuisine was prepared by Russian students who have found that there is more to being Jewish than just cultural attachments.
Masha Rubanovskaya, a graduate student at Darwin College, says, “My generation is lucky not to feel the discrimination that our parents experienced. Our parents were constantly reminded of their nationality, while I am much more open about my Jewish identity.”
In addition to the cultural element, special guest Rabbi Shmuel Lew, Director of Education at Lubavitch Foundation, revealed the extent to which Chabad fought for Jewish survival in the former Soviet Union. His role as the London coordinator of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s vast clandestine network, gave him first hand knowledge of how Jewish activists risked their lives and freedom to keep Judaism alive during the years of communism.
The Leighs, who arrived in Cambridge last summer, say that interest in Chabad is growing consistently. Lectures and a steady offering of study classes are among the programs that draw Jewish students to Chabad. And now, with the new coffee machine installed in the Chabad House, “people are dropping in all day for an espresso or a cappuccino,” says Rabbi Leigh, creating excellent opportunities to become acquainted, to explore and become involved. Among the Leigh’s short term plans, they will be looking to buy a building so that they will be in a better position to provide Kosher food to Cambridge’s Jewish students.
Victoria Ilyasova, 24, who graduated form Cambridge last year, said of growing up in Russia: “Although I was brought up in Russia with a Jewish identity, it was devoid of religion. The Chabad society has given me the answers to the questions I couldn’t have asked in Russia.”