Oleg Berger immigrated to the U.S. in 1975, with his parents and brother. The family gave up a comfortable life for the freedom that the U.S. offered. However, after living and being educated here for 20 years, Berger decided to repatriate to Russia.
“This was a time when Gorbachev’s reforms had taken hold,” said Berger, “and Russia appeared to be on verge of integrating itself into the global community of developed, civilized nations. Those were very exciting times,” continued Berger. “I was a young successful lawyer, working with the Moscow branch of a New York law firm. “
During those years, Berger and his wife Olga raised four children—all of whom are U.S. citizens. In 2005, they purchased a home in Laguna Beach with the intention of immigrating back to the U.S. “So when it came time for our eldest son to become a Bar Mitzvah,” said Berger, “we contacted a local synagogue.”
They were told two years of study were required, but to accommodate their request, the rabbi contacted Rabbi Larry Seidman, a trans-denominational rabbi, who was delighted to prepare Mark for his bar mitzvah. Now, for the past several months he has been tutoring Mark’s younger brother David for his bar mitzvah which will take place on Thursday, August 6. “At least once a week we study via skype,” said Seidman. “David is doing exceedingly well though when I began working with him, he did not have much of a literal Jewish background.” This is not uncommon among Russian Jewish families.
For most Russian Jews, Jewishness is less about religious practices and more about ethnic and social relations. That doesn’t mean that Russian Jews are lacking in the realm of Jewish identity. They actually score significantly higher on many other measures of Jewish identity, particularly those related to peoplehood and attachment to Israel. But for the Bergers that too seems to be changing.
“Several years ago a young charismatic Chabad rabbi asked my wife if she would do one thing: observe Shabbat,” recalls Berger. “Since then, we have celebrated the Sabbath, every week. What surprised me most was the kids’ reaction to it. They thought it was great and wanted to do it every week. Now Mark wants to study Hebrew, and David appears to have a very similar attitude.”
Mark currently lives with his grandparents and attends high school in Laguna Beach; David will also be a freshman this fall. Both brothers are excited to be reunited. Later the rest of the family will be returning while Oleg commutes between Laguna Beach and Moscow.
“What is most satisfying,” said Berger, “is the connection the boys have to our Jewish tradition and their desire to learn more. For that we have our good friend Rabbi Seidman to thank for making Judaism so vibrant and accessible.”
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.