Ben Yaroslavsky was born in Be’er Sheva, Israel, to parents who fled their west central Ukrainian home in Vinnytsia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The family later settled
Though every immigrant story is unique, Yaroslavsky’s story shares common threads with many Russian and Ukrainian immigrants of his generation. As the senior-most member of Philadelphia’s Russian Speaking Jewish Moishe House, Yaroslavsky, 28, has the opportunity to show and grow those connecting threads.
Part of the international Moishe House nonprofit to connect Jews in their 20s, RSJ Moishe House hosts Shabbat dinners weekly, bringing together 15-20 community members, some Russian-speaking, some not. Yaroslavsky, a program manager for an aerospace and defense firm, shares the three-bedroom University City Moishe House with up to two other residents who also are Russian-speaking.
“It’s very important to us to have the physical space to create events and foster a community and have it feel intimate like you’re at someone’s home and where everyone feels invited and welcome,” Yaroslavsky said.
Last week, Yaroslavsky and Moishe House resident Sofiya Zilberberg hosted a “Beer Olympics” Shabbat complete with outdoor mini-games. Next week, they’ll host an ice cream social. In the past, the house has hosted a “Free Britney Shabbat,” holding a dinner conversation about the end to Britney Spears’ conservatorship, disability rights and the #FreeBritney movement.
But what separates the RSJ Moishe House from other Moishe Houses is the connection of the residents that goes beyond living in the same city, being of the same generation and being Jewish. In addition to the scheduled monthly “Us Time,” where residents take breakdancing classes together or go out for a meal, the hallmark of the RSJ Moishe House is the shared Eastern European heritage of the residents.
“Philadelphia has a vibrant, wonderful community. There’s so many great events in Philly,” Yaroslavsky said. “But few are tailored to the Russian-speaking community. For many Russian-speaking Jews, the language of the culture they grew up with is really what unites us.”
For first-generation Jewish immigrants and children of those who fled the Soviet Union, Jewish traditions and practices were sparse in their upbringings due to the antisemitism they or their families experienced.
“Many of the Russian-speaking Jews feel that they have this multi-layered Jewish identity, and that causes them to interact with Judaism in a different way than the larger population in Philly or the larger Jewish population in general,” Yaroslavsky said.
Quirky-themed Shabbat aside, Yaroslavsky and Zilberberg try to tailor the house’s programming to be culturally specific. They hold tea-drinking ceremonies similar to the ones common in Russia, and though they share a disdain for gefilte fish, they enjoy cooking the food of their mother countries together.
Yaroslavsky recalls eating and learning to make food from other countries in the Soviet bloc, such as Georgian khachapuri and RSJ Moishe House founder Jonathan Yakubov’s Uzbek bachash.
The Moishe House, created in February 2020, weathered the pandemic together. Yaroslavsky, who joined shortly after the house’s founding, was largely responsible for its consistent programming. Two years after the house was created despite inopportune timing, the residents overcame another personal challenge.
“It’s been pretty somber, with what’s happening in that corner of the world: the war in Ukraine,” Yaroslavsky said.
He has distant family still living there, with relatives not willing to abandon their businesses and loved ones and leave the country. Yaroslavsky said that living in the RSJ Moishe House was unique during this time, as residents supported each other and looked to support the greater community.
“The feeling turned from desperation to hopeful pretty quick once we realized, we can actually mobilize people to support these other Russian-speaking Jews in their efforts to fundraise and provide aid in Ukraine,” he said.
In addition to sharing resources on how to attend the Stand with Ukraine rally, donate to UNICEF and provide direct donations to Ukrainian families in need, Yaroslavsky and the Moishe House residents began holding fundraisers and volunteering monthly with the Jewish Relief Agency, which has a large clientele of older Soviet Jews.
Yaroslavsky said that the opportunities to provide aid to Ukraine allowed the RSJ Moishe House to turn “tragedy to service and service to hope.”
“Being able to take this opportunity to use our platform and resources to support our community has been the most meaningful experience to me,” he added.