UA Hillel Israel fellow’s journey to Judaism began in Russia

Max Rusinov

Max Rusinov is an adventurous guy. Born in Kirov, Russia, he knew nothing about Judaism at age 12, but at 24, he’s the new Israel fellow at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation. Rusinov made aliyah — alone —at age 14 and has served in combat units in the Israeli Army. Growing up in Russia, “kids in school would say to me, ‘You’re clever because you’re a Jew,’” says Rusinov, who knew almost nothing about his Jewish heritage. During Passover, his family received matzah from Chabad, but it wasn’t until he attended one of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Former Soviet Union (FSU) summer camps that his life changed forever.

“My parents had no connection to Judaism,” says Rusinov, adding that his grandfather was a “hard-core Communist and very anti-religion,” who had died by the time Rusinov went to the Jewish camp.

“I was only 12 years old, why it was so important to me I don’t know,” he told the AJP. “I was very curious about the history of Israel. There was no Internet [in Russia] in 1997.” Rusinov had one Jewish friend whose family discussed their Judaism, and who participated in the same Jewish Agency for Israel FSU summer camp.

“I’m a Jew and I’m proud of it,” Rusinov told his parents when he returned home from camp after that first summer. His mother, who’s an engineer, was supportive. “She didn’t want me to miss the opportunity or to have regrets,” he says, while his father, a 25-year veteran police officer, had been sure that he would return home unchanged.

But at 14, Rusinov took exams through the Jewish Agency for Israel, which allowed him to make aliyah and attend an Israeli religious high school, where he lived in a dorm. When Rusinov turned 18, he joined a combat unit in the Israeli Army. His brigade took part in missions in the Gaza Strip and the second war with Lebanon in 2009.

After his army service, Rusinov attended The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he majored in economics and management, returning to the Jewish Agency for Israel’s camps in Russia every summer. “I wanted to be a counselor, to help others get in touch with their Judaism the way I did,” says Rusinov. He would also visit his parents in Kirov. This summer he traveled to Harbin, China, where, he notes, “there was a huge Jewish community of around 22,000 people before World War II.”

A few days after his last college exam, Rusinov attended a seminar for the position at UA Hillel, then returned to eastern Russia as a camp counselor, visited his parents for a few days, flew to Israel for 10 hours, and boarded a plane from Tel Aviv to Tucson. He arrived here — his first trip to the United States —on Aug. 29.

“I had conversations with people from other Hillel [organizations], but when I met Michelle [Blumenberg, UA Hillel executive director] in Israel, we were a match,” says Rusinov. Here at the UA, “students will have the opportunity to meet with someone who lives in Israel, who’s been in the army and gone to university there, not just hear about Israel from the media.”

Rusinov says his experience moving to Israel from the Diaspora can help UA students whether they are thinking of making aliyah or of studying in Israel for a year. Students can also learn about Jewish life in Russia from him, he adds. Rusinov is in charge of Hillel’s Café Ivrit, where students can socialize in Hebrew.

One reason Rusinov chose the UA is that he’s impressed with “the huge number of Jewish students, around 3,000.”

“Many are not coming to events at Hillel and Chabad,” says Rusinov. “For me, it’s important to find more Jewish students who will stay connected with Judaism and participate in Jewish life.”

Additionally, in the United States, he observes, “you can be Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, non-religious. Everyone here can find Judaism for themselves,” as he did as a curious youth. “In Israel, there are only two types of Jews: religious and non-religious,” he says.

One tough time for Rusinov was observing Yom Kippur, 10 days after he arrived in Tucson. “It was the hardest Yom Kippur ever. Everything stops in Israel. There are no cars on the road,” he says. “Here people were going to bars, restaurants.” And what Rusinov found most perplexing, “I heard from people, ‘I really want to fast and keep Yom Kippur, but I want to go to the [UA football] game.’ That was very strange to me.”

And now that he’s in the United States for at least a year, Rusinov is excited about seeing the country’s big cities; he will travel to Los Angeles for a Stand With Us seminar this fall, go to Baltimore around Thanksgiving, and hit New York City with UA Birthright Israel students on Dec. 28. So far, says Rusinov, he has “no regrets.”