Genia Mikhaleva held onto the stuffed animal in her lap as if she would never let it go. Mikhaleva, director of the newly opened Moscow Hillel Foundation in Russia, admitted she even carried the animal, a talking cat, on the plane coming here.
"It was a gift from my students. I'm supposed to share its message with America," she explained.
She toyed with a small flag attached to the cat with the word "Hillel" spelled out in blue Hebrew letters. With a mischievous smile, she pointed out an opening in the cat's stomach that revealed a small tape recorder. It carried the voices of Russian students sending "best wishes from Hillel" in English, Hebrew and Russian.
A keynote speaker at the recent S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Women's Division 38th annual meeting, Mikhaleva was in San Francisco to talk about her work supervising the new Hillel to an audience of nearly 100 women.
Launched in Moscow last fall, Hillel has quickly emerged as a center of Jewish activity in Russia, attracting more than 1,000 students from a variety of campuses. The Moscow center, Hillel's first venture into Russia, marks the start of a plan to develop seven other Hillels throughout the former Soviet Union in coming years, she said.
Based at the Jewish University of Moscow, the Russian Hillel is jointly sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and International Hillel.
As Hillel's director, Mikhaleva is responsible for a wide range of Jewish programs, from holiday celebrations and retreats to lectures and Shabbat dinners. With pride, she speaks of a weeklong seminar she hosted with participants coming not only from Moscow but St. Petersburg, Kiev and Omsk.
But Mikhaleva never expected she would be playing a pivotal role in promoting Russian Jewish student life. Growing up in Moscow, she never thought of herself as anything but Russian. She had not considered what it meant to be Jewish until, at the age of 7, a classmate cruelly teased her about the unusual shape of her "Jewish" nose.
"That was my initial experience with anti-Semitism. I didn't understand what they were talking about. I didn't have any Jewish friends and my family never talked about being Jewish…Our culture was always Russian culture," she recalled.
A second, more blatant encounter with anti-Semitism took place years later, while she was attending university. Although Mikhaleva was an outstanding student of Russian literature, her professor refused to recommend her for a higher degree in the subject because "a Jew can't learn Russian literature."
"I didn't understand. I was shocked. I wanted to find out what he was talking about. I wanted to know who these Jews were and why they didn't like Russian literature," she said.
Her journey of discovery eventually led Mikhaleva, a graduate of the Moscow Pedagogical University and a certified high school teacher, to a six-month stay in Israel. "And the rest, as you say in America, is history."
Opening the Moscow Hillel, however, was no easy task. "Most people didn't believe I would make it and to tell you the truth, I had my doubts," said Mikhaleva, remembering when the building accidentally caught fire near the opening date.
But what could have been a disaster turned out to be a bonding experience. "The students stood outside for hours eager to help," she said. "The next day they banded together in a massive cleanup effort. It helped us to come together, forced us to try and make a home."
In her speech, Mikhaleva noted that Russian anti-Semitism has persisted. As recently as the 1980s, Russian Jewish college students attempting to organize were harassed and occasionally jailed by the Soviet government.
"But thanks to people like you, after 70 years of silence and fear, unable to learn our culture and traditions, we are silent no more," Mikhaleva said.
"Today my students are asking themselves the simple question, `Who am I?' It's a question I understand because not long ago, I was asking the exact same thing."
In addition to featuring Mikhaleva, the annual meeting honored Golda Kaufman, past president of the San Francisco Women's Division. The group also approved a motion to change its name to Women's Alliance.