"I want to be completely Jewish," he says. "We came to Israel to live in the Jewish state and I want to fully participate in life here."
The Shvut Am Institute is located at the Yemin Orde Youth Aliyah Village, near Haifa. Youth Aliyah, a Jewish Agency-funded program, cares for disadvantaged Israelis as well as large numbers of new immigrant children. The absorption of these children, as well as the absorption of all new immigrants, is supported by American Jews through the UJA/Federation annual and Operation Exodus campaigns.
The most difficult part for Lieberman has been the drastic change in lifestyle. Although quick to point out his appreciation of Shabbat, he explains: "I was used to going out with my friends on Friday night and then to the beach on Saturday. It's an adjustment."
He's also adjusting to a heavier study schedule. In addition to his regular high school studies at Yemin Orde, Lieberman is given lessons on the observances and deeds of Judaism, including putting on tefillin, keeping kosher and observing Shabbat. This exposure to Judaism often affects an entire family. In Lieberman's case, his father is learning about Judaism for the first time and his mother is considering conversion.
Rabbi Waldman, head of the Shvut Am Institute, has high praise for his students. "They are sincere and serious youngsters," he says. "They have grown up in a Jewish environment, even if that environment did not involve much Jewish content.
"After their conversion they will know more about Judaism than the average Russian newcomer who is fully Jewish," he adds.
Many of the students have always considered themselves Jewish. Igor Soskin, a lanky 14-year-old with ginger hair, says, "So far as the anti-Semites in the Soviet Union were concerned, we were Jewish." He then adds, "But I understand that it is important for us to learn about Judaism and formally convert."
The objective of the religious courses is more the beauty of Judaism than scholarly endeavors. Dr. Chaim Peri, the executive director of Yemin Orde, finds the conversion program especially satisfying. "These formerly non-Jewish teenagers are very vulnerable," he says. "It's important for youngsters to feel that they are on an equal footing with their peers."
If Lieberman and Soskin are any measure, Peri and Waldman are both succeeding. Soskin says, "The way I've been helped and accepted makes me really feel that Israel is my home."