When Misha Gorbonuv joined a Jewish youth group in S. Petersburg, Russia, three years ago, he didn’t know the Chabad-Lubavitch program, known by its acronym STARS, would physically take him back to his family roots.

When he was younger, Gorbunov’s grandmother often told him about what Jewish life was like for her growing up in Bobruisk, a city with a historically large Jewish community in Belarus. And although the family moved to S. Petersburg well before Misha - who now also goes by his Hebrew name Matityahu - was born, his mother would spend every summer there. So when the STARS program, administered by Rabbi Daniel Ash, organized a trip to Bobruisk and other small villages, Gorbunov’s mother told him to go.

“She said I have to use this capability to see the native land of my ancestors,” said Gorbunov, 21.

Once there, the young man met with some relatives who have remained in Bobruisk despite a difficult history: At the beginning of World War II, invading German forces murdered some 20,000 of the city’s Jews, and forced the rest into ghettos. Towards the end of the war, some survivors joined underground movements to combat the Nazis.

The STARS group also went to the local Jewish cemetery, where Gorbunov found the graves of his great-grandmother, grandfather, two great-uncles and a great-aunt. All of them had perished in the war.

“When I found her grave, I said a prayer,” said Gorbunov, “I didn’t know the words, but Rabbi Ash helped me. I repeated after him.”

Funded by philanthropists Lev Leviev and Elio Horn, the STARS program reaches thousands of students and young adults across the former Soviet Union through branches of the Federation of Jewish Communities. Its mission is to reinvigorate the Jewish lives of its participants, most of whom were not afforded such opportunities during Communist rule.

“I felt happy because I think I was the first person to pray near her grave in a long time,” said Gorbunov, who is studying electrical engineering at the State Polytechnic University in S. Petersburg. “In the age of USSR, it was impossible.”

A participant on the STARS exploration of Jewish history in Belarus prays in a field in Rogatchov.
A participant on the STARS exploration of Jewish history in Belarus prays in a field in Rogatchov.

Torah Luminaries

Before the group of 13 reached Bobruisk, they stopped in the town of Rogatchov, where they again visited the local cemetery and learned of the district’s Torah luminaries, among them the Rogatchover Gaon, a noted Talmudic scholar who passed away in 1936. On their way out, they searched for the city’s last remaining Jewish resident, an 80-year-old man regaled them with tales of Jewish life of old. After the encounter, Ash helped the man don tefillin.

“We went from village to village asking where to find Jews,” said Leonid Lunya, a student who helped organize the trip.

For Shabbat, the young adults prayed with local Jews in a Bobrusik building adjacent to a historic synagogue that is now used as a sports arena.

“Everyone was together,” commented Lunya, 26. It was a true expression of “the Jewish people.

“The idea was to see how our grandparents’ generation lived, and what was important to them in life,” he continued. “We all felt a personal connection to our people and our culture.”

According to Ash, the group is already planning their next field trip, this time to the Russian town of Lubavitch, where the Chabad-Lubavitch movement was centered for more than a century.