In February 2005, Sergei Chashkin participated in a Birthright israel trip departing from Russia. By November, Sergei was living in Ramat Hasharon, a suburban community north of Tel Aviv, and participating in Masa-affiliated music program at the Rimon Conservatory. The academic level and quality of the music studies at Rimon were a primary consideration. There were other programs in Israel that aroused his interest, sparked by the first visit, but at 20 years old, following three years studying architecture in Russia, he felt he had to pursue his professional goals and not just indulge in the whim of travel and fun.
Sergei grew up in Ekaterinburg, the capital of Ural in Russia, the son of a Jewish mother, and grandson to two Jewish grandparents. Sergei has a brother, five years his senior. As a child, he attended a Jewish day camp in Russia administered by the Jewish Agency. As a young adult, he reportedly began studying Hebrew in an ulpan in the Jewish Agency building in Russia.
Having completed his first semester at Rimon, with exams just a few days behind him, Sergei arrived with his guitar strapped over his shoulder to meet me at a café in a Tel Aviv mall. A short beard and long hair pulled back in a pony tail, one tri-pierced ear and earphones strung around his neck, I identified him as he walked towards me speaking to me by cell phone. He smiled warmly and after coaxing him to order cookies with his tea, he needed little questioning to tell me about his program at Rimon and his general experience as a Masa participant. With an incessantly warm smile, Sergei enthusiastically talked – in Hebrew – about his life over the past three and a half months:
Sergei, what was your incentive for participating in Masa?
At the Jewish Agency where I studied in the Ulpan, I heard about a program called Sela in which I was really interested in participating. On the other hand, I also wanted to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, in the U.S., because I want to be a professional jazz guitarist, and by my standards that is the best school in the world. Visa issues and working papers, not to mention time for working, and tuition costs made this option prohibitive. Then I heard about the Rimon School in Israel. You know, it's affiliated with Berklee, and almost all our teachers studied there. The curriculum is similar with a balance between theory and practice which is very important. I enjoy the theory and I think it is very important, but the practical aspect is no less important and that is missing from programs in Russia, at least in the field of jazz. Here, at Rimon, the program includes courses from the History of Jazz and its Development to Rhythmic Listening Development, as well as the Fundamentals of Improvisation, while each student is considered individually and the course load is tailored to your particular needs and goals. Then I found out about Masa which could help me finance my studies and would also require that I study Hebrew, which I would need anyway. I have a lot of old friends also spending time in Israel on Sela and Masa.
How do you manage with the language, and with your Israeli classmates?
My roommate is one of my classmates and my official Hebrew teacher. I should say, I have my own little unit with a kitchenette in his house with his parents in Ramat Hasharon, and on Friday nights, I have dinner with the whole family. My roommate, as my Hebrew tutor is able to focus our sessions on the vocabulary I need professionally and academically. It's true that in an ulpan you study grammar, systematically, according to a curriculum, but having a private tutor allows me to speak, look for words in the dictionary and progress more rapidly than in a group setting. The truth is that I can't even imagine the language ever being a problem. When I don't understand something at school, everyone is anxious to help, both students and teachers. There are only about 12 other Russian speakers at the school, who have been in Israel for many years, but everyone offers me help at every opportunity.
How do your parents feel about your being here?
They are pleased, because they realize I am studying in a serious program and did not just come to Israel to waste my time. I love playing the guitar and I am doing that constantly. On any given day, I can easily play until 3:00 in the morning. The only problem then is waking up for classes, but the courses are so interesting and important that I do attend. I don't have time for anything else.
Now that you have completed your exams and have a semester break, what are you going to do?
When I participated in Taglit, I saw everything on a whirlwind trip, but now I plan to visit Jerusalem again. I want to go to the Kotel, because I think it is really cool!
Yes, I feel that it is the history of this land and of the Jewish people… and it's beautiful.
Do you feel connected to this?
As a child, I became familiar with Purim and Chanuka through the Jewish Agency programming in Russia, but I don't really know much about Israel. I think that while I am here it is important for me to learn about Israel, and Masa encourages that. Studying the history of jazz and its beginnings is essential for a student of jazz. By the same token, I think I need to know the history of Israel.
Judging from what you say about jazz, then you should also study the history of any country that you spend time in.
That does make sense, but I have visited in Europe many times and I don't have the same feeling there as I do in Israel. I need to know about this place. I don't know how to explain it.