UJA-Federation NY’s Synergy team has released, “Synagogue Engagement: Reaching Out to Russian-Speaking Jews.”
Roman Shmulenson, Executive Director of COJECO, writes in the introduction:
“I will never forget the first time I accompanied a group of Russian-speaking Jews (RSJs) to Israel. The El Al security agent asked the trip participants his standard questions about Jewish identity and Jewish life: What synagogue do you belong to? What Jewish holidays do you celebrate? Do you speak Hebrew?
Virtually none of the people in my group could answer to his satisfaction. Frustrated, the security agent asked me, “Why don’t these people belong to a congregation or know anything about Judaism?”
“Try asking them what it was like being the only Jewish kid at their Soviet high school, or how they felt after a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., or how they feel every time they hear HaTikvah,” I replied. “You are asking them what they know and what they do as Jews. What you are leaving out is how they feel as Jews.”
What is Jewish identity? How is it formed and developed? Can we, as community leaders, say with confidence that our programs have a positive impact on someone’s Jewish identity? Or do we just plant the seeds and hope that they fall on fertile ground?
The field of sociology is predictated on the idea that a person’s identity is developed through a combination of emotions, behaviors, and knowledge. Given the individual and collective experience of RSJs under the Soviet regime for nearly a century, it is understandable that Jewish identity-building was a nearly impossible feat. Generations of Jews were denied access to Jewish cultural, religious, and educational institutions, and all forms of public Jewish expression were forbidden.
Miraculously, and in part because of a complicated history and external pressures, RSJs maintained a deep emotional connection to our Jewish families, a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and a powerful affinity for the State of Israel and Jewish culture.
While Jewish identity based mostly on emotion can be very strong, it is rarely sustainable or transferrable without education or action. Since most RSJs today live in open and welcoming societies, the question of how to develop and transmit Jewish identity has changed.
In the next five to 10 years, while the sentimental attachment to Judaism is still strong among RSJs, we must seize the opportunity to engage them in Jewish identity-building. Without culturally relevant moments of learning and inspiration, their Jewish identity will weaken. We need to provide positive Jewish experiences, such as learning opportunities for all ages, Shabbat and holiday celebrations, and chances for authentic involvement in congregational life.
As lay and professional Jewish community leaders, we have an opportunity and responsibility not only to facilitate Jewish identity-building among RSJs, but to contribute to the development of a strong and vibrant Jewish life in which all of our community members feel that they belong and that their voices are heard and respected.”
The complete report is available for download here (free registration required).