“I owe everything I have – my home, my family, my professional success, the health of my parents and grandparents – to Jewish philanthropy. I would not be living in the United States if it was not for countless Western Jews who first fought to make the Soviet Union release us, and then paid for our journey here and welcomed us with open arms.”
By Ella Shteingart
The 2014 Siyum (graduation ceremony) of the Wexner Heritage Program was historic. It marked the graduation of 20 extraordinary North American Jewish leaders, all born in the Former Soviet Union.
The Wexner Heritage Program has had Russian-born members take part in previous classes, but these were few, the tiny percentage representative of the few who had become involved in the Jewish community and Jewish communal leadership.
For more than 20 years, the American Jewish community worked tirelessly to raise funds, influence governments, and promote the exodus of Soviet Jews – then actively assisted with immigration, resettlement, and acculturation.
Once the Soviet Jews were resettled, what followed was a lull. Until recently, there were few efforts by the American Jewish community to engage Russian-speaking Jews, certainly none that have had the potential to generate as much impact as the Wexner Heritage Program.
Russian-speaking Jews (RSJ’s), who now number about 700,000 in the United States, proceeded to spend the better part of the past 30 years acculturating and achieving, moving up the ranks in almost every professional industry, with limited representation on boards of Jewish organizations.
This NY RSJ cohort of Soviet-born Jew, were empowered to reclaim what was rightfully theirs – deep knowledge of Jewish tradition and history, and contacts across the Jewish leadership spectrum from all over North America.
The following quotes, taken from the original applications of this class, tell their story best:
- “My relationship with Judaism began with humiliation and transformed to pride and thirst for more knowledge… learning with the Wexner Program can fuel the fire within me and provide me with resources to make a real difference.”
- “I often feel like an outsider looking into the American Jewish communal enterprise.”
- “I do not have a full grasp of Judaism, something so inherent to my identity. I have a Jewish learning gap. Consequently, I sometimes feel disadvantaged in Jewish circles as I do not have the same tool box, skill set, background, as if my roots are somehow less Jewish.”
- “I owe everything I have – my home, my family, my professional success, the health of my parents and grandparents – to Jewish philanthropy. I would not be living in the United States if it was not for countless Western Jews who first fought to make the Soviet Union release us, and then paid for our journey here and welcomed us with open arms. I’ve been looking for a meaningful way to give back and to become part of this powerful engine.”
- “Each generation has a story. My grandparent’s story is that of a horrible war followed by the dark ages of communism. My parent’s story is of liberation from the regime and escape to the promised land to create a better future for their children. My generation’s story has so far been dominated by immigration and a drive to succeed…. I’d like to think the rest of this story will have a Jewish presence, but in what shape or form, that is yet to be seen. The Wexner Program seems like it will better prepare me for writing that narrative.”
The 2014 Siyum (graduation ceremony) delivered an entire Wexner class of 20, Jewishly knowledgeable leaders, with a shared story of persecution and immigration, ready to write a new American Jewish story.
Michael Girshin, a member of this class, so aptly put what many in the NY RSJ group were thinking on graduation day: “Whereas 2 years ago the NY RSJ class and the Seattle class (completing the program at the same time) seemed very different, after two years of intensive Jewish education and leadership development, there is very little difference between us: we are on the same playing field.”
The Heritage Program is a game changer for most people fortunate enough to qualify, but the specially built curriculum and experience of convening RSJs together in one cohort, so that their voices and distinct views on identity, Judaism, and Israel, are heard and explored, was particularly impactful and yielded additional success.
Though the results of impacting 20 motivated individuals are just beginning to unfold, these powerhouse-change-makers have already begun significant work. Aware that the majority of RSJs are still on the periphery of the mainstream American Jewish community, this NY RSJ class is the first Wexner Heritage class ever to organize the partnerships needed to perpetuate themselves while still in the program. Together with the Wexner Foundation, UJA Federation of NY, and a NY Heritage Alum, the NY RSJ class has contributed to create another NY RSJ class, slated to begin in 2016. In addition to exploring and assuming new leadership roles across the Jewish spectrum like most new Heritage alumni do, the group is also piloting the first RSJ giving circle through Natan Fund, with funds being matched by the Genesis Philanthropy Group.
There is no doubt that these 20, and another 20 now slated to enter the program in just two years, will have tremendous impact on the global Jewish community, reinvigorating a whole generation of Jews potentially lost under the Soviet regime and adding their important and distinct perspective to the American Jewish communal conversation.
As I left the Siyum ceremony at the end of this summer’s Wexner Heritage Institute in Utah, along with everyone else in the packed ballroom, I was struck by how much the RSJ story is a story of inspiration and promise. A story in which the potential of an entire new generation of Jews who want to engage Jewishly, broke through the trajectory of their story, whose grandparents might have been the last link to Judaism.
This powerful video, created by this class as part of their graduation ceremony, sums up what was once lost, so desperately desired, and now, finally found.
Ella Shteingart, a Soviet-born Jew, has worked as a consultant to The Wexner Foundation in developing and designing the RSJ program, and also as a liaison to the New York RSJ class. Previously, she has worked in various capacities as a Jewish communal professional, most recently as a consultant to organizations creating programming to engage Russian-speaking Jews. Ella also sits on the board of the Jewish Communal Fund, and the advisory boards of The Bronfman Youth Fellowships and LimmudNY. Ella can be reached at [email protected]
An earlier version of this article appeared on The Wexner Foundation Blog.