Are Jewish Nonprofits Finally Learning to Speak Russian?

3 countries of Russian speaking Jewry; copyright eJewish PhilanthropyBy Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt
eJewish Philanthropy

Several years ago, among nonprofit organization leaders, some professionals started wondering about the Russian-speaking Jewish community – and most laughed, doubting that those insular Russians, skeptics inclined towards engineering and computer science, would ever enter American Jewry’s nonprofit industry.

In the past few years alone, Russian-speaking Jews have proven them quite wrong.

It’s become its own overwhelming industry, necessitating seminars and symposiums for how Russian-speaking professionals can effectively reach their elusive brethren: Is it through throwing Russian-themed parties for young adults, ‘leadership training’ for teenagers, retreats for young families, lectures for senior citizens?

On July 16, COJECO held its first Russian-speaking Jewish community professionals symposium to address these questions. From synagogues to day schools, summer camps to JCC’s to private foundations, the symposium drew professionals from around the country – 85% of whom were born in the former Soviet Union. As in most nonprofit settings, more than half of the 55 participants were female.

The program opened with a presentation from the Genesis Philanthropy Group’s Ilia Salita, a data presentation from COJECO staff on Russian-Jewish nonprofit workers, and a feel-good video interviewing the fellows of Brandeis Jewish Leadership Institute.

Simon Klarfeld of Young Judea ran a stimulating discussion on identity (oh, that endlessly appearing, cliche word). Using in-session polls via text message, Klarfeld asked a set of questions which set off a storm of debate. When he asked the room of Russian-speaking Jews what their Jewish identity is to them — 15% answered religion, 18% nationality, 13% ethnicity, and 55% culture. “Culture is least imposing,” one participant explained.

The debate continued in discussing how to segment the community – age, religion, geography, when they came to the US/Canada? And how do children of immigrants identify – Russians, Americans, both, neither? What differentiates Russian Jews from their American brethren – religion, connection to Israel, language, culture? While the conversation was heated, participants offered their subjective identity theories, mostly anecdotal and few based on data: “Russian Jews are this and this, because my child is like such and such…” For a broad community like this, spanning generations, cities of origin and current locations, and waves of immigration – it’s hard to make any blanket assumptions.

Perhaps most damning of all was when Klarfeld asked how well the American Jewish establishment knows Russian-speaking Jews. 56% said little – and 44% not at all.

“It’s the nature of a host community to an immigrant community to assume they know what a community needs,” said Harlene Winnick Appelman of the Covenant Foundation. “We are interested, we are willing to hear. Tell us what you need.”

The end of the symposium offered a report, “Synergy: Innovations and Strategies for Synagogues of Tomorrow,” prepared by the UJA-Federation of New York and COJECO, offering some innovative insights – how to market to Russian-speaking Jewish families, how to invite them to synagogue without turning them off. “Don’t overuse stereotypical references to break the ice,” the handbook quips. “While caviar may be a nice addition to any Kiddush, having a vodka party might not attract the crowd you’d like.”

Too often, Russian Jews are asked “what they know and what they do as Jews”, says Roman Shmulenson, COJECO’s executive director. “What [people] are leaving out is how they feel as Jews.”

So how will Russian Jews get to the point that they do know and do, more than simply feel? Slowly, slowly, we’re getting there.