For U.S. Russian Jewry, An Exercise in Identity

Ukrainian superstar Iryna Rosenfeld performing at Limmud FSU Princeton on motzei Shabbat; photo courtesy Nathan Roi.

by Michele Alperin
JointMedia News Service

PRINCETON, NJ – A gap remains between young Russian Jews and the larger American Jewish community, even as organizations like Limmud FSU and others work to build bridges between them.

Sandy Cahn, co-founder of Limmud FSU, suggests that the only way to ultimately bring these two communities together is to continue, at least for now, having separate organizations and events for Russian Jews. “There is something very special about Russian culture where they have an affinity of wanting to be together,” she says. “Having their own Limmud empowers them to be stronger and encourages them to enter in a more impactful and empowered way on the American Jewish scene.”

Alexander Levin, the president of the World Forum of Russian Jewry, agrees, emphasizing the necessity of ultimately uniting American and Russian Jews. “Today the epidemic assimilation rates don’t leave us a choice but to find the ways to join forces and to share our common values of being Jewish and especially for us, Soviet-grown Jews, to keep a strong Israel!”

Limmud FSU – which held its first U.S. conference May 11-13 in Princeton, NJ – takes its name from the volunteer-driven Jewish learning experience that started over 30 years ago in Great Britain and shares the parent organization’s values of diversity, learning, community and volunteerism. It was founded in 2006 to restore the tradition of lifelong Jewish learning and to strengthen Jewish identity in Russian Jewish communities in and from the former Soviet Union. So far, it has reached 25,000 young Jews in six countries and its goal, says Cahn, is “to have them identify in any way they want to with being Jewish through informal Jewish education.”

The Princeton conference’s 650-plus participants – largely secular but also including a group of observant Jews – came to experience the solidarity and comfort of being with cultural compatriots and to learn a little about Judaism in an open, welcoming environment.

The sense of alienation that many young Russians continue to feel toward the American Jewish community has developed for a number of reasons, all growing from the decades their families spent under a Soviet rule that quashed observance of all religions.

Julia Kotlyar of New York, co-chair of the conference’s recruitment and public relations committee, moved with her parents to Ann Arbor, Mich., when she was 5 and a half. She says her own consciousness was shaped both by her parents’ difficulties trying to fit into American society and their experience of oppression in Kiev – for example, her straight-A’s mother Alina, now a biochemist at the University of Michigan, could not attend a first-class university because she was a Jew. “That immigrant experience seeped into my childhood,” says Ms. Kotlyar. “I saw my parents struggle with jobs and friends, and I sat in the back of their ESL classroom. That is an experience that I don’t share with American Jews.”

Genia Kovelman, a Jewish educator trained at the International Solomon University in Kiev, is now working with 18 to 35 year old Russian Jews in Chicago to help them learn about their Jewish roots, to feel a sense of belonging, and to feel part of the Jewish community. The young Russian Jews she sees in her work also carry with them a suspicion and mistrust of institutions, an inheritance from life under Stalinism and Communism. “For Russian Jews, even if they came when they were very little, if there’s something structured and organized and with requirements of membership and belonging, they stay away,” she explains, adding, “If I, with all my study and work for the Jewish community, can’t affiliate, what about those with none?”

Most Limmud FSU participants interviewed did emphasize their strong Jewish identities, but described them as “cultural” rather than “religious” – an almost the mirror image of strongly identified American Jews. Musing about the source of Russian Jews’ strong ethnic identity, Kovelman concludes that the connection is almost tribal. “The Jews bonded together in the face of anti-Semitism,” she says, noting how Jews helped each other traverse Soviet society.

Although many young Russian Jews do retain a shred of a connection to traditional Judaism, via grandparents who spoke Yiddish or shared stories with them, most have no real knowledge of the Jewish tradition. An almost apocryphal story shared during the conference was that after Rabbi Michael Paley taught a learning session about the Joseph story in the Bible, an audience member questioned him about who Joseph was, asking, “Was he a friend of yours?”

The obvious solution was to begin to create educational organizations wherein Russian Jews and their children, who are usually very successful professionals, can learn about Judaism and the Jewish community without feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or inadequate. Kovelman suggests a tailored approach, with lots of explanation. At her organization’s yearly Russian Shabbaton retreat, she explains everything – the meaning of Shabbat, why we light candles, why we sing songs – to the 100 participants that the event draws. “For many, they are celebrating Shabbat for the first time in their lives,” she says.

Educating Russian Jews, suggests Rabbi Aryeh Katzin, who teaches for the Russian American Jewish Experience (RAJE), is a mission to restore what the Communists took away. “Every time I enter a class, it is a battlefield with Stalin and Hitler,” he says. “Our job is to give this heritage back to this people.”

With the influence and support of the “Russians only” organizations, things may be starting to change. Cahn notes that more Russians in New York are joining the leadership in the Federation and in other organizations. And Kovelman feels that many Russian Jews are looking for spirituality. Additionally, as the younger Russians are having their own children, they are seeing them become more integrated in ways that they themselves couldn’t be. One woman says that her children, who are in day school, are learning at a young age how the Jewish community functions. “Their friends’ parents are on the boards of organizations,” she says. “My mother worked all the time.”

Leonard Petlakh, who teaches an undergraduate class in Russian and Soviet history at Hunter College and co-led a session on Russian Jews and the American Jewish community with Rabbi Robert Kaplan, remembers having to sleep without a mattress when his family first arrived in New York – despite the fact that his father had scoured the neighborhood and requested mattresses from both liberal Jews and Haredim. In the same line, Rabbi Kaplan added that even though thousands of students used to show up at Save Soviet Jewry conferences, only 20 came to a conference he ran whose purpose was to work with Soviet Jews in the U.S.

In response Russian Jews created their own organizations, which are likely to continue providing for their different needs at least into the next decade. But Petlakh and others view this separateness as part of a process toward unity. He says organizations like Limmud FSU and RAJE provide “a means to an ultimate goal – to be part of the American Jewish community. You cannot be a Jew in a vacuum, just with your Russian friends.”