FSU Jewish Identity Revival Fostered by Informal Education Network

Participants in the 4th Annual Jewish Informal Education Conference in Lvov tour a Jewish cemetery; photo courtesy JDC.
Participants in the 4th Annual Jewish Informal Education Conference in Lvov tour a Jewish cemetery; photo courtesy JDC.

By Michele Alperin

In a complex journey that can start as simply as children asking their parents what their family name means, younger Jews in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) are discovering the sometimes long-held secret of their religious background – a discovery that often initiates a search for Jewish identity.

Typically, this reawakening happens among teens, says Ofer Glanz, the FSU regional director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Glanz recalls a Jewish educational coordinator in Kiev asking her parents about the very strange dinner she and her parents would have with her grandparents every April. Although they usually shushed her and told her that it was something babushka and dedushka (grandma and grandpa) wanted, she later found out it was a Passover seder.

Another JDC staffer brought a recipe from home to a cooking class and was asked what kind of food it was. “Her mother told her that her grandmother used to cook this kind of dish in the shtetl, before the war,” Glanz tells JNS.org.

A network of informal educational organizations has been developing to meet the needs of these newly interested FSU Jews. The network includes JDC’s Jewish community centers, youth organizations, and family camps; Limmud FSU; and others. To support the educators and volunteers behind this Jewish identity revival, JDC held an informal education conference in Lvov, Ukraine, from Oct. 13-17. Sessions focused on networking, knowledge sharing, skills buildup, and the exchange of best practices in Jewish informal education as well as religious practices, spirituality, and issues like assimilation. Two of the days were devoted to study tours of Jewish areas in the region, with follow-up sessions related to potential programming.

“Education is a tool to address one of the key issues in the FSU, both for younger and older people – Jewish identity,” Glanz says. “People in the FSU were deprived of anything having to do with Jewish identity for more than 70 years, until the breakdown of the Soviet Union.”

In contrast to the U.S. and Israel, where Jewish identity is passed from parent to child, in the FSU it often goes in the other direction, according to Glanz.

“Usually young people bring home Jewish identity. Young people understanding they are Jews want to understand better what it means and to reconnect to the Jewish people,” he says.

For conference participant Kolea Railean, director of the youth department of the Jewish Cultural Center in Kishinev, the first intuition that he was Jewish came when his dad told him that the doughnuts his grandmother used to make were for Hanukkah. After her death, Jewish life “began to drain out of our family,” he writes in an email to JNS.org. But Railean, who was always interested in cooking, carefully studied his grandmother’s handwritten Jewish recipes – for latkes, sufganiot (jelly donuts), and “other national dishes of Jewish cuisine” (like forshmak, which is Jewish herring) – and sometimes he and his dad would try to cook her recipes together.

When Railean got older, his father sent him and his sister to a Jewish school, and he was also part of Sunday youth programs at the Jewish Cultural Center.

“I began to attend a variety of programs, seminars, courses, and one day I realized that without my community I cannot imagine my future life,” he says.

Essentially self-educated Jewishly, Railean has also studied at seminars organized by JDC and has traveled with the Jewish Cultural Center to New York, where he got to observe modern techniques and technologies in Jewish education.

Five years ago, Railean decided to open a youth club, Haverim, as part of the Jewish Cultural Center. The club draws 700 young people each year to the Jewish community. Railean’s most important personal goal is to attract as many Jewish teens as possible to life inside the Jewish community. His secondary objective is to give them the chance to be a part of the traditions and culture of the Jewish people.

“After all, the Soviet years took that away from our parents and grandparents. The most important part for me is to, by talking to them, let them know that our future and the future of our community is in our hands,” he explains.

Of the 15,000 Jews currently living in Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, only about 8,000 are affiliated. “A lot of people are still afraid to admit they are Jews,” Railean says. “To this day, we still find Jewish descendants who are afraid to talk about their Jewish heritage.”

Another problem in Moldova is anti-Semitism, with swastikas drawn on walls, Jewish gravestones being broken, and vandals dismantling the communal menorah installed each year for Hanukkah.

“There are still parts of the Soviet life left here,” says Railean.

The Haverim club offers leadership and volunteer programs, and workshops and seminars, to help young people gain Jewish knowledge. They can study Hebrew, learn about the Jewish culture of Moldova, and participate in debate clubs. Youths also join together for Jewish holidays and for Shabbat, and they are encouraged to develop and lead their own communal projects.

“A lot of teens start and conduct programs for the elderly, visit socially vulnerable families with children, help them out with homework, meet on Shabbat together,” Railean says.

Some of the most successful Haverim programs have been family camps and retreats. The camps have been particularly successful, suggests Railean, because they give adults and children a chance to choose the programs they are interested in.

“A camp is not a school or university, but a place where we want our members, the community members, to feel comfortable, so they had a desire to return,” he says.

Across the FSU this past summer, these one-to-two-week family camps, each focusing on people from a particular community, drew more than 5,000 participants. The camps offer both vacation activities and daily programs that emphasize Jewish culture, identity, and knowledge. JDC’s Glanz adds, “We are also building a sense of community and trying to see how they can get involved in ongoing activities in their own cities.”

Another conference participant, Alla Magas, head of the Jewish youth association at the Beit Dan Jewish Community Center in Kharkov, Ukraine, deals with issues similar to those Railean sees in Moldova. Although the Jewish community is strong, “people still do not know about their identity,” and the reason for that phenomenon is sometimes unclear, she writes in an email to JNS.org.

“Not everyone wants to send their kids to Jewish day school, or go to synagogue or Shabbat programs at the community center. The ‘lost generation’ (the generation that grew up in the Soviet Union that does not know anything about their religion) intermarried a lot, so now we have many split families,” Magas says, adding that these people should be treated with great care while Jewish organizations try to help them enter the community.

The JDC conference brought together about 150 attendees from the FSU and Israel. Railean and Magas led a group of youth directors that shared questions and situations that had arisen for them during the year. They also offered a session on how to plan and conduct mass events, and on how to motivate and attract teens to the community. The group also decided on ways it could continue to collaborate year-round.

Within the efforts to revive Jewish identity revival in the FSU, Railean says his emphasis is on informal education – especially for youths – because of the element of choice.

“People are attracted when they are given the freedom to choose, when they are not put into the rigid frameworks, and those are the basic principles of informal education,” he says.