Hanukkah Lights Illuminate A Submerged Jewish Identity

by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

Boston, December 23, 2011 – In some respects, it’s just amazing that this Hanukkah party took place at all.

On a recent afternoon in a daycare center in suburban Chestnut Hill, just west of here, preschoolers gathered with parents and grandparents to watch Hanukkah skits, don Maccabee-like costumes, sing holiday songs, and indulge in hot latkes and sticky jelly donuts.

Ordinary, but only up to a point.

A thick Russian accent here. Tales of anti-Semitism there. A tentative step toward Judaism by one. A full embrace by another. Boston or Newton or Chestnut Hill vs. Kiev or Moscow or Baku.

“For many in the older generations, being Jewish was something to hide,” said Larisa Bankovsky, owner of the daycare where the holiday festivities unfolded. “My family hid it from me for years. We lived in the Ukraine. Being Jewish meant trouble.”

Emigres from Russia and other countries within the former Soviet sphere bring a complex and often detached relationship to their Judaism here, rooted in cultural and often-dark histories that can take generations to undo.

But this gathering was a move to do just that – part of a long-term and multi-faceted initiative by the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations (COJECO).

The initiative, Project Gesher, seeks not only to educate Russian-Jews on Jewish teachings, traditions, history and practice, but also to infuse in them a feeling of pride and to integrate them into the larger Jewish community.

“We are aiming to make them out and proud,” said Gennady Gerovich, program coordinator for COJECO.

Project Gesher launched in 2003 in New York – a bastion of the Russian-Jewish emigre population – with a grant from The Covenant Foundation, and it has been growing there ever since with additional support from UJA-Federation of New York and Genesis Philanthropy Group.

A second Covenant Foundation grant expanded the program this year to metro Boston, where some estimates count 50,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union.

The initiative, which borrows its name from the Hebrew word for “bridge,” takes a multi-generational approach, targeting preschoolers with Jewish educational content, and integrating parents and grandparents into the mix with events like the Hanukkah party and others.

“The parents can be more of a challenge, but the little kids are different,” Gerovich said. “Being Jewish is no taboo for them. If we help parents interact in a Jewish way with their kids, and they see that their children enjoy it, they won’t take it away and they will be more comfortable themselves. That is just huge.”

In New York, the program is reaching 1,350 families. In its inaugural year in the Boston area, it is reaching close to 40 families, a number expected to grow as more partnerships are created with more preschools.

There are at least 30 preschools in the area serving Russian-Jewish families, so there is much room for growth, said Irene Belozersky, senior planning associate at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Jewish federation in Boston and a key partner in integrating this population into the greater Jewish community.

At three preschools active now – one in Chestnut Hill and two in Newton – college students trained as educators by COJECO spend an hour each week teaching Hebrew, marking holidays with special events, reading Jewish- themed books, talking about Israel, directing Jewish arts and crafts projects, and otherwise engaging youngsters in informal and age-appropriate learning activities.

Parents and other relatives are encouraged to watch and partake themselves, and regular family activities are organized to bond the generations through a Jewish journey.

“We want to enable parents to give Jewish experiences to their children,” said Luda Yakhnina, director of Project Gesher. “But parents may not have the passion, motivation or knowledge to do this. Often, without us, that simply won’t happen.”

Elena Kontorovitch of Newton accompanied her four-year-old daughter, Polina, to Project Gesher’s Hanukkah party. She watched as Polina took part in an ad-hoc holiday skit, then joined her to draw a menorah and socialize with others over latkes and donuts.

“We came from Russia and we have some traditions, but not so many, so we want to establish more,” she said. “I have some knowledge, but I can learn more along with her. Now we, and especially Polina, will know what to do and how to do it and what everything means.”

Kontorovitch said the family recently joined an area synagogue to enhance even more observance and connection to Jewish community.

“That is the dream outcome,” Gerovich said, “that someone would feel so confident and recognize the importance of Jewishness in their lives, that they would affiliate with an organization like a synagogue. If we are a step in that direction, we are having a huge impact.”

After the Hanukkah party wound down, after the holiday decorations were boxed up, and after the leftover latkes were devoured, Project Gesher officials and student teachers met for a few hours to review curricula for coming weeks and the lead-up to Tu b’Shevat.

Natan Loyfman, a Project Gesher family educator who paraded around as Judah Maccabee and led youngsters through the story of Hanukkah at the holiday celebration, was pleased with the way it all went.

“Hanukkah traditions and observance will be stronger in those homes this year,” he said. “We are confronting history and creating proud and knowledgeable Jews for now and for the future.”

images: Nir Landau