It’s All About Sarah: Creating a Stronger Connection Between RSJs and Jewish Camp

by Cheryl Fishbein

“After my first summer at Havurah, I felt connected to a great community. Havurah instilled a pride in me of my Jewish heritage, and helped me to understand it alongside my Russian heritage.”
Sarah Benenson

Sarah Benenson is 17 years old. She grew up in Glen Gardener, NJ with her parents who emigrated there from the former Soviet Union 23 years ago. Like so many of her peers in North America, Sarah grew up with a clear understanding that she is Jewish, and an understanding of the anti-semitism that prompted her parents to leave Russia, but without much Jewish practice or engagement with the Jewish opportunities around her. Then in 2010, through a friend of a friend, she heard about Havurah – a unique program for teens from the North American Russian Jewish community at Camp Tel Yehudah, the national teen leadership camp of Young Judaea. Those three and a half weeks at Jewish camp changed her life. Sarah’s commitment evolved and she is involved in Jewish volunteer work, worked as a camp counselor this past summer at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake, and plans to immerse herself in all aspects of Israeli life and culture by being a part of Young Judaea’s Year Course in Israel next year. One Jewish camp experience has set Sarah on course for a life of Jewish communal engagement.

Sarah’s story is not unique, but unfortunately there aren’t enough like it. There are thousands of young Jews from Russian-speaking backgrounds who do not have experiences like Havurah and miss the opportunity to connect with the Jewish community in North America as a child or teen.

Conservative estimates are that Russian speaking Jews (RSJs) make up upwards of 15% of the North American Jewish population and most of them are not actively engaged in organized Jewish life. As we saw through Sarah’s story, and many others like hers, camp is a great entryway into the Jewish community.

Last week, the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), in partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group, convened 25 people at the Funders Summit: Engaging Russian Speaking Jews in Jewish Camp, and I had the pleasure of being the event chair. An energetic room full of philanthropists, Wexner Heritage RSJ fellows, and FJC board members discussed how to reinvigorate investment in the Russian speaking Jewish community and raise it on the agenda of major Jewish organizations. The group worked to identify funding resources and new opportunities to impact the Russian speaking population as well as develop a long-term strategy for successful engagement of Russian speaking campers and staff.

Why do this now? Why continue to bring Russian speaking Jews and their engagement in Jewish camp to the forefront of the philanthropic agenda? Because engaging RSJs in the Jewish community through Jewish camp will strengthen the North American Jewish community.

By deepening the connection of RSJs to Jewish camp we are strengthening Jewish camp, and offering an incubator for the next generation of Jewish leaders, Jewish educators, and Jewish innovators. We are still at the beginning stages of engaging this fundamental and often overlooked segment of our community. But, if we continue to have conversations like last week’s, I believe we can reach many more Sarahs.

Cheryl Fishbein has an extensive history of major leadership roles among the world’s top philanthropies. As a valued advisor and consultant, she has been instrumental in bringing to fruition a variety of groundbreaking programs in health, education, the arts, sciences and humanitarian concerns. She serves on the boards of the Board of Governors of the American Jewish Committee and the Executive Committee of the JCC Association of North America.