By Julie Masis
The Boston area has a large Russian-speaking Jewish community – but you would not know it from the way the Jewish community allocates funds.
In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, less than one percent of funding that was distributed by Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s largest Jewish donor, went toward programs for Russian-speaking Jews.
More specifically, this year CJP allocated $170,000 toward Russian-Jewish organizations, said CJP’s spokeswoman Karen Kuwayti. This represents less than 1 percent of the CJP’s total allocations of $53,529,000 – despite the fact that according to a CJP’s data, at least 7 percent of all Jews in the Boston area speak Russian.
More specifically, the Russian Jewish Community Foundation, which is based in Boston, received a subsidy of only $25,000 from CJP – which is just as much money as CJP spent on a program for Israeli Arabs, entitled “Social Venture Fund on Israeli Arabs.”
Shaloh House, the Jewish day-school which is under the leadership of Boston’s only Russian-speaking rabbi, received a subsidy of $20,600 from CJP. This is only 1 percent of the $1.5 million that CJP allocated toward Jewish day schools in Boston in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
The Shaloh House synagogue, which is the only synagogue in Boston where the services are led in Russian, does not receive any support from CJP.
CJP also donates $117,600 to Center Makor, that organizes Russian cultural events in Boston, such as a film about Babi Yar, a meeting with a Russian-speaking Holocaust survivor, and a Purim party for Russian Jews. Center Makor has only one full-time employee – the director.
The remaining $7,400 was allocated to Jookender, a new group for Russian-speaking families with children, as well as to “small, regional, innovation and teen strategy grants,” according to Kuwayti.
In response to a question about why less than 1 percent of CJP’s funding goes toward Russian organizations, Kuwayti said that Russian-speaking Jews also benefit from other programs that CJP supports.
“CJP does not allocate funds based on percentages of the population that make up the Greater Boston Jewish community, therefore it’s not accurate to do the math as a one-to-one correlation,” she wrote in an email. “Looking at the funding from this lens also doesn’t take into account other services and programs CJP supports for the broader community that are also available to members of the Russian-speaking community.”
She explained that Russian-speaking Jews also participate in CJP’s “general learning and engagement programming,” support for Holocaust (survivors’) services, and in CJP’s caring initiatives.
“Our focus is on ensuring that we are allocating resources toward the greatest needs within our community and toward areas where we feel we can make the greatest impact,” she wrote. “Every year, we go through an annual strategic evaluation of our funding plans for the upcoming year to ensure that our programmatic investments are aligned with our goals as an organization and a community.”
Yet no one on CJP’s Board of Directors, that has 43 members, speaks Russian.
With regard to this observation, Kuwayti wrote, “While there currently isn’t someone on our Board of Directors who speaks Russian, we are proud that we have representation from the Russian-speaking community on our staff and among our volunteer leaders.”
No support for Russian–Jewish theater
Yet when looking at the list of programs funded by CJP, it is striking to see that the Russian-speaking community in Boston receives less support than Ethiopian Jews in Haifa, to whom CJP allocated $371,000 in 2019.
Meanwhile, many programs within the Russian-speaking community in Boston do not receive any support from the Jewish community at large. For example, Arlekin Players’ Theater and Theater Krug, both of which have Jewish directors, many Jewish actors and often stage plays on Jewish subjects, do not benefit from any CJP funding. For 20 years, Theater Krug could not afford a permanent place for productions – plays were staged in various synagogues and rehearsals took place in a photo studio. Arlekin Players Theater is surviving thanks to support from within the Russian-speaking community, and non-Jewish organizations, such as a local bank.
Yuri Rubenchik, the director of Russian-language theater “Krug,” who is Jewish himself, said that he didn’t apply for funding from CJP because he was under the impression that support from a Jewish organization would force him to stage plays only on Jewish subjects.
“If they give me a thousand dollars but they ask me to stage only Jewish plays, that doesn’t work for me,” he said.
But in fact, CJP funds Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) which provide sports activities (JCCs received $450,000 from CJP in 2019), and even some non-Jewish organizations, including the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston ($19,000), Budget Buddies ($25,000), Girls Inc. of Greater Lowell ($20,000), Health Care Without Walls ($15,000), MediaGirls ($17,000), and the St. Mary’s Center for Women and Children ($20,000).
No Russian films at the Boston Jewish Film Festival
At times it appears that the Russian-speaking Jewish community is practically invisible within the larger Jewish community.
For example, this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival, that presented more than 60 movies from all over the world, did not screen a single film from the former Soviet Union. (The Boston Jewish Film Festival received a $6,500 subsidy from CJP this year.) The festival’s artistic director Ariana Cohen-Halberstam said that the festival did not receive any appropriate submissions from Russian-language filmmakers. Yet a few years ago, the festival rejected an award-winning documentary “Operation Wedding,” about a group of Russian-Jews who tried to hijack a Soviet airplane in 1970 to escape to Israel. And this year, the Boston Jewish Film Festival rejected “Anna’s War,” a new Russian film about a Jewish girl who climbed out of a mass grave in Ukraine and survived the war in hiding. The film was presented at the Rotterdam Film Festival and at the Haifa International Film Festival.
Yet despite the lack of Russian movies at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, Russian was often heard being spoken in the audience. Just in Newton, one of the towns where the festival took place, Russian is the second most-spoken language, with 3,000 people reporting that they speak Russian at home, according to census data.
Only seven percent of the population?
According to a survey conducted by Combined Jewish Philanthropies in 2015, seven percent of Jewish adults in the Boston area (or 12,800 people) speak Russian, but leaders within the Russian-speaking community dispute this figure. They believe the percent of Russian-speakers is much larger.
“Maybe they didn’t reach out to the Russians when they did the survey,” said Rabbi Dan Rodkin, a Chabad rabbi who represents the Russian-Jewish community in Boston.
Rodkin believes that Russian-speakers make up about a third of all Jews in greater Boston – a similar percentage as in New York and Los Angeles, he said.
In 2017, The Times of Israel reported that Russian speaking Jews account for 20 percent of the American Jewish community, while in 2011, the Forward newspaper used the figure 10 percent.
In Boston, the leaders of the Russian-speaking Jewish community have wildly different estimates, but all of them agree that seven percent seems to be too low.
For example, Alex Koifman, who is the president of the Russian Jewish Community Foundation, estimates that there are more than 40,000 Russian Jews in Massachusetts, including Russian-speaking Israelis who moved here in recent years.
“When you go to a pro-Israel rally, the number of Russian Jews is between 30 and 60 percent,” he wrote in a Facebook message.
And the president of Center Makor Vladimir Foygelman said that he thinks there are about 35,000 Russian-Jews in Boston, while the number of people who speak Russian (including those who are not Jewish) is between 45,000 and 50,000.
“In truth, nobody knows the real numbers,” Foygelman wrote in a Facebook message. “It is also true that we thought that in Massachusetts there are 100,000 Russian-speaking people, and up to 75,000 of them are Jews.”
According to the U.S. Census that was released in 2015, there are 36,549 Russian speakers in Massachusetts.
Improvements on the horizon
Whether Russian-speakers account for 7 or 30 percent of the Jewish community in Boston, it appears that the community is starting to get a little bit more recognition.
In February, the new president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies Marc Baker for the first time met with leaders of the Russian-speaking community to answer their questions and listen to their suggestions.
“This transition of leadership is a really good time to connect with the different communities who make up our community,” said Baker, who took over the leadership of CJP after the departure of the former president who served for 30 years.
“The question is how to fully engage the Russian-Jewish community. The Russian-Jewish community has so much to offer,” he said. “It’s not just about what we can do for them.”
Rabbi Rodkin said while Russian-speaking Jews had been criticized in the past for being less generous than American Jews, they are starting to give more to Jewish charities.
“It’s the first generation making money here, you cannot compare them to people who have been here for generations and already have a foundation,” he said.
The political differences between the Russian-speaking community, which tends to be more conservative and vote republican, and the Jewish community at large, which is more liberal, also came up during the discussion.
Rabbi Rodkin said that some people feel that “if you are not liberal, you cannot be part of CJP.”
But a representative from CJP responded that “it doesn’t matter if you’re right or left.”