NYC’s Russian-Speaking Jewish Community Needs Its Own Federation

By Gennady Favel

Jewish Federation System and History

The Jewish Federation system has its roots in the Kehilla of Eastern Europe which was the communal and political structure of Jewish communities in the first half of the 20th century. The Kehilla in turn has its structural origins in the Qahal, which was a theocratic community governing body in ancient Israel and later in Eastern Europe during parts of the 19th century.

In the U.S, Jewish Federations exist in most cities and towns with a sizable Jewish population. Each federation acts as a central coordinating and fundraising body for the community. Most federations lead fundraising campaigns with the goal of supporting Jewish culture and education, social services, and projects in Israel. The biggest Jewish Federation in the U.S is the UJA-NY which is the federation of NYC and surrounding NY suburbs. The UJA-NY employs 100s of people and distributes in excess of 100 million dollars annually to its partner agencies. Federations in smaller communities might have only a few employees and distribute around one million dollars.

Federations of Cultural Origin Groups

There are also several Jewish federations that organize based on culture and region of family origins. These include the American Sephardi Federation and the Iranian American Jewish Federations. These federations focus on the specific cultural, religious, and advocacy views of their respective communities. Like other federations they also fundraise in order to promote Jewish life, support social services, and donate to Israel. Since these federations represent niche segments of the Jewish population, they can focus on the specific needs and interests that are important to their communities. These federations can partner with Jewish federation in their geographic location, and in NYC for example, lay leaders may sit both on the Iranian American Jewish Federation board and on the board of UJA-NY.

Russian-speaking Jewish Community in America

The majority of Russian-speaking Jews (RSJs) came to America during the 1980s and 90s from Russia and former Soviet Republics. There are by rough estimates between 500,000 and 750,000 RSJs in the United States with the bulk of the population living in NYC and surrounding suburbs.

Russian-speaking Jews comprise diverse levels of religious observances and participation levels in community life. However, there are many common threads in the RSJ community including language, food, as well as shared ancestral experiences of World War Two, the Holocaust, communism, and immigration.

RSJ immigration was advocated-for politically and supported financially by the established American Jewish community including the federation system. Upon arrival to the states, the RSJ community continued to receive support from established Jewish communities in the form of grants, scholarships, career training, and education in Jewish culture and identity. Today many institutions that are used primarily by the RSJ community are still supported in large part by federations.

RSJ Self-determination

In the past, due to reasons that include low economic standing and lack of Jewish education, the RSJ community was not involved in philanthropic initiatives. Now that the community has evolved financially and became more Jewish-identity conscious thanks to investments into Jewish education, there is a much larger capacity and desire for community involvement.

The time has come for the RSJ community to take ownership of our institutions and to promote views and beliefs that are a strong part of our identity! These include an unwavering support for Israel, a definitive stand against anti-Semitism, a strong sense of Jewish identity and pride, family, and preservation of our culture and heritage.

The American Jewish community is composed of hundreds if not thousands of organizations with a full range of viewpoints and opinions on important issues that concern Jews and non-Jews alike. For the Russian-speaking Jewish community to have a strong voice and be able to advocate for the issues that are important to us we must be able to support our own institutions and speak with a united voice.

The RSJ Community is Ready

The RSJ community has produced many financial success stories in the world of finance, technology, medicine, and business. Members of the RSJ community have the economic capacity to sustain and grow a federation. Many members of the RSJ community have participated as lay leaders in Jewish nonprofit organizations or started their own community organizations. Tens of thousands of individuals from the community have participated in education and leadership programs with the goal of greater involvement. There is no question that a Russian-Speaking Jewish American Federation of the NYC area will be able to find the economic and talent resources needed. 

Gennady Favel is the CMO and Co-founder at the Jewish Parent Academy.