Reflections: 20 Years of Hillel in the FSU

by Sanford R. Cardin

In 1994, in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Charles and Lynn Schusterman seized upon what they determined was a window of opportunity to begin rebuilding a sense of community among those whose Jewish identities had been repressed by the twin forces of the Holocaust and state-supported persecution.

The Schustermans had traveled to the region several times in the 1980’s to meet refuseniks, and they knew there was a generation of young adults, embracing new identities in the post-Soviet era, who wanted to learn about their Jewish heritage and reclaim the traditions that had been too far out of reach for far too long.

It was an important time, and Jews around the world rallied to support the needs of the Jewish people in the former Soviet Union. Israel, once again, absorbed a massive wave of olim, global relief organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) responded to the need for chesed and outreach organizations poured into Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. The hard-fought effort to free Soviet Jewry had succeeded, and the difficult task of meeting the needs of our brothers and sisters from Riga to Odessa to Khabarovsky lay before us.

The decision to launch Hillel in the former Soviet Union was a collaborative one. The JDC, Hillel and Schusterman Family Foundation all shared a vision for addressing a common need and committed to combining our respective experience, expertise and resources in an effort to maximize the chances for success.

The partners in this historic effort also wanted to discover what it is about Judaism that kept a yearning alive even after so many decades of repression. We believed that there were significant lessons to be learned and applied to our respective and collective work in other Jewish communities around the world.

Looking back after 20 years, our lessons are twofold: it is clear to us both that the opportunity we seized together with our partners at the JDC was auspicious and necessary and also that the work is still not yet complete.

Today, there are 17 Hillels in seven countries in the FSU that are collectively reaching more than 13,000 students and young adults annually. Beyond Hillel, the communal infrastructure has grown to include some of the most successful programs reaching young Jewish adults – including Taglit Birthright, Moishe House and PresenTense, among others – as well as synagogues, Jewish community centers, day schools, camps, youth programs and academic groups.

Through a mix of programming, Taglit recruitment, Jewish learning and community service, tens of thousands of young adults have claimed their Jewish identity, connected with the State of Israel, and created new social networks within and among their local communities. In turn, and in a complete reversal of roles that many of us who grew up in the relative comfort of the American Jewish community find hard to contemplate, they are passing these experiences and traditions on to their parents and grandparents.

Even more, while these programs were once solely provided through the generosity of foreign donors, today they are moving on a critical trajectory toward being governed and sustained by their respective local communities. The Genesis Philanthropy Group and the UJA-Federation of NY, among others, have become remarkable leaders in this important endeavor.

In addition, alumni of Hillel programs in Russia and throughout central Asia and southeastern Europe (CASE) are now the leaders of local boards that make strategic and operating decisions that guide the future of the organizations and, in many cases, the communities.

Recently we had the chance to visit several of these Hillels in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev – spending time with their leaders, alumni and present participants. In many ways, it was a family reunion, a reconnection and a reminder of the global Jewish family that Charles and Lynn imagined when they established our Foundation 25 years ago and stepped forward to help bring the power of Hillel to young adults around the world.

The stories we heard told us not only of the difference Hillel, Birthright, Moishe House, PresenTense and others have made on individuals and communities in the FSU and CASE regions, but also were subtle reminders that there are many more stories to be discovered. Indeed, as far as these communities have come, our work is not done.

We believe that the stories of these communities can best be told through the eyes of their young leaders. And so we asked three to share how Jewish life has changed in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. We hope their reflections will inspire many more to write their own and, importantly, many more partners to join these efforts.

For us, Yasha Moz, Katya Potapova and Olga Bard – along with their many peers and colleagues – embody our belief that since you never know when one’s Jewishness will take root, we must be ready to fertilize another person’s Judaism whenever and wherever it begins to blossom.

As Lynn Schusterman often says, when given the chance young adults will create purposeful, values-based communities in their own image. While we, and others, may help make it possible, the past 20 years of Hillel in the FSU and CASE have proven it has been and will always be the young adults themselves that will make it happen.

May they always go from strength to strength!

Sanford R. Cardin is the President of the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, a global enterprise that supports and creates innovative initiatives for the purpose of igniting the passion and unleashing the power in young people to create positive change.