Russian American Jews: A Bright Spot for Jewish Peoplehood

by Mordechai Tokarsky

When it comes to Jewish population studies, we are conditioned to expect reports of doom and gloom. Assimilation and intermarriage among non-orthodox Jews have been unstoppable facts of life in the American melting pot. The Russian American Jewish community seems like an unlikely place to look for a bright spot for ensuring Jewish continuity; but as I was trying to make sense of the latest UJA-Federation of NY communal study, the numbers seemed to just pop off the page.

According to the study while the overall intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews continued to increase, Russian Jews living in the eight county New York area experienced an unprecedented decrease in intermarriage, from 17% in 2002 to 13% in 2011. That is an almost 25% drop. At a time when there was no significant Jewish immigration from the Former Soviet Union, the total number of Russian Speaking Jews increased from 202,000 in 2002, to 216,000 in 2011.

As one of a small number of Russian-speaking Jewish communal professionals, I’m used to hearing all sorts of stereotypes regarding our community being unresponsive to Jewish educational efforts, as being apathetic, deeply secular and allergic to synagogues. Yet, somehow when it comes to Jewish continuity, a bright spot of sorts was achieved; and if there is one rule for creating real change, it is the importance of being able to spot a bright spot and build on it.

Over the past six years, 3000 Russian American Jews in the New York area, roughly 10% of the entire target population of marriageable age, have participated in a unique transformational experience called the RAJE Fellowship program. The semester long program consists of ten, 4.5 hour sessions, two weekend retreats and a two week educational trip to Europe and Israel. Over the course of a single semester the students experience over 250 hours of highly impactful and transformative programming, a deeper level engagement then any program of its type within the Jewish community. As a direct result, most have remained involved in Jewish communal life by actively participating in follow-up programming or finding alternate venues of engagement within the community; continuing their Jewish education in one form or another and getting involved in countless Jewish organizations.

A 25% drop in intermarriage within our target population is only the latest indication that something seems to be working right, a bright spot which must not be ignored. In an American Jewish communal landscape, which is so used to segmenting itself by denominational lines and particulars of religious observance, a very different type of ‘peoplehood centric’ Russian American Jewish community is emerging. It is a community which can be observed in the hundreds of Russian American Jewish college students and young professionals marching in the Israel Day Parade, a strange sight among the usual groups of day school children who are the mainstay of the parade. It is a community which united to oppose the anti-Semitic congressional candidate, Charles Barron, keeping the focus on his radical antics, with press conferences and countless volunteers getting out the vote, successfully proving that an anti-Semite like him has no place in American politics. It is a community where those who observe Shabbat and those who do not, naturally sit at the same Shabbat table and feel a connection to each other which goes way beyond religious particulars.

There are many problems faced by the Jewish people which do not have obvious solutions, where no amount of resources can reasonably ensure a desired outcome. When it comes to Jewish continuity, at least for the estimated 750,000 Russian Jews in America, a bright spot has emerged. A blueprint, which if nurtured and embraced, can be scaled both in the New York area and nationwide, strengthening the Jewish people and leading to more positive reports in future communal studies.

Mordechai Tokarsky is Co-founder and Executive Director of RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience).