Russian Heritage, Jewish Soul, American Future
by Ella Shteingart
BYFI’s 25th Anniversary has particular significance for me. Twenty four years ago, I was a proud participant of the program. Though I attended a yeshiva for a couple of years as a young child and had been exposed to some Hebrew and Jewish studies, the Bronfman program introduced me to the full breadth of the Jewish experience. I was exposed for the first time to Shabbat, singing in Hebrew, reading and thinking about Jewish texts, and for the first time I intermingled with upper- middle-class American Jews. I experienced deep, engaging, thoughtful Jewish learning and the power of the Jewish community. For me, a child immigrant and a Russian-speaking Jew, it was transformative. I came away inspired, but feeling a bit lost, feeling like an outsider. My experience was not unique. The outsider experience is the same for most Russian-speaking Jews.
Programming for Russian-speaking Jews (RSJs) is a current hot topic in the Jewish community. There are articles in the Jewish press about Russian-speaking Jews on a regular basis, with experts writing about how the needs of RSJs are distinct from those of the wider American Jewish community and the importance of integration. Through my extensive work in the Russian-speaking community, my recent work at the Wexner Foundation in NY developing a Heritage program for Russian-speaking Jews, and my lay, personal, and professional obligations in the Jewish community, I have come to understand that education and community-building are the keys to engaging this demographic of Jews.
Who are Russian-speaking Jews? Why are they important to the Jewish community?
Depending on where and when they landed, Russian-speaking Jews conformed to the communities and environment that absorbed them. A recent UJA study confirms that approximately 1 out of every 5 New York Jews is Russian-speaking or comes from a family with a Russian-speaking parent. These 216,000 Russian-speaking New York Jews are diverse; as diverse as the American Jewish community. They are not a homogenous group. There are those who grew up in Brooklyn and surrounded themselves by a close-knit community of Russian-speaking peers. There are those who grew up in the suburbs or have been transplanted from other communities to New York, not having had Russian-speaking Jewish friends while growing up. Surprisingly, some young people in their twenties, born in the US, still have a social circle composed mostly of Russian-speaking peers. Others, often immigrants in the first wave of the 1970s, purged their “Russianness” and assimilated into the mainstream.
RSJs share the common experience of having personally lived through an exodus. Those who came here as infants grew up hearing stories of the hardships of immigration and life in Soviet Russia. Undercurrents of anti-Semitism were strong, and shaped the characters of those who experienced it firsthand and had to defend their identities. RSJs still have a sense of being different. Outsider status – both in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and upon arrival here in the US – defines who they are.
As a group, Russian-speaking Jews have for the most part shied away from synagogue attendance, involvement in Jewish communal life, and contribution to philanthropic initiatives. As I see it, this generation of Russian-speaking Jews falls into the four categories of the four sons of the Passover Seder: some knowledgeable about and committed to Jewish life and community, some rejecting the Jewish community, others expressing interest, and a great many who don’t know the questions to ask.
Excellence, Elitism, and Jewish Pride
RSJs are competitive in the workforce and strive toward Ivy League and elite education. This population demonstrates remarkably high achievement in whatever they take on. In the Former Soviet Union, the expectation was that, because you are a Jew, you must work twice as hard as your peers to achieve the same success in school and at work. Thus the RSJ culture is of excellence, hard work, ambition, and education. They are seekers, intellectual leaders, and overachievers across disciplines. They do not accept the status quo and push the envelope in whatever field they decide to pursue.
While incredibly accomplished and successful professionally, many RSJs don’t know the basics of Judaism. What RSJs have, regardless of Jewish knowledge, is their connection to peoplehood. RSJs grew up in an atmosphere where Jewish nepotism was prevalent. Jews were the underdog and Jews always helped other Jews. RSJs still have this unspoken “tribal” connection to which fewer American Jews relate.
RSJs also have a Jewish soul. They feel Jewish on a visceral level and take immense pride in the Jewish people. Israel is central to their Jewish identity. Even while concealing their Jewish identity in the FSU, many grew up knowing that their Judaism was something special and important. Their deep-rooted connection to Judaism often comes from grandparents who instilled this pride.
Russian Culture vs. American Culture
Russian culture and high culture continue to be important to this group, as are the fine arts – music, art, and theater. Russian-speaking Jews continued the intellectual tradition of their predecessors. Appreciation of high culture and pride in the Russian cultural heritage was instilled in every Russian-speaking Jewish family. RSJs 45 years old and younger may no longer have an accent, but many did not go to elementary school in the US. Those who came as teenagers did not grow up with American pop culture and may not relate to references to film, TV shows, or popular foods. Most in this group did not have a full-fledged American childhood, including mainstream educational experiences. They grew up watching different cartoons and singing different songs, eating different foods and celebrating different national holidays. Some RSJs who came here as children have been integrated, but still have gaps in their American cultural repertoire. Many in this group still continue their interest in Russian language and culture.
Ritual, Tradition, and Jewish Education
The Russian-speaking community in the US, for the most part, is a secular community, not comfortable in synagogues, with limited or no knowledge of the Hebrew language, Jewish terminology, or religious ritual. The Soviet culture of secularism stripped RSJs of their traditions, religious practice, even family history – most RSJs can’t trace their ancestry past their grandparents. RSJs share a very close relationship with their grandparents, who often raised them when parents were off at work, and who have been their only link to Jewish history and tradition. Still, many RSJs, lacking any Jewish narrative, hold strong to a Soviet Russian secular identity.
When RSJ families arrived, the Jewish community, in an effort to welcome them and provide a Jewish education, enrolled scores of RSJ children in yeshivot. These efforts were largely unsuccessful. Entering an orthodox environment as children without any previous preparation was like landing on the moon. Most RSJs felt unprepared for the huge gap between home life and the stern, judgmental approach to Jewish observance at school. The yeshiva experiences were a turn off. Though some RSJs who attended orthodox yeshivot continued to be observant, the failed day school experiences turned many away from Judaism in favor of fitting in with the mainstream.
Interestingly, Chabad, with its open-armed, judgment-free approach, has been the most successful in attracting RSJ commitment because RSJs still hold the Shalom Aleichem conception of what it means to be Jewish. Even the most secular RSJs, when prompted, will confess that “real” Judaism means orthodoxy. Particularly in NYC, the reform and conservative synagogues have failed to attract RSJs.
Involvement in the Jewish Community
The new generation of 20-40 year old Russian-speaking Jews yearns to be involved in the Jewish community, but limited knowledge of how the Jewish community functions, the lifestyles of American-born Jews, and Jewish rituals and traditions, makes them feel insecure and distant from engaging in the Jewish experience. They lack an entry point into the Jewish enterprise.
How do we speak to the Jewish soul of Russian-speaking Jews?
Acknowledging the Russian heritage while nourishing the Jewish soul is fundamental. Here are some ideas:
- Make the Jewish experience more accessible by creating community-building events, both RSJ-only events, as well as an open dialogue between American Jews and RSJs
- Create programs where future RSJ lay leaders are introduced to their American-Jewish counterparts, already involved and active in Jewish communal organizations
- Create opportunities to learn about “our” joint history. The American Jewish community can be more informed about the Soviet Jewish history. Russian-speaking Jews should know more about “our” history, too, especially about the Soviet Jewry movement. If RSJs knew the full extent of what the American Jewish community had undertaken to bring them here, they would find the power of community inspiring.
Why is it important to address this group?
We can potentially lose a generation of Jews. Integration into the American melting pot is inevitable. Will RSJs assimilate and disappear into the American mainstream? Will they become the fourth son of the Passover Seder, not knowing which questions to ask and not feeling that the Jewish community includes them?
Russian-speaking Jews have much to contribute to American-Jewish consciousness. At a time when the American denominational system (Orthodox-Conservative-Reform) is no longer the optimal or only model, Russian-speaking Jews, with their strong Jewish identity and commitment to peoplehood and Israel, no matter how secular, have much to teach the average American Jew.
Because they have had firsthand experience with anti-Semitism or grew up hearing about such experiences, these seemingly assimilated “Americans” tend to feel very Jewish at their core. They also know what it means to be an immigrant, to migrate, resettle, adapt, conform, and succeed in whatever environments they find themselves in. It is crucial to engage and to learn from this important and vital community that has been, for the most part, abandoned.
To be fair, a serious effort is underway to engage the Russian-speaking Jewish community – in New York one sees significant efforts by the UJA Federation of NY, the Wexner Foundation, Genesis Philanthropy group, COJECO, JCC of Manhattan, Kingsbay Y, Bensonhurst Y, Shoreftont Y, RAJE, PJ Library, Brooklyn College Hillel, and others. But it is not enough!
Our American Jewish Future
It is time to have a community-wide discussion about who we are and what makes us Jewish. How is the identity question relevant to all of us? It is time to offer deep and meaningful conversations and learning opportunities that don’t require previous knowledge. It is time for Jewish communal organizations to energize RSJs with the passion for Judaism, Jewish wisdom and appreciation of a wider, diverse community. It is time to identify leaders in “our” community and provide these leaders with an arsenal of knowledge about Judaism and Jewish communal life in America.
If the American Jewish community can create structured opportunities for RSJ leaders and their American Jewish counterparts to connect, explore stereotypes, compare perspectives and experiences, and have a meaningful discussion about what it means to be Jewish, the benefits of this kind of exchange will be far-reaching.
Thanks to my initial experience on the Bronfman Youth Fellowship and my continued relationship with BYFI, I found firm footing in the Jewish community. I have worked as a professional, and a lay leader in the Jewish community. I was an outsider who was invited in.
Ella Shteingart, a 1988 alumnus of the Bronfman Fellowships, is currently a consultant to the Wexner Foundation developing the first cohort of the Wexner Heritage Program geared for Russian-Speaking Jews. Ella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This post is part of a special series in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.