Russian-speaking Jewish Students Find a Home at Hillel

By Shana Medel

The little details mattered to Keren Khait. As the creator of Russian Restaurant at Hillel 818, the 22-year-old knew the annual event wouldn’t be authentic without them.

She crafted homemade centerpieces from empty bottles and calla lilies to adorn each black-clothed table packed with hungry students. She designed a menu of Russian comfort food, including plov, a classic rice and meat dish, and piroshki, a savory puff pastry.

Russian Restaurant – a celebration of Russian food, music and dance – drew more than 100 students last year and is one of the ways Hillel 818 is engaging Russian-speaking Jewish students at the campuses of California State University, Northridge, Los Angeles Valley College and Pierce College.

“Connecting with others who care about their Russian culture and their Judaism, that’s how we’re creating a community for Russian-speaking Jewish students in the Valley,” said Khait, a Russian-speaking child of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants and 2018 CSUN graduate holding a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Because Russian-speaking Jewish students now comprise 12 percent of the active membership at Hillel 818, Executive Director David Katz is accustomed these days to hearing snippets of conversations in Russian as he roams the Hillel building.

“For many of our Russian-speaking students, this is the first time they’re formally exploring their Judaism in a communal setting,” Katz said. “And we’re giving them opportunities to determine what Judaism means to them beyond just identifying as Jewish.”

Russian-speaking students make up 15 percent of the Jewish community on campuses in North America. And reimagining the Hillel playbook has helped them explore Judaism on their own terms.

“Traditional programming doesn’t always resonate with Russian-speaking Jewish students,” said Natalie Shnaiderman, director of global grantmaking for Genesis Philanthropy Group. “They may not have been raised with a strong Jewish tradition and are generally reluctant to become involved in the Jewish community on campus. This is exactly why we partner with Hillel to encourage programmatic innovation at universities across North America.”

Through this partnership, Hillel International created a tool kit of support for campuses to include Russian-speaking program grants and Russian-speaking engagement internships.

Over the past three years, Hillel International has given 111 grants totaling more than $200,000 to local Hillels, said Jeremy Moskowitz, associate vice president for international growth and operations. Hillels stretching from Georgia to California have engaged more than 3,100 Russian-speaking Jewish students thus far.

“We aspire to reach every Jewish student and help them make an enduring commitment to Jewish life,” Moskowitz said. “This truly helps us deliver on every.”

In its third cohort, Hillel’s Russian-Speaking Jewish Engagement Internship includes students who represent campuses across all of North America.

Rebecca Grin, a Russian-speaking engagement intern at Hillel 818, is a first-generation American. The daughter of Jewish parents from Ukraine, she grew up speaking Russian in her Southern California home while learning English in grade school.

Grin said her parents endured rampant anti-Semitism in their native Ukraine, and that experience stayed with them even after they immigrated to West Hollywood, California in the early 1990s. Because Judaism wasn’t practiced in her home, Grin was hesitant about becoming involved in the Jewish community on campus.

“I knew I was Jewish, but I never identified with it,” said Grin, a sophomore majoring in environmental and occupational health at CSUN. “Now I’m trying to bring together the community that’s hesitating, like I was. That’s what pushes me to do this.”

As the current president of the Russian-Speaking Club at Hillel 818, Grin is focused on creating a more welcoming space for Russian-speaking Jewish students. The 18-year-old organized the latest Russian Restaurant last week and is planning on hosting a paint night with Russian nesting dolls this semester.

Alice Chudnovsky, a Russian-speaking engagement intern at Illini Hillel, found herself longing for the comforts of home when she enrolled at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Raised by Jewish parents from Ukraine and Russia, she grew up reading children’s books in Russian. She developed a passion for mathematics, now her college major, from days spent poring over math problems in Russian textbooks. She was giddy with excitement when she opened presents under the tree on New Year’s Day, a secular tradition in the former Soviet Union that’s still popular today.

“I realized no matter how hard I tried to fit in with other Hillel students, I wasn’t going to have much in common with them,” said Chudnovsky, a 20-year-old junior at UIUC. “Many were Ashkenazi Jews whose families settled in America generations ago, who felt comfortable attending Shabbat services and who grew up going to Jewish day camp.”

Chudnovsky, who now serves on the Hillel International Student Cabinet, wondered if other Russian-speaking Jewish students shared her feelings.

To find out, she hosted the first program for the Russian-speaking Jewish community at Illini Hillel. More than 80 students, many whom Chudnovsky had never seen before, gathered to snack on Russian treats and watch “NuPogodi,” a popular Soviet Union cartoon from their childhood.

The outcome was just what Chudnovsky had hoped for – more Russian-speaking Jewish connections and an increased interest in engaging with Illini Hillel.

“It was exciting to see so many people who were like me,” Chudnovsky said. “After that event, I realized this is where I fit in at Hillel.”

Shana Medel is a communications associate at Hillel International.