Spotlight: Do Jews from the FSU in Germany Volunteer?

by Julia Itin

The whole concept of volunteer work among the numerous Jews from FSU living in Germany today seems to be a nonexistent. But only at first glance. During Limmud Day Berlin, we interviewed participants only to discover that volunteerism does exist as part of the post-Soviet Jewish experience in Germany – but it faces many challenges.

Stand up, all Victims of Oppression!
Involvement in politically motivated groups such as subbotniks, mandatory days of volunteer work, unions, as well as the Komsomol, the Communist Union of Youth carried with it a strong social component. Under communism, people volunteered not necessarily because they felt they were “building the country’s future,” but because these committments gave them “social capital,” a feeling of being responsible for something bigger than themselves. Beyond that, their involvement in “something big” – hand in hand with like-minded people – gave them a strong sense of belonging. They were doing something that was possibly more fun than their paid work and it often came with social recognition, gave something back to the society and enabled them to accumulate knowledge and experience that they would otherwise not get from work and study. These attributes are common for volunteering in general, not just in the Soviet experience. But what became of this commitment to volunteering once these same people relocated to Germany?

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, an estimated 250,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have settled in Germany. Today, a whole new generation of Jews have been born or are being raised in Germany, while their parents, who came of age in the FSU, are adapting to life in their new country.

Fortunately, this first impression of non-volunteering is misleading since Soviet Jews and their children are, in fact, volunteering. And they are volunteering despite the odds since as individual cases illustrate, Russian Jews in Germany face many challenges associated with volunteer work. The biggest obstacles include the lack of a professional structure within the Jewish German community and the of the German immigration policy.

Ella Nilova started volunteering at an early age in her hometown of Saporischschje, Ukraine. Her first taste was with the Komsomol, which she joined mainly for its social aspects. Later, during the 1990s, she was involved in a Jewish women’s organization and in Jewish education. Her work continued after she settled in Germany at the end of the 90’s, first in Rostok, in former East Germany and later in Berlin. She dedicated her volunteer work to the preservation of Russian culture among the younger generation. This is how the Jewish ArtEck project was born, a summer camp named after the famous Soviet pioneer whose name became synonym for successful youth education.

The Bairamov family from Baku, Azerbaijan, has also been successfully volunteering since their arrival in Berlin in 1995. Bella Bairamov, a music educator, is the founder and manager of the Talmud Torah Sunday School in Berlin, on a voluntary basis. Here, highly qualified teachers and madrichim run activities for children. The children, who mainly come from immigrant families, are offered a wide range of lessons and activities: from music and art to chess and self-defense. The school has had another positive impact on the Jewish community in Berlin: the parents, often described as the “missing generation,” are also participating in these activities.

Bella was a volunteer already in her youth. The beginning of Jewish volunteering was marked by a crisis. The pogroms against the Armenians came in the wake of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 1990. In the war that followed, Bella and her husband founded a volunteer aid organization that took care of sick, disadvantaged, predominantly elderly Jews in Baku and the surrounding area. Their organization made food and medicines available to them, resulting in the establishment of a Jewish clinic and pharmacy. Later, Bella founded a Jewish kindergarten in cooperation with JDC and opened a Jewish school and a cultural center. She also brought her expertise to Berlin and is in the immigration not only volunteering alone, but also recruiting like-minded volunteers who have great enthusiasm for working in her Talmud Torah School.

Bella’s husband, Adil, is the man behind this strong woman. He holds a PhD in engineering and works in the area of alternative energy. As a professor in Baku, he was busy with the issue of petroleum extraction. On the side, he also invests his heart and soul into arranging aid and running social gatherings for Russian immigrants in Germany. A passionate badminton player, Adil founded a Jewish sports club. Currently, he and his wife organize activities that bring together different groups of their fellow countrymen – from Odessa to St. Petersburg. Besides arranging various excursions and music and art events, he also maintains a list of Jewish physicians who volunteer their services for older members of the community for everything from phone consultations to reassurance before surgery. Everyone in the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Berlin seems to know the Bairamov family who are something of the “Dear Abby” column and the Yellow Pages all in one.

Such is the picture of the “middle generation” of immigrants who were socialized in the Soviet Union and who have settled in Germany as adults. Their children, who are coming of age in Germany, display even greater commitment. In fact, the children of Soviet immigrants are in essence no different than their Jewish peers who were born in Germany to German Jewish parents. They are leaving their particular mark in German society in a terrain that remains unattractive for immigrants in other countries, namely politics. They are often members of the Social-Democratic and Christian-Democratic parties, even in the newly established neo-liberal Pirate Party. This political commitment has an impact on the Jewish community, as well. Thanks to their comrades from the FSU, the team of Jewish Social Democrats realized the importance of validating academic qualifications and professional experience of immigrants for the German pension, as advocated by the lawyer Gregor Wettberg.

With Ardent Regards
Why, then, is there a strong impression that it is precisely this group of people who are not contributing to either the Jewish community or German society? Of course, this may be the stereotype of communist activists from the Era of Stagnation, which plays a significant role in the aversion of homo sovieticus to volunteering, but this explanation would be too simplistic. Peter Zamory, a physician from Hamburg, who has been politically involved with the Greens since the 1980s, now working alongside his wife, Yohana Hirshfeld, organizes Jewish events. He provides a valuable counter-perspective on this stigma: Jewish immigrants are not able to be active in any volunteer arena because they are pushed financially by the state and structurally by the community to be passive and demanding consumers. This analysis of consumption culture is long-standing. The latest study by Judith Kessler, the chief editor of Jewish Berlin 2003, confirms this consumerist attitude of both the old and new members. Certainly, there has been much effort and funds invested in reviving Jewish life in Germany. Unfortunately, the politics of consumption are and have always been very unfavorable for voluntarism.

Moreover, these Jewish communities are managed and administrated mainly by people who are neither competent nor trained for the positions, as Bettina Schwitzke from, who interned for the Jewish community of Berlin and now is in charge of Limmud volunteers, found out. That’s why the rare individual who wishes to volunteer is rejected – the paid personnel protect their jobs by often excluding competent and dedicated volunteers. For that reason, Doron Kiesel, a professor in intercultural social work, criticized the scant progress made on professionalization and improvement of community structures while he was on the “Old and Young” panel at the Youth Congress of the Central Welfare Organization of Jews in Germany in Weimar, the conference that was held at the same time Limmud Day Berlin was taking place. Kiesel called for more transparency within the communities, which would in turn lead to more participation of its members. At the end of the day, volunteering is among the luxuries that an immigrant can only rarely afford.

Nevertheless, Adil Bairamov speaks about volunteering as something that can “save” a person facing the challenges of immigration; it can give a person his or her “social value” back and encourage the person to be an active member of a new society, some “soul capital” including.

A Bright Future
Despite all these challenges, there is a significant development in Jewish volunteering among these immigrants. In recent years, Jewish life in Germany has encouraged the formation of many organizations outside of the established community structure. These organizations attract energetic young people brimming with ideas and potential and match them with great volunteering opportunities.

Furthermore, Jewish volunteering not only facilitates the shaping of a positive Jewish identity for community members who want to get involved, but also often opens a door to people who would otherwise not enter the established community. An example that reflects the general situation is that of Micha Brumlik, a professor of educational science, who defends people who born to a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father and are not recognized as Jewish by the established German Jewish community. Many immigrants from the FSU feel a sense of belonging with the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural and historical ways, but they often don’t have access to the established or organized Jewish communities. The only official way to belong to the community is through a giur (conversion), which is by nature a religious matter, something that does not appeal to most Russian Jews who are not traditional. As a result, they end up in Jewish organizations that don’t care very much about the halachic suitability of its members. These organizations, such as “Young and Jewish,” a “place of alternative Jewishness,” as its chair, Michelle Piccirillo calls it, are writing success stories and profit from itself members’ commitment to volunteering.

Meanwhile, volunteering is becoming an incentive for young Jews to become involved in Jewish organizations or within German society. The ELES – a new Jewish Student Foundation, offers material and non-material support to gifted Jewish students who fulfill a requirement of social involvement. The whole experience also serves to strengthen Jewish continuity, especially for the three-quarters of the fellows who come from an immigrant background. Youth club leaders, leaders of student organizations and people who are associated with the Greens are also well represented in the list of scholarship holders.

In summary, despite all the the cries to the contrary, the Jewish community in Germany seems to be on its way towards a culture of giving back. The aforementioned diversity, towards which Jewish Germany is developing, is a clear sign of the vitality of this community. The same can be said concerning the issue of Jewish volunteering. A significant example is the Festival, which has been running for the past four years with an annual attendance of 500 to 600 people. It is probably the largest Jewish educational event in Germany, represented regionally in Frankfurt, Munich, Cologne and recently in Hamburg, as well. The festival is run exclusively by its passionate volunteers, including some FSU members.

Jewish volunteering in Germany is inadequate in most cases because of the well-established consumer culture on one hand, and the lack of opportunity for those willing to actually volunteer on the other. However, some Jews are already active in politics and even work for volunteer fire departments, a definite new step towards a Jewish sense of social involvement within German society. What’s more, North American Jewish social involvement is a popular way to express Jewishness, especially for people who grew up outside the traditional Jewish community. Perhaps this could also be a path for post-Soviet Jews in Germany?

Julia Itin was born in 1985 in Odessa (Ukraine) and grew up in Westphalia, Germany. She holds a double M.A. in Jewish Studies and Pedagogy from Heidelberg University and is a research fellow in the Oriental Department of the University Halle-Wittenberg where she is completing her PhD on Jewish memory of the Black Death. She is a former program director of Limmud Germany.