Straddling Two Worlds: Russian Speaking Israelis Embody Unique Identity

by Abigail Pickus

It’s been over 20 years since the USSR opened its doors, launching a modern day Exodus of Russian Jews to Israel.

Today, a new generation of Russian-speaking Israelis has come of age in Israel. Even in adulthood, many of them continue to straddle two worlds: their Russian roots and their Israeli identity and with it, questions about what it means to live as a Jew and as an Israeli. In response, a host of grassroots cultural groups are springing up across the country to help young Russian speaking Israelis with everything from celebrating Jewish holidays to raising sabra children.

“There is a huge mass of immigrants who are really trying to do our best here. We are dealing with questions of identity, of whether we feel ourselves to be Jewish. We are asking ourselves, Is it important for me, as Russian Jewish Israeli, to live only in Israel and so, how does that look and what does it mean to me?’” said Rita Brudnik, the CEO and founder of Fishka, a Tel Aviv-based organization for Russian speaking Israelis.

Brudnik co-launched Fishka, which is slang for “a funny one” or “a good one” in Russian, in 2007.

The whole idea is to give young Russian Israelis an address for exploring Israeli culture and Jewish identity while connecting to their Russian-language heritage.

Without a set platform or structure, the group has grown and changed over the years to reflect the changing needs of its participants. In the beginning, they attracted 20-something professionals who were missing something: a connection to arts and culture and a link to their Jewish roots, according to Brudnik.

As such, the organization offered everything from a cinema and a theater club to a safe space to explore and learn about Jewish holidays. (All events are held in Russian and Hebrew.) Over 50 people attended Fishka’s Passover seder, for example, and the alternative Purim shpiel, in which people reinterpreted the Esther story, was also popular.

“We have no idea about Jewish holidays,” said Brudnik. “Maybe we knew that our grandparents were in WWII, but that’s it.”

Brudnik, 31, was born in Riga, Latvia, which was then part of the Soviet Union. She made aliyah with her family when she was 9 years old and grew up in Ramle. A social worker by profession, she is the mother to a one and a half year old son.

“As a social worker, I have seen that questions about identity don’t end after the age of 18, when you go to army and then continue on with your adult life. When it comes to Israelis who were born in the former Soviet Union, there are many of us who are really confused and who don’t feel connected in Israel,” said Brudnik.

Since it started five years ago, Fishka has evolved.

These days, Fishka’s members are mostly in their 30s, with young families, like Brudnik. In an interesting twist, 20% of its participants are native Israelis. The programs and events offered throughout the year are held at the group’s central address in South Tel Aviv and include Shabbat dinners, Hebrew poetry night (the discussion is led in Russian) and family activities.

Their biggest turnout is for their Tu B’Av celebration, otherwise known as the Israeli Valentine’s Day. Partnering with Havaya, an organization that is working to counter the Orthodox monopoly on marriages in Israel, for the past few years over 1,000 people have come out to witness the Jewish wedding of a Russian-speaking couple under the chuppah.

“These people are usually rejected by rabbanut because they cannot prove they are Jewish or there are other issues,” said Brudnik, referring to the plight of the over 300,000 Israelis, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who cannot marry in Israel because they are not considered halachically Jewish.

“This is not a protest against the rabbanut,” Brudnik continued, “but rather a public statement that there should be options for how we can get married. We should be able to choose what kind of Jewish wedding we want to have in our own country.”

During its initial years, Fishka was housed by BINA, a center in Tel Aviv that offers secular Israelis pluralistic and creative ways to explore being Jewish. Recently, they acquired their own building in South Tel Aviv. While the initial years the group was a grassroots venture, they are now offiically a registered ngo, receiving support from the municipality and private funders.

And now they have their sights on expanding throughout the country to Haifa, Beer Sheva and Jerusalem.

“The need is there to expand and grow our community,” said Brudnik.

Like Fishka, Horim L’Tzabarim (parents to native Israelis) was founded in January of 2012 by two Russian-born Israeli mothers and educators who were looking for ways to address the cultural dilemmas of young immigrant parents in Israel.

The group’s aim is to help Russian speaking parents build their own Jewish Israeli homes, which includes deciding which Jewish holidays and traditions to incorporate, which values to preserve from their homeland, and the best way to raise bilingual children within Israeli society.

“We are straddling two worlds and have little children,” said Vika Shteiman, one of the group’s founders. “We all moved to Israel between the ages of 12 and 20 and our children were born here, which brings up all kinds of dilemnas and questions. We also saw in our families that we didn’t know how to incorporate Jewish education into our homes, such as how to introduce Shabbat and holidays. So we formed Horim L’Tzabarim to help people with that bridge between Jewish education and how to translate it at home.”

Born in the Ukraine, Shteiman settled in Israel with her family when she was 13. Now 34, she has two young children. She holds a Ph.D. in contemporary Judaism from Bar Ilan University and her dissertation focuses on Jewish identity for Russian speakers in Israel and America.

Horim L’Tzabarim, which boasts nearly 400 Facebook “friends,” is a social network made up of participants from across the country who can launch events and programs in their home communities.

One project, chagim l’matchilim (holidays for beginners), teaches young families about upcoming Jewish holidays and gives them tools and ways to celebrate in their homes.

Another program is a parents’ group in which professionals talk to them about issues connected to identity, education and culture. Examples include familiarizing Russian-born parents with classic Israeli children’s books and prepping parents on what kind of cultural norms to expect when they send their children to Israeli schools.

“These are things that are not self-evident,” said Shteiman.

Finally, another popular activity are the weekend hikes around Israel for young families where, in addition to coming together to socialize, they become familiar with Israel’s unique natural landscape.

“We know all the names for things in nature in Russia and Europe, but we aren’t familiar with them in Israel and want to learn their names in Hebrew to teach our children,” said Shteiman.