Strengthening the Identity of Russian-Speaking Jewry

Haviv Rettig Gur writing in The Jerusalem Post:

Fund gives millions of dollars to keep Russian-speaking Jews Jewish

The only long-term social investment fund focused on Russian-speaking Jewry celebrated its second birthday in Tel Aviv last week, and highlighted the profound challenges to identity faced by the far-flung Russian Jewish communities.

Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG), founded by four Russian Jewish billionaire businessmen, has set itself the goal of connecting Jews to “Jewish values, culture, and ethics.” But not necessarily to religion.

For Russian-speaking Jews, Jewishness “is more cultural than religious, more emotional than technical,” according to Sana Britavsky, executive director of GPG Israel.

Russian Jews know they are Jews, she insists. “We feel Jewish as we wander the world. We are different from the Russian world that we come from.” But, alongside their uniqueness as Jews, they are also different from other Jews. “Russian Jewry thinks differently from other Jewish communities, since Jewish identity is very different in different places,” says Britavsky.

Of over two million Russian-speaking Jews who left the former Soviet Union over the past generation, about half landed in Israel, perhaps 40 percent in the United States, and the remainder in Germany.

What remains of the Jewish community in Russia, Ukraine and the region is almost entirely intermarried and unaffiliated.

To keep them in the Jewish orbit, Jewish educators must appeal to their sensibilities, developing programs “that fit them and understand their Jewishness,” explains Britavsky.

“What I’m trying to do is give them tools for life, in particular this tool called Judaism. I’m looking for programs that show them all the happiness and vividness that comes with that.” Enriching their lives on their own terms means that Genesis does not focus on specific religious streams or ideological camps. Programs supported by the fund deal with preschoolers as well as the elderly, secular Jews and the observant, huge globe-spanning organizations like the Jewish Agency and birthright Israel and tiny local ventures such as the immigrant-cast “Mikro” theater in Jerusalem.

“We don’t care what religious stream you are, or what your level of religiosity,” she says of the programs she seeks, “but you have to be capable of making systemic changes, not just publicity.” Thus, Genesis funds about one-third of Nativ, a Jewish studies program operating inside the IDF for Russian-speaking immigrant soldiers. Nativ specializes in helping non-Jewish soldiers who are the family members of Jews to prepare for conversion through Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

In Israel, Genesis funds many such systemic efforts, such as Taglit-birthright Israel, Yad Vashem educational projects and programs by the New Israel Fund.

In the FSU, it funds programs ranging from a Moscow youth soccer club to tolerance programs for high schoolers based on study of the Holocaust. It even supports a Jewish studies research center at the Russian State University for the Humanities.

But its broad reach is most noticeable in the US, where the fund pays for scholarships for Russian-speaking Jewish youth to study at Brandeis University, supports the Orthodox youth group Ezra USA and helps finance the eclectic post-denominational informal Jewish gatherings known as “Limmud” across North America.

Genesis tackles head-on the question of Russian Jewish identity in a way that none have done before. Its Web site explains its funding strategy in Israel by noting the “complications” inherent in Russian-speakers’ Jewish identities.

[According to Mikhail Fridman] Russian Jews “are not very religious. Most of us don’t follow many rules and traditions that are characteristic of Jews. We don’t speak the national language, whether Hebrew or Yiddish. We’re just simple citizens of the countries [where we live].” Genesis must work to preserve and encourage “the values and principles of the Jews,” rather than any specific notion of religion or nationhood, he explained.

And, said another speaker, in strengthening the identity of Russian-speaking Jewry, the Jewish world would gain a powerful resource.