The Community We Build Together

Diverse audiences that often find themselves on the fringe of the Jewish community – whether because of their background, ethnicity, race or special needs – ought to be seen for their ability to contribute and enrich who we are as a community.

by Alina Bitel

Twenty-five years ago, North American Jewry turned over mountains to ensure the future of Soviet Jewry, opening their homes and hearts to the influx of hundreds of thousands of families and giving Russian-speaking Jews the freedom to make their own Jewish choices. “We have a patch of empty land: large enough to accommodate homes for all of you. We have bricks and materials. We have experts who can help you design your homes, and we will help you build them. … Let us do this together.” This quote from Sir Jonathan Sacks’ book The Home We Build Together reminds me of how Russian-speaking Jews (RSJ) were welcomed to this country. It also became the inspiration and provided the framework for the day-long ‘Think Tank on the Engagement of Russian-speaking Jews’ organized by the Foundation for Jewish Camp which took place this week. Rabbi Sacks envisions society as “the home we build together,” bringing the distinctive gifts of different groups to the common good. Senior professionals from nonprofit Jewish overnight camps, Jewish federations and Jewish communal organizations from across the United States and Canada came together to lay the foundation of this “home,” to understand the unique needs and interests of the RSJ community in North America, share best practices and figure out the strategy for the future of engaging it.

Over the years, the Russian-Jewish community in North America has exhibited a high level of desire to belong to the Jewish community and to maintain their emotional connection to their Jewish identity. But the actions they are taking in order to do so are not what their adopted community expected. Instead of joining in the same activities and programs that other North American Jews are, they are most often creating their own.

Looking at the high level of Jewish belonging and strong Jewish identity of Russian-speaking Jews, it becomes even more upsetting to see that the number of children from these families finding their way to Jewish overnight camp is somewhere between 2-3% of the camp population – not at all reflective of the overall demographic numbers. (According to the estimates, Russian-speaking Jews currently comprise about 15% of the North American Jewish community.) Jewish camp, as a model of an immersive Jewish experience that transforms people’s lives, is in a unique position to seize the narrow window of opportunity and engage a new generation of Russian-speaking Jews.

The intentionality behind the Think Tank and the ability of taking a systematic approach to engaging the RSJ community in North America was truly inspirational. Participants heard about amazing successes of various initiatives in Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago, New York and Boston. The room was buzzing with positive energy and a desire to learn and understand all aspects of the issue we are facing.

Though there were dozens of brilliant ideas discussed, there were clear themes that connected most presentations and discussions throughout the day. It was apparent that an intentional, systematic approach needs to developed and implemented. This approach would stand on three pillars: outreach, staff and programming. Outreach should be conducted by someone who is connected with and understands the RSJ community, with a customized message geared towards this specific population, moving away from the conversation about affordability and towards the value proposition around Jewish experiences. Staff should be recruited from the Russian-speaking community and trained to address the unique aspects of RSJ identity. Programs should emphasize academic and cultural enrichment, conducted at the level of professionalism that responds to their desire to excel in all aspects of life.

One of the most important aspects of the Think Tank was the opportunity for everyone to contribute to the conversation. This gathering provided a model approach to the way we engage Russian-speaking Jews in the communal conversation and in the way we will build our Jewish future together. It is a model which sees Russian-speaking Jews not only as “clients” but as equal partners in “building a home” and as knowledgeable, invested and worthwhile contributors to the conversation at all levels. It is pertinent to understand the changing face of the modern Jewish community and the way we approach Jewish engagement. Diverse audiences that often find themselves on the fringe of the Jewish community – whether because of their background, ethnicity, race or special needs – ought to be seen for their ability to contribute and enrich who we are as a community. I want to thank the Genesis Philanthropy Group for their support of the Think Tank. Lessons learned from engaging the RSJ community, with all their intricacies, will provide a much needed foundation for working with any less-engaged audiences as we work toward building a stronger community together.

Alina Bitel is Program Director, Engagement Initiatives on the RSJ Think Tank at Foundation for Jewish Camp.