The Emerging Russian-Jewish Presence

by Robert Singer

russian_jul07-cThe Russians are coming, the Russians are coming… the title of the Jewish Federations of North America GA workshop is a playful take on the American patriot Paul Revere’s legendary midnight warning of the approach of King George’s troops. In the case of this year’s GA, this phrase ends fittingly appropriate: “wait, they are here”.

Indeed, the gears at this year’s GA have started to shift dramatically. With Leonid Nevzlin as the international GA chair, Natan Sharansky as the chair of the Jewish Agency and many of the Knesset’s top ministers speaking in Russian as their mother language, we see a definite emergence of Russian-speaking Jews in the global Jewish community.

Clearly, this did not happen overnight. The North American Jewish community worked tirelessly to help Soviet Jews fight for their freedom. The Federation system has been a major supporter of the Soviet Jewry movement, the people’s integration in new societies in Israel and the United States, and the support for those who choose to stay in the former Soviet Union.

World ORT alone has some 30,000 beneficiaries in the region a miraculous renaissance after Stalin closed down our operations there before the war. Our graduates move forward in their homeland, in Israel, the US and elsewhere to become successful professionals, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Irina Nevzlin Kogan is a shining example of this – a graduate of ORT Techiya School #1311 – who is now leading the Nadav Fund.

Some are saying that with the rise of Russian-born philanthropists, the job of the Jewish community in North America supporting Jews in the former Soviet Union is done, that Russian-born Jews who have achieved significant wealth should take care of their brethren. After all, who can understand the needs of fellow Jews better than those who come from similar backgrounds? Yet, the responsibility of taking care for those left in the former Soviet Union cannot be put solely on the shoulders of Russian-speaking philanthropists. In the case of ORT schools, a number of local philanthropists in the former Soviet Union republics have stepped forward to help schools in their communities.

These schools have been crippled by JAFI’s withdrawal of funding for vital student services like hot, kosher meals, transportation, security and the adequate provision of Jewish Studies by supplementing teachers’ notoriously modest salaries and arranging the provision of Hebrew language teachers from Israel. These are needs which are far beyond the means of local philanthropists. Without the immediate mobilization of the global Jewish community the future of the world’s third largest Jewish population could be cut tragically short.

Rather, the Jewish community of North America should pave the way for more collaboration with Russian-speaking philanthropists. Jewish federations, private foundations and individual donors should continue to welcome Russian-speaking Jewish philanthropists to the table; treat them as equal partners, and determine global strategies for the betterment of the Jewish people together.

Everything is global today; the crisis and the opportunity. In World ORT, we have seen many crises in the organization’s 130 years, and have come through them all, sometimes battered but never bowed, and always looking at the opportunities that lie ahead. The “coming of the Russians” is an opportunity. The fight for the future of the Jewish people is not one group’s cause alone. Paul Revere was not the Lone Ranger, he had help along the way. So, today, we call on the Jews of the United States to partner with Jewish philanthropists everywhere to catalyze the necessary changes to make Jewish life better not only in the former Soviet Union but around the world; not only for this generation but for tomorrow’s.

Robert Singer is the director general and CEO of World ORT.