The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming… Wait, They’re Here!

  • “Russian-speaking Jews live all over the world, from former Soviet republics to North America to Israel, where they make up a significant percentage of the population. As a group they have been successful in their new homes, yet many are disconnected from Jewish life.” So reads the program description for a workshop, The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming… Wait, They’re Here!, planned for the UJC’s upcoming GA this November.
  • In Vancouver, the Center for Leadership Initiatives seeks a contract part time Program Coordinator to manage, design and implement leadership development programs targeted at individuals from Russian-speaking Jewish families.
  • And In WestHampton Long Island, 500 (mostly) Russian speaking Jewish Americans gathered on August 9th for A Taste of Limmud FSU: 150 Years of Sholom Aleichem.

Three seemingly unrelated events; however taken together they highlight the growing visibility and influence of America’s Russian-Jewish community.

17c1ad512788dc13e02302ec16d37890Nowhere was this more apparent than at the WestHampton event. Based on the successful Limmud International model of learning and engaging, the organizers of Limmud FSU went a step further – targeting one specific demographic and developing a global program spanning five republics in the FSU, Israel and now the U.S.

Conceived and organized by Sandra Cahn and Chaim Chessler [see below], with a goal of creating a global Russian Jewish community who “do not want to loose the connection with their roots,” the energy and excitement running through The Hampton Synagogue was electric. Despite the drenching rain that postponed the start of the closing barbecue, the day was hailed by all as an unparalleled success.

Feliks Frenkel, honorary co-chair describes the day: “After a century of pogroms and exterminations and authoritarian suppression of our faith and peoplehood in Ukraine and throughout what is now the former Soviet Union, Jewish life and observance and community are reawakening. While this might not be the most startling news, there is an element of it that is.

On the luscious grounds of The Hampton Synagogue, the sounds and language of my heritage and my homeland rose through still trees and, remarkably, the nearly 500 people gathered there – young Russian-speaking Jews, the leading edge of the emerging generation of community leadership.

These are Jews who, despite reports of their assimilation, their disappearance into ambivalence, their cutting of ties to the rich pasts of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, are embracing their heritage, Jewish identity and the Jewish homeland, celebrating it, wearing it and holding it close. If there is any worry that these young people are unengaged or uninterested in their heritage, in their faith, in Israel, in the community – then A Taste of Limmud stood in stark contrast to that notion.

Everything that Limmud FSU represents – Russian-Jewish heritage, community, education, support for Israel and engagement – are values that have shaped my own life and have held such meaning and importance for me.

It is a grand challenge to maintain Jewish and Russian identities in what is a great melting pot. These identities are steeped in generations and centuries, and as we work to maintain them, we become stronger, more unique individuals, and a better and more engaged community.

This is the essence of Limmud FSU. It is a galvanizing force for Russian Jews who are committed to making the transition from immigrants to leaders, from recipients of services to partners in the Jewish community willing to assert themselves and fulfill their obligations to the community. In short, they move from being one of the masses to one of the vanguard.”

All of the Limmud FSU events this year have been in celebration of the 150th birthday of the acclaimed Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem. And no bigger honor was afforded to both his memory and to Limmud FSU by the following entry into the Congressional Record [earlier this year] by Representative Jerome Nadler [excerpt]:

“Madam Speaker, I rise today to remember and honor the life of acclaimed Russian-Jewish writer and humorist Mr. Sholem Aleichem, whose 150th birthday was this past Monday, March 2, and to congratulate Limmund FSU on the events it is sponsoring this week in New York City, Tel Aviv, and Kiev to commemorate this momentous event.

Well after his death in New York City in 1916, his popularity continues to this day. His timeless works have been translated into many languages, including English, making accessible his unique literary talents to millions more. Monuments have been erected to him in Kiev and Moscow. And, in New York City, East 33rd Street, between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue, is named “Sholem Aleichem Place.” It is only fitting that we pause on this, the occasion of his 150th birthday, to celebrate Sholem Aleichem and his contribution both to Jewish life and culture and to humanity as a whole.

Indeed, people will be remembering Sholem Aleichem all around the world thanks to the efforts of Limmund FSU. Limmund FSU is a volunteer organization whose goal is to help build bridges between Russian-speaking Jews and their Jewish history and culture. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Limmund FSU on the events it is sponsoring this week to honor Sholem Aleichem. It could not have picked a better person to honor and I want to thank everyone involved for their tremendous efforts.”

Feliks Frenkel is chairman of the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, president of the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene and a member of the Board of Directors of UJAFederation of New York. Feliks and UJA-Federation of New York’s Board chair Jerry Levin, were the honorary co-chairs of “A Taste of Limmud”.

Sandra Cahn and Chaim Chessler are both long-time leaders in the global Jewish community. Sandra is a member of the Executive Committee and co-chair of the Taskforce on the FSU for Hillel International. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of UJA-Federation of New York and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Chaim is a former treasurer of the Jewish Agency and former head of JAFI’s delegation to the FSU. He currently serves as chair of the FSU and Eastern European Committee of the World Jewish Congress.