Those Who Were Led Are Now Leading

It may very well be that the people who were the focus of past “rescue efforts” now offer the social capital needed to ensure the survival and thriving of our communities today.

by Stephen G. Donshik

Last week I had the very special opportunity to be a member of the faculty of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Nahum Goldman Fellowship (NGF). The 26th seminar took place just south of Tiberias. As in the past there were young Jewish leaders from around the world – from Melbourne to Montevideo, from Mumbai to Los Angeles, and from Capetown to Montreal. Their average age was about 32. Their involvement in their communities and their commitment to the Jewish people united them and made the discussions and dialogues both interesting and inspirational.

I would like to focus on one aspect of the Fellowship seminar that was extremely moving and was something I had not felt in the past. Among the participants in this year’s program were a number of Russian speakers who were either born in the FSU or were born to parents who emigrated from the FSU and raised their families in Jewish communities in the West. As one who was both active in the movement to rescue Soviet Jews in the 1960s and involved in the late 1980s and 1990s in training paid and volunteer leaders in the Jewish communities in the FSU, I was quite sensitive to these participants’ interests and contributions to the discussions.

I could not help thinking about the fact that the generation of the parents of these participants were my students and that now their children were active in Jewish communities around the world. For example, one of the participants works with the national office of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, in Washington, DC. He is involved in developing Jewish life on college campus in North America and with the nascent Hillel structure on campuses in Israel. Another young man is working with the Jewish Child Care Association in New York and reaching out to Bucharian Jewish youth in Queens. Another participant is an active Israeli volunteer in a project to develop an Internet connection to enable all the graduates of the NGF programs to share their experiences.

These examples represent two miracles of Jewish life. Only a generation ago the Jewish world was demonstrating for the right of Jews in the FSU to emigrate from their countries and then to decide whether to live in Israel or in another country in the free world. The first miracle is that most of the Jewish world thought the Jews in the FSU would never be allowed to leave, and yet we are still here and the Soviet Union no longer exists. The second miracle is that from Jews who had barely any Jewish identity and did not come from a tradition of being involved and active in the Jewish community stem leaders of Jewish communities in Israel and around the world.

There are many efforts to reach the young Russian-speaking population, including Limmud FSU (which has been covered in the pages of ejewishphilanthropy.com). There is also outreach to these young people to attract and engage them in Birthright trips and in follow-up Judaic studies programs in Israel and in Jewish communities throughout the world. The seriousness with which these young Russian-speaking Jews approach both involvement in community activities and in learning more about their Jewish heritage and traditions is quite moving.

In the early 1990s the Memorial Foundation sponsored NGF programs in the FSU in which members of the local communities participated along with Jews from around the world. At that time the local Jews were in a process of learning about the global Jewish community and studying different models of community life. Based on their experience under a communist regime, concepts like community decision making and community leadership often had negative connotations. After participating in the NGF and similar seminars they were able to distinguish between the Comsomol (Young Communist League) activities and those that were developed and implemented by independent voluntary Jewish communities in different countries.

For the newly reborn Jewish communities in cities throughout the FSU, the language of community involvement and leadership development provided a framework to understand the challenges faced by Jews around the world. During the initial years of freedom they grew to learn about the crucial issues of Jewish identity, community building, and continuity, and young Russian speakers came to join the ranks of Jewish communal leaders. The Russian-speaking participants at the NGF seminar represent the integration of this group into the ranks of professional and volunteer Jewish leadership.

The established Jewish communities around the world now face the challenge of taking advantage of the resources these young leaders have to offer. They have much to contribute to their communities, and our current focus on the meaning of Jewish peoplehood and unity makes it particularly important to involve them. It may very well be that the people who were the focus of past “rescue efforts” now offer the social capital needed to ensure the survival and thriving of our communities today.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.