Undervalued RSJs (Russian-speaking Jews)

by Michael Zurakhinsky

The Premise:

The Russian-speaking Jewish (RSJ) community still needs help from the greater American Jewish community. After many years of acculturation into America, Russians may not need as much financial help, but they do need help integrating into some of the American Jewish institutions. Those institutions are valuable, and do have value for Russians (albeit, a hidden one for the RSJs).

The Problem:

Consider this situation: I am a lay leader discussing a future investment with my fellow board of directors. On the table is a proposal to attract more RSJs to this particular organization. Yes, the organization wants to tap into the 20% underserved Russian demographic. But they have attempted to attract the Russians before, with dismal results. Moreover, the Russians they did attract ultimately didn’t fit into the existing structure, and created problems for the existing constituents of the organization. The consensus is that Russians are just not worth the trouble.

What is it about the RSJs that is valuable to have in your synagogue, camp, or JCC activity? Do they have a particularly attractive smell to them, or a perspective that your organization can really value? Maybe, but often no particular trait stands out, and so, nothing tips the board room in the RSJ direction.

The Step Forward:

Lets create a Russian-American-Jewish narrative that would clearly bring forward the value of Russians to the greater American Jewish community. A narrative that would make every single RSJ be a powerful reminder of the greatest achievement of the American Jewish community: The Russian Exodus. If such a narrative becomes popular, this could be a real paradigm shift in the approach to the RSJs. Imagine that each RSJ is the walking reminder of the power of Jewish values, the living monument.

Toward a New Paradigm:

First, a narrative needs to be crystallized. Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna has spent years studying Russian American Jewry. His work details the American movement to free Russian Jewry, and the many achievements by the RSJ community in America. In addition, the Gal Beckerman book “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry” is just excellent storytelling. A sexy and clear narrative can be constructed from such materials. Then, the narrative needs widespread marketing and acceptance. Maybe such an initiative gives birth to a new foundation devoted RSJ advocacy. Or an existing organization such as COJECO takes up this initiative.

With this new paradigm in place, next time, maybe the board doesn’t table the RSJ proposal?!

The research work and ideas of Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna inspired this article. In particular, his 2013 work: “Toward a Comprehensive Policy Planning for Russian-Speaking Jews in North America” and his 2014 lecture at the UJA Federation of NY.

Michael Zurakhinsky is an RSJ lay leader in New York City. Michael is a recent graduate of the Wexner RSJ NY cohort. He has an MBA from NYU – Stern, works in investment asset management, and has founded the nonprofit www.TheArtStory.org.