Unfinished Business

by Dr. Misha Galperin

I am thrilled to hear that my friend and teacher, Michael Chlenov, is encouraged by the Jewish Agency’s new direction. His support is particularly important as the leader of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC) and because he is regarded as a visionary. Professor Chlenov has been active on the Jewish Agency Committee for the FSU for many years, but has also been involved in many Jewish start-ups. He knows first-hand how difficult it is to change a culture.

Professor Chlenov’s erudition and his background have made it all the more baffling to understand how his recent article got so many of the facts wrong about the Jewish Agency’s mission in general and its work with Russian-speaking Jews in particular. His piece was unfortunately not well-informed.

The Jewish Agency’s unique role has been and continues to be acting as a link between the Jewish state and the Jewish people around the world. We are here to ensure the vitality of a networked, global Jewish people with a strong Israel at its center. Over the decades, the Jewish Agency’s role has evolved as the needs of our people and our homeland have evolved. We’ve gone from being on the frontlines of aliyah to building up the state physically and now to inspiring, connecting and empowering young Jews to care about each other and to be emotionally invested in Israel’s present and future.

The migration of one million Russian-speaking Jews to Israel and another one million to North America, Germany and other countries, as well as the presence of perhaps another million in the countries of the former Soviet Union, create a situation where the Russian-speaking 20% of world Jewry is dispersed among the countries of the Diaspora and Israel. Russian speaking Jews are everywhere, but are sadly not well integrated into the Jewish communities in which they live.

Russian-speaking Jews are culturally different, and this has made integration an immense challenge. In the United States the challenge is largely about the religious/spiritual discrepancies between American Jews and their Russian-speaking Jewish neighbors. In Israel, the difference often surfaces around issues of politics and nationalism. In both cases, Russian-speakers have often been treated as “lesser” Jews, lacking in knowledge and ritual practice. Their cultural affinities to Israel and to peoplehood have largely been overlooked by the mainstream Jewish organizations.

The Jewish Agency is one of the few organizations which has tapped into these cultural strengths to connect Russian speaking Jews with other Jews, with our heritage and with a collective vision of a Jewish future.

We have not done enough, to be sure. While the Jewish Agency’s summer camps in Russia and Ukraine have engaged and excited thousands of young people and their families, we’ve had to cut our commitment from about 16,000 at the peak a few years ago to only about 6,000 last year.

Birthright and MASA participants from the FSU and Germany (more than 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews now live in Germany) have extraordinary transformational experiences through our work. Even so, our waiting lists grow. We can invest the equivalent of about two dollars a person in the same population living in North America. The excitement is there. The global commitment is not.

We need to redress these inadequacies and intend to do so through JAFI’s new strategic plan that extends both our reach and the depth of our grasp. We need advocates like Michael Chlenov and the EAJC to increase the flow of resources – both human and financial – for this virtually neglected population.

Twenty years ago, we made it our global mission to bring Jews out of the Soviet Union. Now, days before Passover, on the eve of an expression that echoes through our history – let my people go – we cannot afford to “let our people go under-served.”

Dr. Misha Galperin is President and CEO of the Jewish Agency International Development.