Using the Power of Russian Jewish Identity

[eJP note] Elijah Kogan participated in a conference on “Fighting the De-legitimization of Israel” for young Russian-Speaking European Jews which was held in Maastricht, Holland during November. The conference was organized by The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry. Here are his thoughts about the conference.]

“No! Are they really that bold!? Wow. They are organizing a conference in Russian for Russian speaking Jews!” were my first thoughts when I heard about the conference for young Russian-Speaking European Jews which was organized by The Jewish Agency for Israel and Israel’s Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs and held in the Dutch city of Maastricht. The conference, not only targeted Russian speaking Jews in Europe, but would be conducted mostly in Russian dealing with the topic of the fight against the de-legitimization of Israel. I had heard about, and even attended, smaller events with up to 30 participants conducted in Russian, but never a prestigious event of this size aimed at Russian speaking Jews only. My shock might seem strange to friends living in the USA or Israel, who are used to events and organizations targeted towards a specific group. In Germany, however, it is unthinkable, a no-go even to consider this crazy idea. But was this bold move that crazy?

Russian Jewry fed the Jewish migrations to the United States and the early Zionist movement more than 100 years ago and today is the source of the Rebirth of Judaism in Germany after the Shoah. The majority of the ca. 200,000 Jews living in Germany were born in the Former Soviet Union. In Western Europe there are also large Russian speaking Jewish communities in Vienna, Switzerland, Amsterdam and across the UK. Russian-speaking participants from twelve European countries attended the conference.

Our identity is no longer connected to the country of our birth: we are not Russians, but very often we do not fully identify with our country of residence. My home has become Russian speaking Jewry and I am certain that this feeling is shared by many young Russian-speaking Jews in Europe. Yes, we are dispersed across Europe and often live in an environment with only a few Jews around us. We are well integrated in our societies, but meeting other young Russian speaking Jews like myself always gives me a sense of community and belonging.

The majority of my colleagues, friends and neighbors are non-Jewish Germans and I have little interaction on a daily basis with other Russian speaking Jews. For me “Lech lecha” (Go away from your home – Genesis 12:1) is not just a biblical concept. I know that in order to find my Jewish roots and to meet other people like me, I have to leave my familiar surroundings, my city and sometimes my country to attend a seminar, a conference or a party where I can dive into a heimische atmosphere.

The atmosphere at the conference in Maastricht was created by combining several elements: a group of people who seem so familiar; the Russian language which feels homey to me, and makes the content more meaningful; and the content on Israel, Jewish History and Judaism, which are so irrelevant to my everyday environment and yet so relevant to me.

Let’s be frank, no one goes to a conference just for the content and the speakers. These are forums to find new friends and maintain old friendships. They are also a place to find a spouse who is similar to oneself, making one’s parents happy. I met my wife at just such an event. Events like these are also the backbone for grassroots Jewish activity back home. They give inspiration for content, they facilitate contact to potential speakers and even more importantly to potential participants. Most of all, a weekend with like-minded people gives you the energy, power and intrinsic motivation to recreate a spark of the unique atmosphere at home. At the conference in Maastricht, two hours after hearing a speaker I liked, I had recruited the individual and a dozen participants for a small event in my city.

This type of event is also an important source of Jewish spirituality for the participants. 70 years of Soviet rule created an absurd situation where it is the children and not the parents who bring Judaism in to the home. Some of us are closer to Judaism, some further away, but when we get together, it is an opportunity to experience Shabbat and Havdalah together and to bring this spark back home.

It was the atmosphere that brought people to the conference, but it is the content that made it a success. One of the dominant characteristics of Russian speaking Jewry is the high level of solidarity with Israel. For most of us, it’s not just the country of the Jewish people, but it is where our relatives, where our grandparents live. Most Russian speaking Jews have a very positive attitude towards Israel and support for Israel is just natural. Living in the Diaspora, especially in Europe, one cannot escape the harsh critiques of Israel. The expectation of non-Jewish society that we, as Jews, should explain the situation in Israel pushes us to action. There is an urge to defend Israel and there is a need to learn how to do it.

The main theme of the seminar in Maastricht was the fight against Israel’s de-legitimization. Right after Operation Pillar of Defense, the subject was very relevant. Discussing how to fight the de-legitimization of Israel gives us the power to return to a non-Jewish environment with a sense of community and a common goal. Additionally, seeing the success and contribution to society of the Russian-Israeli speakers inspired me and made Aliya more attractive.

Upon reflection on the impact of The Jewish Agency conference, the great atmosphere, the intense discussions and follow-up afterwards, it is clear to me, that the bold move to organize a conference targeted at Russian speaking Jews, conducted mostly in Russian was not only a full success but was a necessity and I hope that this source of energy for grassroots activism all over Germany will continue to flourish.

Elijah Kogan (26) was born in Russia and moved with his family to Germany at the age of 10. He took part in Jewish Youth Work and Jewish Student Organizations first as a participant and later as an organizer. Currently, he works full time for a German logistics company. In their free time, Elijah and his wife organize events for Young Jewish Professionals (ages 25+).