When it Flooded Like Leningrad: Young Russian Jews Take on Sandy

RAJE students preparing food for storm victims; photo courtesy RAJE.

by Mordechai Tokarsky

Russian Jews are a tough bunch, our collective memories include many hardships and when it comes to pending storms our initial reaction to the media frenzy is usually a cynical one. On Monday night, as Sandy roared onto the shores of Brighton Beach, no one was expecting the calamity which was about to engulf the area. Steve Asnes, a RAJE alumnus and community activist, was out in the streets of Brighton Beach looking to assist those who may need help. Michael Britan was at the RAJE center making sure it was secure and using it as a quiet refuge to study. No one expected what would happen next…..

Suddenly, the waves burst over the board walk and the entire area began to flood. As my father asked the next day, “do you mean to flood like in Leningrad?” Shockingly the answer was yes. As the waters rose first to knee height, Steve who was helping neighbors to safety, suddenly he found himself submerged in neck-deep water, being pulled by the debris into current. He was hanging on for dear life to scaffolding near his home and miraculously managed to get to safety. At the RAJE center, Michael watched the flood waters rising, witnessing the entire first floor turn into a swimming pool. Somehow he too managed to escape to higher ground.

The Beit Midrash at RAJE; photo courtesy RAJE.

The next day, the devastation was surreal. The entire area was decimated. Cars had floated on top of benches and on top of each other. The RAJE Center, which had become a warm second home for countless young Russian American Jews (18 – 30 years old), the epicenter of a communal revival driven by the RAJE Fellowship program, was destroyed. The large first floor room where each semester for the past six years, hundreds of young people had been coming together and forming lasting communal bonds, was submerged under twelve feet of water. The Bait Midrash, study room, one of the few spiritual places where the nascent community could experience Jewish life in their own unique way, was flooded and wrecked. The classrooms, offices, boiler room and elevator shaft were flooded.

As the pictures of the devastation circled on Facebook, an army of RAJE alumni volunteers came together to clean up the building. Shortly after gathering together to clean up the RAJE center, an email arrived from community activist, John Lisyansky. He explained that the high rise buildings across the street from the RAJE Center were without power and elderly residence were trapped inside without food or water, unable to navigate the long dark stairways to safety. Many had no place to go. John organized an immediate effort to bring food, water and supplies to those in need. Countless RAJE alumni joined the volunteer effort, bringing boxes of food up long dark stairways to those trapped inside the building.

As the true extent of the devastation became apparent, Esther Lamm, an alumnus of RAJE, who heads the Young Leadership Russian Division of the UJA Federation of New York, saw the need to coordinate the communal response. An email group was quickly established as COJECO, Shorefront Y, Kingsbay Y, JASA, and many other organizations came together in a massive effort to aid those in need. On Saturday night, Alik Jacobson and a group of volunteers from Philadelphia who organized a large shipment of supplies, were being turned away from many relief sites who seemed unprepared to absorb and distribute the aid. They somehow connected with Esther though Facebook. Esther called on fellow RAJE’ers, Ross Den, Rebecca Buyanovsky and Charles Rabinovich to help quickly establish a command and control center at the home of RAJE president, Ron Hersh. Even as the gas shortage in New York became acute, dozens heeded the call to ferry supplies to those in need.

These young Russian American Jews who just a few years ago would not have had enough of a communal connection to even hear about the opportunities in which to get involved, were now spearheading disaster relief. Dozens came together to cook warm meals at a soup kitchen, to help out at shelters, to help evacuate the elderly and infirm. Ken Soloway, an alumnus who is now the assistant director at Kingsbay Y, spearheaded efforts in hard hit Far Rockaway, where elderly residents were stuck in crime-ridden high-rise low-income housing.

As relief agencies and the government begin to take a lead role in assisting those in need, RAJE faces the horrible reality that their once warm communal home is now in ruins. FEMA does not offer grants for rebuilding Jewish educational centers, only possible loans, mired in red tape and to be repaid with interest. Vast private funds need to quickly be raised for RAJE to rebuild. How can the Jewish community afford to take to take RAJE for granted, when we witness the impact of RAJE alumni in the wake of this disaster. The mission of the RAJE Center over the past six years to ensure that the next generation of Russian American Jews will have a future as a dynamic part of the Jewish people is critical. Each year, 750 students complete the semester long RAJE Fellowship program and Israel trip. This program provides a viable method for effectively overcoming widespread apathy and negative Soviet-instilled stereotypes, inspiring participants to get involved in Jewish life and in building their own community. RAJE staff serve as counselors, teachers, support-systems and friends to all RAJE participants and alumni. It is a place where young people come together to learn, grow and socialize. A place where so many have met their future husbands and wives, establishing new families which are the future of the community.

As a result of this program, thousands of RAJE Fellowship alumni are now enthusiastic participants in Jewish communal life. According to a recent internal UJA Federation on NY report, 30% of those who completed the RAJE program are now involved in UJA sponsored agencies, in leadership roles or other important capacities. All this progress is in jeopardy if the RAJE Center remains desolate and empty.

Mordechai Tokarsky is Co-founder and Executive Director of RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience).