Op-Ed: Engage Russian-speaking Jews on their own terms

NEW YORK (JTA) — In 1993, one of the great scholars of Russian Jewry, Zvi Gitelman, noted that “since the 1880s, no group of Jews has migrated as often, in as great numbers, and with such important consequences as the Jews of Russia and the FSU. The mass immigration of Russian/Soviet Jews played a great role in shaping the character of the two largest Jewish communities in the world, those of the United States and Israel. American Jewish and Israeli politics, religion, culture, and economics have been, and are still, profoundly influenced by those who came and are coming from the FSU.”

Twenty years later, I read Gitelman’s statement as a reminder of what should be but not of what is.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that North American Jewish educational and spiritual frameworks — the places where Jews live and learn Jewishly — have yet to be profoundly influenced by Russian-speaking Jews who arrived in the immigration of the second half of the 20th century. Why? It’s because too many American-born Jews continue to view them as either charity cases or in need of our brand of Jewish wisdom. We still have not figured out how to listen and really hear what Russian Jews are saying about Jewish identity, peoplehood and education, and the Jewish community is suffering and continuing to pay the price of disengagement.

With Russian speakers comprising at least 15 percent of the U.S. Jewish population — many researchers believe the number is much higher — we need to care deeply about their engagement.

To be sure, there are some notable figures from the Russian community who have translated their particular language of Jewish identity into successful literary careers, careers in Jewish communal service or even, dare I say, leadership roles on Jewish boards. These individuals often are touted as examples of how successfully Russian Jews have integrated into North American society.

But how many others are active in Jewish life — walking the halls of our JCCs, sitting next to us at our board meetings or sending their children to our camps and schools?

Happily, there are success stories — and more emerging all the time. Great things happen to engage the Russian community when institutions understand that they must invest in hiring Russian-speaking and Russian-thinking staff. As with most communities, a little familiarity goes a long way. The Russian-speaking community will always be more likely to trust and be influenced by someone who understands their history, background and values. Of course, this makes absolute sense.

Take overnight camp, for example. Most Jewish camps are filled with the children of those who experienced wonderful summers at camp themselves or grew up hearing such stories from friends and family. These parents have a cultural and social legacy that is suffused with an inherited familiarity of camp.

But even Russian-speaking Jews who were born here — let alone those that arrived as youngsters — do not have that touch point. Therefore they must, in a very real sense, take a leap of faith and send their children into an unknown environment away from home. Who better to help them feel comfortable with that choice than a peer who understands what they need in order to feel at ease with such a decision?

More often than not, once Russian Jews choose a Jewish destination for themselves and their children, they bring along their social network and become great advocates. Even better, when an institution builds programs with Russian-Jewish cultural inclinations in mind — and that often must happen to retain them — the institution itself evolves and grows.

Success is easy to demonstrate. Jewish community centers that offer high-level lectures or literary events are seeing a significant uptick in Russian-Jewish participation; family programs that provide high-level arts projects for children and historical or literary context for their parents are succeeding in meeting the needs of Russian-speaking Jews. And camps that add specialties in the arts or dance are doing infinitely better at recruiting campers from Russian-speaking backgrounds than their counterparts.

As more Jewish communal professionals and volunteers take notice of the significant opportunity that this population sector represents, our institutions will see growth, expansion and innovation. This was the approach proposed at the first Think Tank on Russian-Jewish Engagement at Camp held recently in New York City. The three dozen camp and community professionals from across North America who attended left prepared to make the right kinds of investments to increase engagement with Russian-speaking Jews.

Change takes time. Mainstream Jewish institutions have certainly started to make headway toward engaging this important and still underrepresented group in Jewish communal life. I am heartened because I believe that this is only the beginning of substantive growth in this arena as we continue to work hand in hand with Russian-speaking Jews to build our institutions and our programs in such a way that they become more vital and, ultimately, more interesting to a broader audience. The results are what we are all striving for: building a stronger and more vibrant Jewish community.

(Abby Knopp is the vice president for program and strategy at the Foundation for Jewish Camp.)

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