New approach in effort to bring Russian-speaking U.S. Jews into the fold

15-year-old members of group Sloot (Russian for Elephant) at Camp Tel Yehuda in Barryville, N.Y., discuss when they feel most Jewish. (Dan Klein)

15-year-old members of group Sloot (Russian for Elephant) at Camp Tel Yehuda in Barryville, N.Y., discuss when they feel most Jewish. (Dan Klein)

Russian-speaking campers walk to their next activity at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, N.Y.  (Dan Klein)

Russian-speaking campers walk to their next activity at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, N.Y. (Dan Klein)

BARRYVILLE, N.Y. (JTA) — When David Weinstein went to summer camp many years ago, the Jewish world was animated by the campaign to free Soviet Jewry.

In his younger days, Weinstein even visited the Soviet Union once to meet members of the Jewish community there. When he left them, he recalls, he thought he’d never see any of them again.

Today, Weinstein is the director of Camp Tel Yehudah, the national teen leadership camp of Young Judaea, in Barryville, N.Y., and his camp dining room is packed with the American children of some of those Russian Jews he met decades earlier.

But the Russian-speaking children, ages 14 to 18, aren’t regular campers at Tel Yehudah. They’re enrolled in Camp Havurah, a camp-within-a-camp at Tel Yehudah that caters to Jews from families from the former Soviet Union.

While Tel Yehudah’s pluralistic educational curriculum puts more focus on religion, Havurah puts more focus on Russian-American Jewish history and identity. Tel Yehudah campers pray every day, but Havurah campers discuss religion instead. Both tracks also focus on Zionism and tikkun olam, or repairing the world, but the Russian track has more structured educational programming than the American track.

“The reasons for a separate track are rational,” said Alona Stavans, educational director at Havurah. “There have been attempts to attract Russian kids to American camps, but they failed.”

The camp-within-a-camp program, now in its third year, is part of a relatively new approach: creating tracks within existing Jewish programming specifically for young people from Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant families in America. Even though most of the young people from these families by now are more fluent in English than in Russian, Jewish programmers have found that a cultural chasm still separates them from mainstream American Jews.

The idea is to build on the successes of existing Jewish programs by designing tracks specially tailored for these Jews, rather than creating new and untested programs for them.

“We want summer camp to be as important to the Russian-speaking Jewish community as it is to the larger American community,” Weinstein said.

This novel approach, which has taken hold over the last three or four years, marks a significant departure from the prevailing models for reaching out to Russian-speaking Jewish immigrant families: creating completely separate programs focused on teaching them about Judaism, or simply welcoming them into existing programs for American Jews.

Those approaches, say community officials, have not worked well. By and large, they say, Russian Jewish immigrants to this country lack a strong Jewish identity.

“We were Jews by culture, by affiliation, not by religion,” said Marina Belotserkovsky, senior director of Russian communications and community outreach at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Although Jews from post-Soviet immigrant families now make up an estimated 8 percent of the American Jewish population, according to Jewish demographer Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, they are far less represented in Jewish programs and institutions.

“Today, we are losing a lot of Jewish identity. I’m looking at my friends and they’re losing it,” said Diane Kabakov, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1993. Her son Daniel is a camper at Havurah. “I would like him to keep his Jewish identity as much as possible,” she said.

Sophia Joseph, a 15-year-old camper at Havurah from New Jersey, immigrated to America from Georgia with her parents in 1999. When her parents sent her to Havurah to “get in touch with Jewish culture,” Sophia said, she was skeptical — “especially of the religious stuff.”

“But everything changed,” she said in an interview. “I love the community and have even come to enjoy prayer. My parents were right. They felt I didn’t appreciate my identity.”

Her mother, Anna Joseph, told JTA her daughter has a stronger Jewish identity now.

“We woke up in the last few years,” said Rabbi Jay Moses, director of the Wexner Heritage Program, a leadership-training institute that is creating a separate track for Jews from Russian immigrant families. “As a community, we did a great job trying to rescue and resettle immigrants in a short period of time. We took care of their immediate needs well, but we did a less impressive job securing the future of Jewish life as they came of age in America.”

The Wexner program has hired a consultant to fine-tune its curriculum for its pilot Russian cohort initiative, which will be taking applications next spring.

The Genesis Philanthropy Group, which promotes strengthening Jewish identity among Russian speakers, is one of the main foundations behind this new approach to Russian Jewish immigrants.

In association with Genesis, the PJ Library, which sends free Jewish books to Jewish households, worked with three community centers in Russian-speaking areas to create a pilot free-book program targeting the Russian-speaking community. The program has proved highly successful, and the PJ Library now plans to expand to other Russian-speaking communities and also to begin printing books in Russian.

Likewise, Moishe House, which funds young, community-minded Jews to create a house-based community center for their Jewish peers, worked with Genesis to open its first Russian-speaking Moishe House in Chicago in 2009. Since then, it has opened four more houses in the former Soviet Union, and this year it is planning to open two more Russian-speaking Moishe Houses in the United States.

“Genesis asked us about Russian Moishe Houses, and if I thought it would work,” Moishe House founder and CEO David Cygielman told JTA. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but it seems like it’s worth a try.”

Directors of the Havurah camp, which is also funded by Genesis, say they have struggled over the last three years to strike a balance between being a single camp and creating a special program. At the summer camp, the Russians and Americans spend most mornings together and eat in a shared dining hall, but the Russian immigrant children get separate educational programming.

As they view such programs, some organizational leaders say it is important not to assume that just because something has caught on with the mainstream American Jewish community it will work for the Russian immigrant community as well.

Several campers interviewed by JTA said they liked being apart from the rest of the camp.

It helps, said Havurah program manager Yelena Pogorelsky, herself a Russian immigrant, when you are familiar with common Russian traditions — “when you’re around people who you don’t have to explain yourself to, why you are spitting over your shoulder three times, or sitting quietly before a long trip.”

Sitting with a group of 15-year-old campers, counselor Inna Dykorskaya led about their Jewish identity and prayer. At Havurah, prayers are considered as Jewish texts, and campers are encouraged to create their own. When it comes time to share them, the campers recite their blessings in English and Russian.

“Everything in life you should do because it is relevant to your life,” Dykorskaya said. “We don’t force you to pray; we ask you to consider and analyze prayer.”

In a few years, Pogorelsky, said, separate Jewish programming for campers like these won’t be necessary anymore.

“In 10 years there won’t be a need,” she said. “The Russian community will be split: It will either be integrated into the larger Jewish community, or secular and unaffiliated.”

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