Roman Shmulenson, 34
Part of a Ukrainian-Jewish family that came to the U.S. in 1993, Roman Shmulenson made his first meaningful contact with the Jewish community while studying at a Brooklyn high school the next year. A social worker from the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services who met with émigré teens arranged a scholarship for Shmulenson to visit Israel.
The trip energized his Jewish feelings; today he’s paying his spiritual debt, as a leader of the émigré community.
Shmulenson, who lives in Sheepshead Bay, is executive director of the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, an umbrella group that receives funding from UJA-Federation of New York and private foundations. He came to COJECO, whose 33 member organizations include synagogues and community councils and cultural groups, from his job at Brooklyn’s Sephardic Community Center.
“We need you for this community,” fellow immigrants told him. “My community pulled me back,” he says.
“Tons of people” from his background “don’t go to JCCs or synagogue,” he says. “What happens to them?” Enter COJECO. Shmulenson — B.A. in Judaic studies from Brooklyn College, master’s degree in social work from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work — helps with the integration of émigrés’ into the “mainstream” Jewish community.
“Russian Jews are our partners, not our clients,” Shmulenson says, using the collective terms for Jews who came from the USSR. “It’s not an immigrant community anymore. It’s a profoundly American community.”
Homecoming: Shmulenson went back to his Ukraine hometown for the first time in 2008, during a side-trip from a Limmud educational conference. “I didn’t feel any nostalgia,” he says. “I was glad to get back to New York.” Inspired by “Exodus”: His favorite book is Leon Uris’ novel about the founding of Israel, which he read, in Russian, after coming to the U.S. “The Russian translation,” he says, “is much better than the English.”