Welcoming Russian Jews To Westchester


For Alina Beygelzimer, attending a Shabbat dinner is more than a pleasant ritual. It’s a chance to give her two young daughters the Jewish background she never received.

Beygelzimer, who was raised in Ukraine, grew up learning very little about Jewish traditions and rituals. Her husband is a non-Jewish American, so Beygelzimer is especially eager to provide her children with authentic Jewish experiences.

Recently, she attended a Shabbat dinner organized by the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations (COJECO).

The Scarsdale resident who works in artificial intelligence with Yahoo said she was pleased to be able “to see how to observe tradition. I’m glad my kids had that opportunity.”

COJECO, which works with New York’s Russian Jewish community primarily in New York City, began running programs in Westchester due to an increasing need.

“We knew a lot of people were settling in Westchester, said Roman Shmulenson, COJECO’s executive director. “They move from Brooklyn and Queens because of good schools and safe neighborhoods; it’s profoundly American.”

Clearly Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach isn’t the only New York area that appeals to Russian Jews. In fact, for the generation dubbed “One and a Half,” reflecting their arrival in the United States as young children or teenagers, the suburbs beckon — just as they do for their American-born counterparts — when it’s time to settle down and raise their families.

UJA-Federation’s Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 has identified the migration of some of the Russian-speaking population out of Brooklyn to these northern suburbs. With some 6,000 Jews in 3,000 Russian-speaking Jewish households, this group now comprises about 5 percent of Westchester’s Jewish population.

With the help of a UJA-Federation Westchester Program Services Grant, COJECO offers the county’s Russian-speaking Jewish families innovative Jewish educational programming. And, through its Center Without Walls, COJECO is working with professionals at the charity’s network agencies (such as JCCs) and synagogues to better understand and address the cultural differences that may create barriers for inclusion. Some Russian-speaking Jews remain ambivalent about their Jewish identity or Jewish religious institutions, while some Jewish professionals lack understanding about Russian-Jewish culture.

Reaching this population presents specific challenges to the institutional world. Given the lack of their own exposure to traditional, synagogue-based Jewish religious life, COJECO found that offering cultural and social experiences is a more attractive entryway.

Jen Sokol, chair of the federation’s Westchester Program Services Cabinet, said cabinet members were surprised to learn of the growing number of Russian-speaking Jews in Westchester. “This only highlighted the need to include them in the organized Jewish community in a way that addresses their distinct needs,” she said in an e-mail.

COJECO’s Shmulenson agreed, “These are people in their 30s, with young children, so we wanted to offer family programming.”

Recent programs have included a puppet show, held at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, on “Jewish Roots of Healthy Foods,” Shabbat dinners held by host families and holiday-centered events around Passover, Purim, Chanukah and the High Holy Days. Some programs are home-based, while others take place at Temple Israel in White Plains or the JCC of Mid-Westchester. Last year the organization had four programs; this year the grant provides for five to six.

“We’re creating this warm, fuzzy feeling of being among one’s own,” said Shmulenson.“It’s about creating a cohesive group.” COJECO has a team of bilingual and bicultural professionals, including social workers, Jewish educators, outreach workers and marketing experts, to develop appropriate activities. The organization also runs programs on Long Island, where other young Russian Jews have settled.

Shmulenson pointed out that this generation “come here as kids or teens, and were pursuing the American dream. They do not want to lose their unique Russian-Jewish identity. They want meaningful Jewish engagement for their children and for themselves. They have a sense of pride, and a strong Jewish identity, but they don’t have a set of beliefs or behaviors that come with being Jewish.”

Through education, the hope is that families will in turn have the tools needed to host their own Shabbat dinner, or Passover Seder. Shmulenson acknowledged that another goal of the program is to entice participants into “meaningful, long-term involvement” with the Jewish community, “and coming back, joining the institution.”

For Alina Beygelzimer, the recent Sabbath left a real impression.

“We had a cantor, and it was really beautiful. It was very nice to see people who have similar backgrounds and find points of familiarity.”

Email: merrijwestweek@gmail.com