This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse, an event that opened a new chapter in world history and in Jewish history, too. Russian Jews spread across the world, with hundreds of thousands coming to Israel and the U.S., as well as many other countries.
Here in the U.S., this “exodus” became the last big common cause of American Jewry, with extraordinary efforts and resources being mobilized. Over the years American Jewish attention has focused largely on helping Russian Jews to adapt to their new surroundings. This is an important task, but we have neglected to ask an important question: What impact can Russian-speaking Jews have on American Jewish identity?
American Judaism evolved over time in a syncretic fashion. Different waves of immigrants brought their traditions, ideologies, and norms, mixing them with the cultures of their host country and creating a hybrid model. The early 20th century was the most fertile era for identity formation. American Jewish identity was flexible in those formative years, as it absorbed influences from waves of newcomers that often outnumbered the established community. Each new group didn’t really “integrate” into a stable community, but rather helped to shape how the community changed. The food in the melting pot was still liquid, so new ingredients could readily be stirred in.
But by mid-century the story changed. There were fewer newcomers, and while they were warmly received, they were expected to adapt to the existing norms of Jewish America. This mindset was still dominant in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapse brought into American Jewry the biggest immigration wave in two generations.
While by many measures the “integration” of Russian Jews into America was successful, the American Jewish establishment was ambivalent about Russian immigration. Though we were willing to help migrants in America, our preferred narrative was one of immigration to Israel. Russian Jews in America became invisible, for most of us. We knew they were out there somewhere, but we didn’t take an interest in getting to know them, or see their arrival as a valuable opportunity for American Jewry. But what if we had?
While it would be unfair to generalize too much about how Russian Jews experience their Judaism, there are some broad ways in which the identity of Russian-speaking Jews generally differs from traditional American Jewish identity.
First, and for obvious reasons (see any history of the Soviet Union), Russian Jews are less religious. They tend to relate to Judaism through culture, art and language.
Second, Russian Jews also tend to find American models of philanthropy alien. The Soviet Union never had America’s tradition of a robust nonprofit sector. Moreover, they don’t see their philanthropy as a primary expression of Judaism the way many American Jews do.
Third, Russian Jews have generally taken a pragmatic approach to intermarriage for many decades. Intermarriage has been seen as a factor of demographic growth rather than decline.
Finally, their relationship to Israel is stronger than that of the American Jewish mainstream, because the relationship is usually personal, not ideological. Most Russian-speaking Jews in America have relatives living in Israel, or were themselves immigrants to Israel before coming to America.
When Jews from the former Soviet Union first arrived, our instinct was to invite them into the main organizations of American Jewry: the synagogue and the federation. Unsurprisingly, the results were tepid. Russian Jews often ended up in separate organizations that better represented their patterns of affiliation. Since then, there have been enormous efforts to engage and enrich the unique identity of Russian-speaking Jews. Genesis Philanthropy Group, the JDC on the international level, UJA-Federation of New York (among other federations), and many other organizations provide examples of how a particular Russian Jewish identity can be supported, developed, and adapted.
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So American Jewry tried to make Russian Jews into 20th-century American Jews, and that failed. Now we’re helping Russian Jews to engage their own identity, and that is succeeding. But still we aren’t really asking what Russian-speaking Jews can teach the rest of us about being Jewish.
In 2014, the Pew report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” told us that actual Jews in America are increasingly different from how the communal establishment pictures them. Religious and institutional Judaism are weakening. Intermarriage is the new normal. Young Jews are interested in culture, and uninterested in hasbara.
It appears that Russian Jews were onto something after all. Cultural Judaism can be a powerful tool for engaging people in Jewish life. And we had totally missed it.
We can learn much from the substantial investment Russian-speaking Jews make in the arts, culture, theater, literature and music as avenues to Jewish experiences. The pragmatic approach to intermarriage Russian Jews pioneered is now, belatedly, recognized as the only viable path for American Jewry. Russian Jews’ real-life relationships to Israel should also inspire American Jewish communal leaders to try new approaches to Israel engagement. We argue so much about how to “frame” Israel narratives and how to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taking our cue from Russian Jews, American Jewish leaders should think less about shaping the plot of the story and more about connecting with the characters (Israelis) and letting the story emerge naturally.
Of course, this brings up another sub-community that Jewish institutions ignore: Israeli Americans. How much could Jewish Americans be learning about Hebrew and Israeli culture, and how much more connected would our communities be to Israel on a gut level if only communal institutions treated American Israelis as valued community members with great things to contribute?
That’s the main lesson we should learn from Russian Jews, and it’s a lesson that transcends Russian Jews: we need a new definition of integration as a two-way street. We can reclaim the “liquid” Jewish identity of the early 20th century. With it, we can reclaim the forgotten wisdom that continuity demands change.
Andres Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.