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From ‘clients’ to ‘partners’: Ties Among Jews Are Changing

April 1, 2004
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Russian Jews in America are “tired of being perceived by the American community as clients and not as partners.”

That’s what Susan Fox, executive director of the Shorefront YM-YWHA, just off the Russian bistro-lined boardwalk of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, says. After nearly 30 years of working with people in neighborhoods where English is less commonly heard on the streets than Russian, Fox has her finger on the pulse of the community.

Roughly 25 years after the first wave of Jews from the former Soviet Union arrived in the United States and 13 years after the mass exodus that followed the collapse of communism, the Russian Jewish community in America now generates its own organizations and philanthropists.

“There has been a visible maturation of their involvement, and there is a momentum that has gotten the attention of many,” Fox says, describing an array of Russian Jewish groups and leaders.

Indeed, American Jewish groups are reaching out to the community with new programs that reflect the community’s growing size and stature.

Most estimates of the number of Russian Jews across the country, including those who emigrated and the families they have created since they arrived, range from 600,000 to 800,000.

Today, many of those immigrants live in the New York area, making up a quarter of New York Jewry.

Russian Jews also have significant communities in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

But even far from the shores of Brighton Beach, integration with mainstream American Jews around the country remains, for the most part, elusive.

Russian Jews and those involved with the community say the situation stems from an early misunderstanding on both sides.

American Jews expected Soviet immigrants to be grateful to them for working for their liberation and eager for Jewish life. The emigres, for their part, anticipated a fraternal reception with generous assistance in landing jobs and Jewish education that would extend beyond the initial programs local Jewish communities made available to them.

In addition, the new immigrants, after enduring more than 70 years of atheist Soviet rule, arrived with a Jewish identity that seemed foreign to American Jews, especially given their customs of erecting Christmas trees or savoring pork sausage.

American Jews expected “either Natan Sharansky or their bubbe,” says Mark Handelman, president and CEO of the New York Association for New Americans, which helped resettle some 250,000 Russian Jewish refugees.

Echoing a favorite line among many in the community, Mariya Kogan, coordinator for the citizenship program at FEGS, a Brooklyn social-service center, says with barely contained exasperation, “When we were in our native country, we were Jewish,” she says. “Now we’re Russians!”

Another obstacle to integration for Russian Jews was psychological. Arriving with the Soviet mentality, which mistrusts religion and organizations, many Russian Jews steered clear of synagogues and Jewish educational institutions. In addition, immediate resettlement needs, like learning English and finding a job, eclipsed everything else, including Judaism.

This alienation was further accentuated as Russian immigrants often chose to stick together, especially in cities that drew large numbers.

But with years of basic resettlement under their belt, Russian Jewish communal life now is emerging.

Home to about 300,000 Russian-speaking Jews, New York represents not only the largest Russian Jewish community in the country, but also the most organized one. Thirty-four Russian Jewish organizations recently have joined together to form the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations, or COJECO.

This model is being replicated nationwide. In San Francisco, for example, a group of young Russians recently formed a social club called the 79ers – – reminiscent of the date they immigrated as children. In Atlanta, Bukharan Jews, who hail from Uzbekistan, recently formed their own synagogue and community center.

Amid all this activity, American Jewish groups are reaching out to them.

“This is one of the major sources for energy, creativity and, frankly, human power for the American Jewish community,” says Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

“You’re talking about over half a million Jews” that comprise an “educated” and “inspiring” community that want to join American Jewish life, she says.

The American Jewish Committee, which for six years has run a leadership training program for New York’s Russian Jews, plans to go national, beginning a program in Boston in February. In September, it launched the National Committee on Russian Jewish Community Affairs, mandated to fulfill the post-resettlement needs of the community, such as integration into American Jewry.

With regional directors in Atlanta, Milwaukee and Los Angeles, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society created a program to train community leaders and aid their organizations in October 2002. It also plans to create a civic education and voter registration program this spring in New York.

And the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, is creating partnerships with New York’s Russian Jewish community.

But outreach efforts to the community is not without its critics.

Zvi Gitelman, professor of political science and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, charges that the American Jewish community is dropping the ball on outreach to the population.

“The American Jewish community has spent next to nothing on what has happened economically, socially and, most importantly, Jewishly, to the largest single immigration to the United States since before the First World War,” he says. “There has been no systematic national study, not even a regional study of, for example, the effects of all these outreach programs.”

Several Russian Jews community officials maintain that successful integration begins with separate communal structures for Russian American Jews.

By caring for itself, the community rids itself of its image as clients of Jewish community services, Fox says. Furthermore, “You provide someone that level of entre and comfort,” she says, then they become “participants in other organizations as peers.”

Most observers suspect differences between veteran American Jews and Russian Jewish immigrants to America will evaporate over time. It’s just a matter of when.

America “dilutes and it changes people’s perception of themselves,” says Gary Shteyngart, who authored the acclaimed Russian Jewish immigrant novel, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.”

In a few decades, the rate of participation in Jewish communal life among Russian American Jews and American- born Jews “will be fairly indistinguishable,” he predicts. In the meantime, some issues hinder involvement, such as the cost of participation, says Yosef Abramowitz, president of the Union of Council for Jews in the former Soviet Union.

“We should all rejoice at some of these new groups springing up,” he says. But, like most American Jewish institutions, they “only represent and service a relatively small percentage of the potential market,” he says.

Meanwhile, tensions between the communities persist.

“I’m sorry, but we have to share the power,” says Arkady Kagan, senior editor of the Russian Forward, a national Jewish weekly.

Referring to a flap over a survey published last year by the UJA-Federation of New York, in which Russian American Jews believed they were undercounted, Kagan says American Jewish groups underestimate and ignore the Russian Jewish community.

Kagan says he is grateful to American Jews for helping liberate Jews from the Soviet Union, but he fumes, “I’m not a poor client anymore!”

“Each time I meet American Jews,” Kagan says, “they think we are all food stamp recipients.”

Marina Temkina, 56, a Manhattan poet organizing a Russian Jewish immigrant archive, is cynical about the outreach efforts.

Now that the Russian Jewish community has begun to flourish, the American Jewish community wants not only to support, but also to control its emergence, she says. But Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society president Leonard Glickman says his group is responding to a Russian Jewish “thirst for some kind of assistance” to connect with American Jewry. Intent on following their lead, the program is headed by members of the Russian Jewish community, Glickman says.

Many of the efforts under way reflect a willingness at least by some for community leaders to come together. In any immigration, the “host community is impacted on as much as the newcomers,” says Handelman, of New York Association for New Americans. “There was a mutual kind of disconnect that had to happen until both sides began to adjust to each other, which is what’s beginning to happen.”

Alec Brook-Krasny, the head of the umbrella group of Russian Jews, is optimistic.

“I strongly believe we will become one community again,” he says, noting the shared ancestry of Russian American Jews with American-born Jews.

“Many of us have the same last names” but pronounce them differently, Book- Krasny says to make the point. “Your grandfathers decided to leave, our grandfathers decided to stay.”

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