The Russian Evolution
Wed, 07/11/2012

The Russian-speaking Jewish population of New York has come of age, not only making up about 20 percent of the overall Jewish community, but also becoming increasingly active in cultural, political and social ways that make its Jewish identity distinctive.

While others may measure Jewish commitment in religious terms, this tightly-knit community is known for its strong support of Israel, conservative politics, and drive for educational and economic success.

The Soviet Jewish saga of the late 20th century is marked by heroic efforts on the part of American Jewry, calling international attention to the plight of their brothers and sisters facing discrimination and persecution at home in the Soviet Union. The cause rallied American Jews who marched, lobbied and donated funds so that millions of Soviet Jews could live in freedom. But when the refugees began arriving here in large numbers, there were problems of timing and expectations. Jewish organizations were ready to embrace the newcomers and wrap them in Yiddishkeit; the immigrants, for whom religious practice was forbidden in their homeland, had more practical interests, like finding a place to live, a job and a chance to learn English.

By the time, a few years later, when the Russian Jews here were more settled — thanks to the efforts of Jewish organizations — and perhaps ready to explore their religious customs and rituals, many of us had written them off as hopelessly secular, barely Jewish.

But in re-enacting the immigrant experience, these newcomers transmitted a pride in heritage and encouraged their children to push for academic and financial success. The result, as described in staff writer Steve Lipman’s front-page report this week, “New Generation Of Russians Now Making Its Mark,” is a critical mass of Russian speakers increasingly confident with its dual identity of Russian Jewish and American, and eager to be in each other’s company.

Some activists in local groups like RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience), fostering strong connections to Jewish education and to Israel, take a measure of credit for the fact that the intermarriage rate for Russian-speaking Jews here has dropped by almost 25 percent in the last decade, from 17 percent to 13 percent. That’s particularly noteworthy, given the secular nature of the community. Such educational efforts have been impressive, but sociologists say the intermarriage statistics in New York are consistent with those of Russian-speaking Jews around the world who show a deep interest in peoplehood and connectivity, if not synagogue attendance.

On a global level, the Genesis Philanthropy Group, founded by Mikhail Fridman and other wealthy Russian Jews, is dedicated to promoting Jewish identity for Russian speakers. Here in New York, UJA-Federation and other organizations have sought to reach out to the community and bring it into the mainstream orbit of communal life. It will take years to measure the impact of such efforts, but it is clear that the Russian-speaking Jewish community is a source of vitality, and should be further cultivated to keep its members in the fold, and for their positive energy to rub off on their fellow Jews here.

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