Losing The Battle Here To Keep Russian Jews Jewish
Tue, 08/27/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Mordechai Tokarsky
Mordechai Tokarsky

The warning signs came early this season, Jewish-themed post cards with veiled messianic references arriving in mailboxes throughout the Brighton Beach neighborhood.

Friends tell me they get a knock on their door from people wearing a Star of David and a kipa who want to talk with them. These are Jews for Jesus missionaries, and they are a regular summer fixture in South Brooklyn’s Jewish neighborhoods. But what’s especially worrisome is that they now include some local young Russian Jews among their ranks; the number of Jews for Jesus missionaries appear to be growing, and their tactics appear to be getting more sophisticated.

It is easy to direct our anger at the missionaries, to give in to the knee-jerk reaction of, “Let’s go out there and tell people that these missionaries are not ‘real Jews.’” Debating with them may be emotionally satisfying at times, but it usually is counterproductive, creating sympathy where bewilderment would otherwise dominate.

As a Jew, a proud Russian Jew, I’m sad, but I’m not angry with the missionaries. They are sincere in their beliefs. They tend to be kind, well mannered, passionate and truly caring. They are also harmless to educated Jews.

What is striking is that the missionaries, many of them from another part of the country, seem to care more about the future and beliefs of my fellow Russian Jews than the Jews of the vast and diverse Jewish communities of New York. Unless something changes — unless our common sense of Jewish peoplehood is strengthened and Jews begin to truly care, not just about their own insular communities, but about the Jewish future of those who are most in danger of drifting way — it’s inevitable that the missionaries will be successful.

It will not be dramatic, it will take a few generations, but without Jewish education, it is certain that those descendants of Russian Jews who practice a religion will most likely not be practicing Judaism. This is not a wild, alarmist speculation. It is simply a fact of Jewish history. It is not unique to Russian Jews. It is the fate of all who drift away from the tribe, the great grandchildren of those who didn’t get a Jewish education, whose bonds of ethnicity faded into intermarriage and assimilation.

A generation ago, the American Jewish community came together to help free Soviet Jewry. It was a proud moment for the Jewish people, when passion overcame apathy. We rallied together for a just cause and made history. Today, an estimated 752,000 Russian Jews live in North America, and they make up the largest single ethnic group of unaffiliated Jews, and the Jewish community’s largest opportunity, as well. About 216,000 are in New York, and the vast majority of them live in the predominantly Russian neighborhoods of South Brooklyn. How ironic that they and their parents were freed as Soviet Jews, but risk being lost as American Jews.

For the lucky few like me who benefited from a Jewish day school education, the foundations of Jewish identity are strong enough to ensure a Jewish future for our children. And for the 11 percent of all 18- to 30-year-old Russian Jews in the New York area who, over the past seven years, were fortunate enough to complete the RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience) Fellowship and Israel trip program, with 250 hours of Jewish educational engagement, the missionaries are not much of a threat. These RAJE alumni, and people involved in organizations like COJECO (the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations), are too busy being involved in Jewish organizations and building their own Jewish future. Sadly, for their peers who are turned away from the program each semester, due to lack of funding, the answer is uncertain.

When Superstorm Sandy devastated our center and so many other local synagogues last fall, I imagined that a vulnerable Jewish community, in the heart of New York and under siege by missionaries, would surely draw the attention of Jewish communal and philanthropic leaders. After all, more than half of the people in the neighborhoods of Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay are Jewish; it’s the highest concentration of unaffiliated Russian Jews anywhere in the diaspora. Surely rebuilding the Jewish communal infrastructure serving such a community would be seen as a natural priority in ensuring that young Jews would have a place to gather and experience Jewish life. It was a sober reality check when little such support materialized.

Some help did arrive; at a meeting in City Hall, I met the Rev. Daniel Delgado, whose organization, Third Day Missions, focuses on long-term post Sandy rebuilding projects. Over the summer months, churches from across the country were rallied to send groups of volunteers who have helped clean, de-mold, put on sheetrock and paint. These Christian volunteers are wonderful people; they respect our traditions and are not there to proselytize. On a human level, it is heartwarming to see their dedication and kind-hearted sincerity. We are truly grateful to them. But deep inside, as a Jew, my heart cries out: can we build a partnership for a Jewish future, or does the future belong to the missionaries?

Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky is the co-founder and director of RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience), in Brooklyn.

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Clearly Rabbi Tokarsky is doing fine work with RAJE. However, he is also the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach which is not mentioned at all here. Brighton Beach is also home still to thousands upon thousands of American born Jews that some argue are made to feel like they are treated like second class citizens and ignored at the JCBB. The Rabbi should make an effort to reach out to these Jews as well.

Current situation is multidimensional.
There are a lot of problems, challenges but also a lot of opportunities etc..
The art of Jewish life is to focus on what we can do - with our resources, skills etc.

It is easy to make a list of problems and give up.

But if we have at least some ideas which can make real influence - we should put our effort in implementing these ideas.

RAJE built quite effective program - which produces good fruits and we need to support this project, trying to make it better...

The more we have such productive projects - the more our Jewish community will succeed not only in survival but in growth and real accomplishments.

Let wish Raje good inscription in the Book of Life for the next year.

Shanah tovah!

It's useless to blame Jews for Jesus for the assimilation of Jews ( Russian or otherwise). It's useless to blame shiksas for intermarriage because they're stealing our men. It doesn't matter if the Jews for Jesus are kind and well mannered. What matters is that the Jewish community is failing to take care of its own, and if we don't do something NOW in 1 or 2 more generations our grandchildren won't have Jewish community! We need MORE programs like Rabbi Tokarsky's RAJE! And each of us should be expressing the joys and beauties of Judaism to our fellow Jews, and others.

Thank you Rabbi Tokarsky for everything you have done for our community. Your words here, ring true in everyway. RAJE has been a life changing experience for me. I have developed a network of friends, peers and mentors. I came to RAJE as an ignorant kid looking for a fun trip and I came out as an educated leader, with a greater grasp of my Jewish identity. RAJE has become a second home to me.

Good article. Take a look at www.mazeldayschool.com. This is how real impact is made on russian jewish community. this school grew from 10 to 170 in less than 5 years. And the American Jews should be showing full support. Russians are trying but it will take time and if we invest now in Russian Jewish kids it'll pay off 10-15 years from now. if we don't it'll be lost completely. I strongly encourage everyone to check out Mazel Day School in southern brooklyn and provide whatever support you can.

When the Russian Jews first started arriving in the late 70s, early 80s, tens of millions of dollars was spent on building them Jewish schools and providing for them a Jewish education. By 1990 it was more or less clear that the investment was not going to bear the fruit hoped for. The religious Jewish community has sinced recognized that the Russians - through no fault of their own, simply a by-product of being raised in an atheistic, communist environment - were not going to embrace religion.

There are of course notable exceptions, as there always are, such as Rabbi Tokarsky. But I would ask the rabbi about "the lucky few like me who benefited from a Jewish day school education." Of those in your elemenatry school, how many went on to embrace a Jewish life - not just pride but observance (even if not Orthodox)?

Dear Curious,
From my own experience of a Russian Jew, who started observing Mitzvot in Moscow abound late 1990s and who belongs to a purely Russian Jewish Orthodox shul here, in Brooklyn, I have to tell you this. Kol-ha-kavod for the work and desire of American Jews to bring us closer to G-d and community. Unfortunately, apart from desire, there have to be understanding. When I am, sometimes, asked to speak at the school events for Russian Jewish girls, I see their teachers, hardly a few years older than students. There is no question about licenses for them. The general sentiment these young ladies express is "who cares?" As far as the boys, let us try and see how many Russian speaking boys are in good yeshivot. And let us ask ourselves - why? Not because they or their parents are not willing, but because our children are not wanted there. Sad? Yes. Shocking? Yes. True? Absolutely!
So, I am not ready to blame my non-observant brethren. I have seen these young people walking up and down the dark stairs in the buildings affected by Sandy, full of elderly. They may be not (yet) observant, but they have good hearts, and with the help of people who are not talking to them as if they were second class, they will show us some great things, both in secular, and G-d willing spiritual life.
Shana tova!

i wouldn't ascribe Russian Jewish skepticism only to atheist upbringing. after all, quite a few folk who grew up fully Jewish and religious, have left the fold, too. i think it has to do with both normal Jewish skepticism towards any preconditioned system of views, and existence of serious problems in Jewish religious community proper.
and by the way, i always wondered how come 'Russians' are chided for not becoming religious, after being helped to immigration to USA? where was it written that we're obligated to 'pay off our debt' by necessarily starting to go to shuls, wearing kipas, tefillin and what not? were Orthodox the only Jewish group standing for Soviet Jewish rights? doubt so
in other words, we are free people in a free nation, and we don't owe anybody else but this nation any religious or other affiliation, except for through our own choice. and in order to sway us to make the "Jewish' choice, that chpice needs to be more attractive than other options. and sad to say, it's not often so: sometimes it is, and other times it's not.
Jewish religious community cleaning its act a bit, definitely wouldn't hurt. And maybe significantly altering some of its traditional standings and views

As with many problems facing the Jewish people, finding the right solutions takes investment, experimentation and many failed starts. How many early yeshuvim failed before the state of Israel could become a reality? How many Soviet Jewry demonstrations ended without the slightest crack in the Iron curtain? The state of Israel exists today, and Soviet Jews are free because the Jewish people persisted and we did not give up. Why should the challenge of 'Let my people know' be any different and take any less effort then 'Let my people go'?

How do you shape the Jewish future of a generation?

We do believe that after many years of hard work, RAJE has developed one viable model of community wide change. Our approach is to focus on the 18 - 30 year old target population, an age group at the critical developmental stage when most young adults solidify identity, choose careers and decide on communal affiliation. Hence, this age group represents the hour glass through which the future generation is shaped. To achieve sustainable change we developed the RAJE Fellowship and Israel trip program, with 250 hours of transformative Jewish educational programming over a single semester, more than any other program of its type in the Jewish community. To date 11% of all 18-30 year old Russian Jews in the NY area have completed the program.

We are just at beginning stages of success, but early indications of impact include:

§ The in-marriage rate among RAJE alumni is estimated at 99%. The intermarriage rate for Russian Jews in NY decreased by 25%, from 17% in 2002 – 13% in 2011: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/russian-american-jews-a-bright-spot-for-jewish-peoplehood/

§ 80% of RAJE alumni are now involved in Jewish communal life.

§ 30% of RAJE alumni are now involved in UJA Federation network agencies, in leadership positions and/or other capacities.

§ RAJE alumni serve the Jewish community in leadership roles, in areas ranging from: Israel Advocacy, Jewish Education, Community development, Social Services and Caring for the needy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRnFjKDguXc - http://www.rajeusa.com/e_dinnerHonorees.php

§ RAJE is one of the largest collegiate & young professional group marching at the Israel Day Parade: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQChcNy8FQA

RAJE Alumni bring each other together – connect with the Jewish people together - stand up for Israel together & celebrate being Jewish together!

Hey, why just look at the Russians? Check out all liberal Jews: Averaging less than one child per Jewish mother. Over half of them will not marry Jews. Less than a quarter will get a Jewish education remembered after age 13. Half will divorce. Liberal Judaism through out their kids with the mikveh water. Jewish ed. was not an important value; just Tikkun Olam, which, btw is what the missionaries are really good at. So the lesson is: Since Tikkun Olam is the main thing today for liberal Jews, why not go with the Christian pros who get it right? Eh? No it's not just the Russians, its all liberal Jews in the U.S. brought to you by 'rabbis' who decided that all Jewish laws and traditions are optional. Now they better be concerned about who can afford their pensions when temple dues payers dry up.

Weren't the young Russian Jews one of the first groups to respond to Superstorm Sandy in the relief efforts? Why were they never personally engaged to rebuild their center? Surely if they cared for a center that they attended daily they would be the first ones to respond and offer their help and rebuild it. I recall them running up and down stairs from Brighton Beach to Far Rockaway to help those in need. This could not be the same group of students which the Rabbi speaks of. Has the Rabbi engaged any of his students to perform 'Habitat for Humanity' type projects as the one the Christian group is doing?

It is also important to note, that there are limits to what can be accomplished with volunteers, when it comes to repairing millions in damage to an industrial size building. Even when construction professionals are involved, it is very challenging to man a complex construction site with volunteers. I think in terms of expressing devotion and dedication, an impressive effort was made both by the Christian group and by young Russian Jews who care about the center. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were saved and important progress was made. Also, countless young Russian Jews contributed financially whatever they could. That said, for the project to be completed real investment by a caring Jewish philanthropic community is needed to complete the project.

Yes, RAJE alumni were at the forefront of Sandy responce efforts. Hundreds also came together to help clean up the center right after the storm and to help rebuild. The Christian group was unique in that many of the volunteers were construction professionals and that was critical for the type of work which needed to be done.

Great. Thank you for clarifying because it was not clear at all in the article but rather a little contradictory.

it's not ironic. America is also Edom/Aesof...just a different type of Edom than USSR was.

USSR was government imposed galus. America is cultural galus.

Great article! Shows that the problem of missionaries is not the real disease, but merely the symptoms of something more serious.

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