Young Russian speakers carve out their own niche, distinct from the broader N.Y. Jewish community.
They’ve moved beyond the chess games on Ocean Parkway and the Brighton Beach boardwalk strolls, those clichéd markers of the Russian immigration wave of the 1980s and ‘90s.
“We’re night and day from our parents’ generation,” said Esther Lamm, a native of Lvov who leads UJA-Federation of New York’s Russian Leadership Division. “We’re the children of the generation that left Egypt.”
Today’s young Russian Jews are hipper, wealthier and more actively Jewish than their parents. They are creating their own institutions and making their presence felt in the wider Jewish community.
“They’re no longer a poor immigrant group that needs to be supported,” said Rabbi Jay Henry Moses, director of the Wexner Heritage program, which recently created its first “cohort for Russian-speaking Jews.” The new leadership-training program, which will start at a five-day institute in Aspen, Colo., next month, was launched in partnership with UJA-Federation and is guided by Russian Jews for Russian Jews.
About 20 percent of the eight-county Greater New York Jewish community — some 200,000 Jews — is composed of Russian-speaking Jews, members of families that came here since the late 1970s; it’s a figure that has remained constant for about 20 years. As Roman Shmulenson, executive director of COJECO – The Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, said, “This community cannot be ignored.”
Current signs of a growing confidence within the Russian Jewish community, and a growing recognition of the new generation’s needs, include:
n a Russian initiative of the Manhattan-based Brownstone education program for college students and young adults, which runs weeklong seminars in New York. With its own Brownstone building that will open soon, the Russian initiative will begin a series of city trips, educational seminars and cultural programs this year.
n a Synagogue Outreach Network, under the auspices of COJECO, that recently awarded grants to 10 local congregations to “bridg[e] the gap between [the] ‘second-stage’ Russian-speaking Jewish population and congregations of various denominations.”
n the Russian Chai Society, a new UJA-Federation program, under the aegis of Russian Jews, which encourages donors to give $18 a month to the charity.
n a newly founded Moishe House in Peter Cooper Village for Russian-speaking Jews in their 20s and 30s.
n the opening this September of the first middle school class at Brighton Beach’s Mazel Day School, which was formed by a small group of émigré parents and has grown in a decade from a single, pre-nursery class with three kids to a thriving school with an enrollment of 130 and a waiting list.
No longer a community of mostly engineers and doctors, no longer segregated in South Brooklyn and Central Queens, no longer immigrants but acculturated, hyphenated Americans, the Russian Jews are a distinct and increasingly powerful community; its members employ Facebook and other social media to keep in touch, elect political representatives and provide leaders for such mainstream Jewish organizations as Brooklyn College Hillel and the Kings Bay Y.
Russian Jews — they prefer to call themselves Russian-speaking American Jews — are showing increasing signs of greater cohesiveness (they point to New York’s Syrian Jews as a model of a self-sufficient Jewish community that supports its own causes and general Jewish community causes), greater wealth (though many of the elderly émigrés still live on limited incomes, the American-raised generation is working at high-income high-tech and financial services jobs), and an assertive Jewish identity (often expressed in grass-roots Jewish organization of their own making).
On a recent Friday evening, Nadya Chelnokova, a twentysomething native of the former Soviet Union who now lives in San Francisco, joined a handful of fellow émigrés at a conference center near the Princeton University campus for a worship service titled Kabbalat Shabbat for “chainiki,” a slang Russian expression for beginners.
Over the next three days Chelnokova and some 600 other people, mostly from the New York area, with roots in the former Soviet Union, attended a series of lectures and workshops and social events during Limmud FSU, part of the international network of intensive, pluralistic Jewish learning retreats around the world.
Since 2006, Limmud FSU has sponsored several such conferences in the former Soviet Union; the Princeton weekend in May was the first three-day gathering in the United States for members of émigré families and was organized by Russian Jews for Russian Jews.
On one recent afternoon, Biana Shilshtut, a 30-year-old native of Uzbekistan who now works in wealth management in Manhattan, sat in a Midtown hotel lobby discussing her personal Jewish journey. Like other émigré Jews her age, raised in families that had little exposure to Jewish tradition in the communist USSR, she had little interest growing up in Judaism.
In New York since 2005, she has served as an active member of several Jewish organizations geared to Russian Jews, including UJA-Federation’s Russian Leadership Division and RJeneration, which sponsors a variety of educational and cultural programs for “a generation of Americans with a second culture and language.”
Early one recent Friday evening, Regina Akhenblit, a 21-year-old native of Moldova and recent Brooklyn College graduate, was among a few volunteers setting up the fourth-floor meeting hall of the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach for that night’s Shabbat dinner. Later, other volunteers came to help prepare for a Shabbaton sponsored by RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience), an independent outreach organization founded by St. Petersburg-born Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky that has offered its own leadership training program and a series of ongoing events since 2006.
More than 400 Russian Jews, most in their 20s and early 30s, most from nearby southern Brooklyn, came to RAJE’s worship services and meals and lectures that Shabbat.
Young Russian Jews here have “more connection to their Jewish roots than the previous generation,” said Mark Gold Shneidman, a member of a Moldovan family who works as a marketing manager and serves as RAJE volunteer.
“It’s a matter of maturing of the community,” said COJECO’s Shmulenson. “This generation is no longer Russian — it’s Russian-American.”
Young Russian Jews say they are more American than their parents, yet more Russian than their American-born peers. And they tend to be more conservative and more pro-Israel than most non-Orthodox American Jews, less likely to intermarry, more likely to provide their children’s Jewish education at a JCC Sunday program than at a synagogue Hebrew school, less likely to identify themselves in traditional denominational terms.
They prefer, many members of the community say, to socialize within their émigré circles, which may partially explain the popularity of programs like RAJE and Limmud FSU.
“Even though — perhaps because — many Russian-speaking Jews were deprived for years of a Jewish education or the ability to affiliate with other Jews, the strong emotional connection that many Russian-speaking Jews have with their Jewishness and to Israel and the Jewish world at large is tribal,” Odessa-born Misha Galperin, president of international development at the Jewish Agency for Israel, wrote recently in a JTA op-ed. “This stands in contrast to the majority of North American Jews who define their Jewishness as a religious identity.”
About 80 percent of FSU-born American Jews who have participated in Birthright trips to Israel — often with Russian-speaking groups — identify themselves as “Just Jewish,” a figure nearly four times a high as among Birthright participants with no Russian roots, according to a study issued last year by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
The emerging generation of Russian Jews, most of whom came here as children and attended school here, speak fluent, often accent-free English and have become, from the perspective of many American Jews, “Americanized,” familiar with such typically Western, Jewish-American values as tzedakah (charity) and volunteerism.
Nonetheless, Russian-speaking Jews, especially in the 20- to 40-year-old age group, have started to form Jewish organizations for their peers, they say, because well-meaning Jewish organizations that coordinated the emigrés’ settlement here didn’t understand the newcomers’ unique way of thinking. They also struck out on their own because the new generation of college-educated Russian Jews has gained sufficient organizational skills, and because they simply like being around like-minded people who speak (but don’t necessarily read) the same language and share a common background.
While few Russian Jews attend the standard Limmud conferences held in many American cities, the Princeton gathering was standing room only. The attendees schmoozed in Russian between sessions, danced to Russian music until the wee hours of Sunday morning and attended sessions like “Social Entrepreneurship as a Jewish Value, in Russia and Beyond” and “Russian Jews and the American Jewish Community.”
But the culture they are creating may last just one generation.
Like the immigrants who came to the United States a century ago and founded self-help organizations for fellow newcomers, the current generation of young Russian Jews may find that their distinct organizations will not be needed in a few decades, many Russian Jews say. Their children, who will be increasingly unfamiliar with the Russian language or Russia, will feel less need to socialize among other members of émigré families.
With time, the distinctions between the children of émigré families and Jews with longtime American roots may disappear.
“When we have kids,” Biana Shilshtut said, “the kids will be fully American.”
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