Young Russian Jews In Assimilation Bind

Hawkish new generation split on how, or whether, to engage with mainstream community.

08/02/11
Special To The Jewish Week
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Like 500 other young Jews from the former Soviet Union who marched in this year’s Celebrate Israel Parade in June, Boris Shulman wore bright orange. In addition to signifying support for Israel’s settler movement — which also uses orange — the color contrasted sharply with the 500 older Russian Jews who marched in the parade, wearing blue and white.

Color choices are not all that separate the younger and older generations of Russian-American Jews.

Unlike their parents and grandparents, who came to the United States as adults in the 1970s and ‘80s, these young Russian Jews — born or raised in America, fluent in English and now in their 20s and 30s — grew up in the same culture and country as their non-Russian Jewish American peers.

Now, they must figure out how to integrate into the American Jewish mainstream — and whether they even want to.

While Russian Jews of all ages express a desire to grow closer to the rest of America’s Jews — or at least admit that such blending is inevitable — a debate is now taking shape among younger Russians that is pulling them in two different directions, and that may result in less than full integration into the wider community. Several key issues are at play: a desire to influence the political debate in the wider community, as well as a desire to retain a unique identity as Russian Jews. And then there is the wild-card issue: the Russian community’s hard-line conservatism on Israel — which has put some Russian Jews at odds with the mainstream.

Michael Nemirovsky, director of Russian-speaking community outreach at the Jewish Community Relations Council, hopes that instead of combating the mainstream community, young Russians will teach non-Russian Jews about the Russian-Jewish experience and, through that, influence American Jewish support for Israel.

“The younger generation are not immigrants,” he said. “They have the behavior of American Jewish people. Our elderly people cannot deliver these ideas to the mainstream Jewish community.”

Young Russian Jews are working out how they would deliver those right-wing views to the mainstream. The Russian contingent’s showing in the Israel parade — a kind of mega-event for the New York Jewish community — signifies a desire to participate in the same events as the mainstream. But the group that sponsored the orange float, Russian American Jewish Experience (RAJE), has also been quick to look at Russian-Jewish Israel activism as a corrective for the failures of American Jewry — not exactly talk of integration.

“The American [Jewish] community could do more for Israel; people need to realize that now is the time to make our voice heard,” said Alen Gershkovich, 32, who sits on RAJE’s board. “It’s important, especially with what occurred in Europe, the Holocaust, to preserve Israeli security at all costs.”

Other activists with RAJE — a group based in the Russian hub of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which aims to engage Russian-speaking Jews ages 18 to 30 in Orthodox Jewish religious observance and conservative Israel advocacy — echoed these sentiments.

Mariana Leybengrub, who attends RAJE events, said, “American Jews feel more secure in their place in the country. They don’t fully understand the threat to Israel and Jews all over the world.”

Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, RAJE’s director, said that the group conducts Israel activism because of “the advent of J Street [the self-billed pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby] and groups that are apologetic regarding their support of Israel.”

RAJE has taken more than 2,000 young Russian Jews to Israel during the past three years. This year, one of its trips focused on Israel advocacy. That trip, according to Rabbi Tokarsky, was funded by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which is led by Avigdor Lieberman, head of the conservative Russian Yisrael Beiteinu party. Last year, RAJE founded the Rapid Reaction Force, which demonstrates against what the group perceives to be anti-Israel actions, including President Barack Obama’s recent speech, criticized by the Jewish right, which argued that talks between Israelis and Palestinians be based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed upon land swaps.

Aside from RAJE, Ezra, a Russian-oriented youth organization, has led 9,000 participants on Russian Jewish Birthright Israel trips. Larger groups like the American Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry (AFRSJ) have begun reaching out to the community’s youth, and non-Russian organizations like UJA-Federation of New York and Masa Israel Journey have hired young Russian Jewish liaisons.

The Russian Jewish community in America has long been more right wing than the rest of American Jewry. Polls leading up to the 2004 and 2008 elections conducted by the Research Institute for New Americans showed that the majority of Russian Jews in New York City planned to vote for the Republican presidential candidate — a departure from the larger Jewish community’s Democratic character. In the 2008 presidential election, for instance, Obama garnered 78 percent of the Jewish vote.

Igor Branovan, president of the American Forum of Russian Speaking Jewry, an umbrella group, is less concerned about how the Russian community is relating to the mainstream than about the Russians’ survival as a distinct group. He worries that too much mixing between Russian and non-Russian Jews could cause the Russian-Jewish community to disappear.

“Our goal is to integrate into the general Jewish community, but we don’t want to see our community disappear into the mainstream,” he said.

Mark Kozhin, a member of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Young Russian Leadership Division, hopes that the Russian community’s conservative activism could both assuage Branovan’s concerns and fulfill Nemirovsky’s hopes for greater integration. Like Nemirovsky, Kozhin wants to see the young Russian Jewish community influence Israel activism in the U.S. But like Branovan, Kozhin hopes the young Russian Jews do this while still identifying as Russian Jews.

“A lot of people haven’t recognized the Russian Jews as active, but they are becoming more of a voice,” he said. “For the most part, we’re recognized for our differences as well as for our similarities.”

Some think that this talk of integration has come too soon for a community that, aside from having experienced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, has a lack of Jewish background. Esther Lamm, who left Ukraine in 1987 and now heads UJA-Federation’s Young Russian Leadership Division, feels that while it remains a discrete community, the Russians’ emphasis should be on Jewish education, not Israel or communal integration.

“First they need to build up their own identity as Jews because of 70 years of no Jewish education,” she said. “Once that’s done, once people feel that they’re part of the community, the idea is to integrate.”

Leybengrub said that because the Russian Jewish community has had less Jewish education than the American community, it “has a very separate identity from the American Jewish community.” Jewish education, she said, will bring integration in its wake.

“You first have to bring the Russian American community to understand what it means to be Jewish,” she said. “They don’t know enough about the American Jewish community to integrate. Once somebody grows into understanding their Jewish identity, it’s almost automatic. You feel more united.”

Others, including Boris Shulman — who attended the parade with RAJE — mentioned the lack of Jewish education in the former Soviet Union as an important issue. But Yan Klatz, another RAJE activist, said that no matter what the Russian community prioritizes, disappearance into the mainstream Jewish community is inevitable.

“Over the long run it’s going to be hard to preserve a Russian Jewish community,” Klatz said. “How many generations down the line are we going to be called Russian? Everyone who grew up in America is called American. It’s going to be hard to differentiate.”

Last Update:

12/10/2012 - 15:57

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Young Jews should learn and become fluent in Hebrew to stop them from Assimilating! Why is a Jew called an "Evrey" in Russian?

Just read the title... "Russian Jews in Assimilation Bind." Just because we do not fit the existing communal "boxes", the author assumes that we are in danger of assimilation. We may be different, but we are doing much better keeping and advancing our Jewish identity than American Jewish community that seeks to "integrate" us. Let's open a dialogue, let's learn from each other. I am extremely grateful to my American Jewish brothers for everything they have done for us, but please don't try to save our young Russian Jews from assimilation. You haven't done so well with young American Jews...
Sincerely,
A proud Russian American Jew!

As a 20-something Russian-speaking Jew (who lived in Israel as a child), I am so sick of almost every single Soviet/Russian-Jewish young adult initiative focused on Israel advocacy. There's barely anything that celebrates Soviet/Russian-Jewish history, culture, music, etc. Barely anything that addresses Jewish identity among Soviet/Russian-Jewish young adults. And when there is, it's all tied up in supporting the Israeli state. My identity as a Soviet Jew does not centre around Israel. I'm sick and tired of my identity, history, and culture being exploited for the Zionist cause. It's time people devoted energy to exploring and exposing Soviet/Russian-Jewish history and culture instead of finding new ways to support a racist, apartheid state.

I've been trying to do some of this exploration myself. I collect Soviet/Russian-Jewish things at http://sovietjewry.tumblr.com

What's so special about THOSE immigrants that wold keep them from joining what the rest of us are doing and have done. Our - and their -grandchildren are sure to smile or laugh at this so-called "issue".

Been there, done that !

One of the blocks towards understanding and bridging the gap between Russian-speaking Jews and the 'mainstream' is the noxious myth of Jewish identity allegedly lacking in one and abundant in the other group. The Jewish identity of Russian-speaking Jews is a vibrant and exceptionally strong part of our personalities, values and culture. Without a doubt it is different from that of our American counterpart's focus on all-encompassing social activism and occasional attendance. Even without recounting numerous studies and laments of secularization of American Jewry, one should only review the findings of the last Jewish Population Survey to discover that in a large number of manifestations of their Jewish identity Russian speaking Jews were well ahead of their American cousins. While it is true that we did not share the same Jewish childhood, it is regrettable that American Jewry still wants to 'educate the Russians' without realizing how much it should be learning from them. A century ago a very similar set of attitudes divided the German 'yahudim' mainstream and the Eastern European immigrants. In the process it was the newcomers that redefined what it meant to be a Jew in America. The historical mission of the new wave of Russian-speaking Jews in America is yet to be realized.

"The Russian Jewish community in America has long been more right wing than the rest of American Jewry."

I have noticed that and have been somewat curious and peeved at that. In contrast to Joseph's comment above, Jews do not vote the Party line, they vote the Jewish line, which is intrinsically more liberal and socially and community oriented than that of our "mainstream(?)" society.

I assume the Russians, coming from a communist regime, go a bit overboard trying to show their full integration into a real capitalist society.

I couldn't agree with you more. My community went from worshipping the communist regime (we were a huge part of the Russian Revolution that swept the communists into power in the first place) and now we've transitioned to worshipping capitalism. For whatever reason, my community believes that the rights and extreme privileges extended to us upon (and well before) our arrival (health coverage, rent assistance, food stamps, summer camp programs, job training programs, ESL classes…I could go on) to them don't extend to anyone else. First we rode the wave of generosity, then we made money off that wave and now we want to pretend that we did at all alone and everyone else should too. Sad, embarrassing and truly misguided.

Foolish thing to say. We are conservative because we know the value of hard work and perseverance in legitimately brutal conditions. We accepted aid in this country until we got to our feet, then paid it back 100% fold in our taxes and contributions to the economy. We did not live off of welfare programs, both state and federal, for generations. If you believe Russian Jewish conservativism is hypocritical, you simply have failed to grasp the issue.

"The Russian Jewish community in America has long been more right wing than the rest of American Jewry."

That's like saying the highway is to the right of the shoulder. Perhaps it is time for the bulk of American Jews to integrate into American mainstream society. Most winning presidential candidates get 45% to 55% of American votes. Obama got 78% of the Jewish vote, and the Democratic candidate got at least 60% of the Jewish vote in 1948, 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004. Jewish organizations need to be more accepting of diverse political views so that Jews don't feel so pressured to vote the party line.

I take offense to that comment. As a liberal and Russian-Jew, I feel ZERO pressure from the community to adjust my voting to any position. In fact, the most pressure I've encountered has come from my fellow community members who are often blind in their support for Israel and all of the country's policies while calling me every name in the book for expressing any criticism...very democratic of them. And bringing up statistics to affirm your point is worthless...Jews break all sorts of norms when compared to Americans (education, income, etc.) and that's what has kept us strong and alive in the face of thousands of years of persecution.

Russian American Jews are a sophisticated, diverse, and vibrant community.
The author demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of complexities of this community and paints a rather primitive picture.

The statement that older Russian Jews are part of the mainstream community while younger Russian Jews are not integrating couldn't be further from truth. RAJE and Ezra are perfect examples of successful integration.

How can you have an article on Russian Jewish integration without any mentioning of COJECO- Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations? COJECO is funded by the UJA-Federation of NY and is the central coordinating body in the RJ community of New York that works toward successful integration into the mainstream community. Its work is absolutely crucial. Both RAJE and Ezra that are mentioned in the article are members of COJECO.

At the Celebrate Israel Parade RAJE wore orange T-shirts while Ezra wore white and blue. Both work with young Russian Jews. Their political views on Israel are identical. Colors were meaningless in this case. All grassroots organizations marched as part of one contingent- Russian American Jewish community in support of Israel- young and old, religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi. The group was organized by COJECO and AFRJ (American Forum of Russian-speaking Jewry).

It is sad to see that a major respectable Jewish newspaper in reality has no clue about the community that makes up almost 25% of NY Jewry.

I hardly see this separation of "Russian" Jews and "American" Jews as being helpful. There's a great deal to be proud of for the Russian-Jewish community but that success rests on the shoulders of American philanthropists and activists who enabled our escape from the oppression of the Soviet Union. As a recipient of this generosity, I am proud of the history of my people and will pass the stories of the struggles and triumphs on to my children. However, I am now an American and while I'll never forget where I came from, I wont dishonor those who allowed my passage here by segregating myself from the very people who made my amazing American life possible.

I applaud the young Russian hawks and fervently pray that they will not lose out to a liberal Jewish establishment that is taking this country down a terrible path.

Baruch Hashem.

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