I spent the weekend at a Russian-Jewish Shabbaton on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and was reminded of just how different Russian-American Jews are from many other segments of American Jewry. Serving as a board member of one of the largest organizations for the community, Russian-American Jewish Experience (RAJE), I am painfully aware that there are very few programs effectively reaching this part of our community.
It’s a shame that there aren’t more resources directed towards reaching the estimated 750,000 Russian-American Jews who thirst for Judaism and are a rare bright spot for American Jews.
Just as Russian Jewry changed the demographics of, and did so many great things for, the State of Israel, so too can this community be an empowering force for the tiring, dwindling American Jewish community. Despite the fact that last year’s Limmud FSU survey found that “Fifty-seven percent of Russian Jews living in the United States do not feel that they are part of the American Jewish community,” little has changed.
The reality is that while a generation ago, the American Jewish community marched, protested, and came together to help free Soviet Jewry, other than RAJE, few organizations even try to reach the community that makes up almost 25 percent of New York Jewry.
For many years, the community has been misunderstood and neglected by the Jewish establishment, and it’s a shame. There is an authentic cultural and spiritual curiosity and hunger for Judaism amongst members of this community, yet, other than glib jokes and stereotyping, little is done to embrace these Jews.
Despite the fact that Russia forbade Jewish education for 70 years, the Limmud survey indicated that “82 percent felt it was ‘very important’ to have a Jewish connection and 72 percent stated that ‘the most important thing’ they looked for in a child’s spouse was that he or she be Jewish.” Young Russian American Jews understand that being Jewish is great.
The reality is that there is a 10 to 15 year window to help educate young Russian Jews about Judaism, Zionism, and the like. While RAJE has reached 11 percent of all 18 to 30-year-old Russian Jews in the New York area over the past seven years, we could reach so many more if there were more funds. The in-marriage rate among RAJE alumni is estimated at 99 percent. The intermarriage rate among Russian Jews in New York decreased by one-fourth between 2002 and 2011 – from 17 percent to 13 percent. This is unlike any other sub-group of American Jews – a clear indication RAJE is doing something right.
The estimated 750,000 Russian Jews in America are at risk of assimilating, as many of the 71 percent of non-Orthodox American Jews are. Russian-speaking Jews are one of the most successful immigrant groups in American history, and we need to all do our part to ensure they remain a Jewish success story. It’s upon us, now that “Let My People Go” has become a reality, to “Let My People Know.”
Ronn Torossian is an executive board member of RAJE. He makes a living as CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR Agency. Recommended reading for anyone interested in more on Russian-speaking Jews in North America is Jonathan Sarna’s study “Toward a Comprehensive Policy Planning for Russian-Speaking Jews in North America.”