“ŽAmerican Jewish Establishment Must Do More to Embrace Russian Jews

December 16, 2013 1:02 am 7 comments

Participants at the first Limmud FSU conference in the U.S. dance at the conference's May 12 gala in Princeton, NJ. Photo: Puder PR.

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.”

7 Comments

  • Dear Readers,
    After a tough post sandy year, RAJE faces a year end budget gap of $300,000. Michael Steinhardt, the famed visionary behind Birthright has offered to partner in RAJE with a $150,000 challenge grant, to help close this gap. His condition is that RAJE supporters partner with him by raising another $150,000 to match his gift.

    We are almost there! Incredibly, over the past couple of months; RAJE alumni, board members and supporters managed to raise $120,000, this beyond their usual annual contributions, as per Michael’s condition. We are now so close and really need your help. In the next few days, we need to raise $30,000 to meet Michael Steinhardt’s challenge and greatly strengthen the ability of RAJE to ensure a Jewish future for the next generation of Russian American Jews. Would you be willing to partner with Michael Steinhardt, the RAJE board and alumni community with a generous year end contribution towards the remaining $30,000?

    Thank you!

    PS You can make a gift online at @ http://www.rajeusa.com/donation_form.php Or by mailing a check made out to RAJE: 2915 Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11235 – but, please let us know so that we count your contribution for the match.

  • In the context of the atrocious Pew Report, where 71% of non-Orthodox American Jews intermarry, the question we need to ask is: why would even want the highly assimilated American Jewish population to accept and integrate Russian-speaking Jews.

    If anything, it’s due the tremendous insular nature of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants, (similar to other immigrant communities in the US) that has stopped them from assimilating.

    If anything, it’s the integration of Russian Jews into the American Jewish community that would lead to assimilation.

    American Jews in the 60s, 70s and 80s served their purpose. They were a different community than the community you see today. Even the secular were more connected to their identity. Today, this is not the case. This is why we had to create programs like Birthright and others, thinking that connecting them to Israel will connect them to their identity.

    The problem is, “Zionism” and a connection to Israel will not stop someone from intermarrying.

    This is a prime example of what I mean:

    http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-lesson-on-syria-for-a-hollywood-broadway-birthright-trip/

    We have to go deeper. We have to show them why we are connecting them to Israel…besides the sandy beaches and the Kotel for two seconds.

    Our s’chus (merit) to Israel resides in the Heartland…Judea and Samaria. Without this part of the land, we have no claim to Tel Aviv, Haifa, Eilat, etc etc.

    If we’re gonna have a true “Birthright” trip, we need to make it something having to do with the actual BIRTHRIGHT aspect…ie our forefathers.

    Instead of taking them to post-1948 Israel…let’s take them to pre-70 CE Israel.

    Hebron, Beit El, Emek Dotan, Shilo, Efrat, Tirza, Mizpa, Eli, Givat Yanoach, etc etc..

  • ok, a few points

    first of, the article is too unabashedly asking for more funds–by the way, it’s never seemed to me in recent years that RAJE has any problem with funding. but to lay claim for more donations, there needs to be a solid load of proof that those donations will pay off(though i guess for some, merely writing that money off of their taxes will do–but hopefully, not for all)
    in that sense, with all due respect, we need to see not only that RAJE has REACHED OUT to 11% of our community’s youth, but what’s the ration of success, to to speak, of that outreach? say, how many became religious after being in touch with the organization, how many visited Israel, how many became otherwise involved in Jewish life, etc?
    2. it’s unfair and baseless to single out only non-orthodox American Jewry as being in danger of assimilation. some recent studies show that all Jewish groups are ‘risk groups’. there was in particular a heated discussion of this in RAJE-related facebook communities, a couple months ago
    3. i would not say there’s a lack of Jewish programs aimed at Russian community. there’ve been UJA Russian section; things like Generation R at JCC of Manhattan, there’s of course an eternal CHABAD activity, there’s RAJE proper and Ezra, there are other Russian-oriented programs at Jewish centers and what not. problem may lie as much in supposed (rather mythical) lack of recognition by American Jewry, as in lack of desire to be recognized on part of Russian community proper. in other words, do we really that massively want to remain ‘Russian’? do facts show that? if so, how come for example, even most promising figures from our midst, such as John Lisyansky, fail when it comes to ‘moment of truth’ on serious public stage? was it not because to few people actually care to vote for someone who wanted to represent us?
    3.

    • Don’t forget RJeneration (not to be confused with JCC’s Generation-R. RJen has been doing some excellent work over the last few years as well. It is however in serious need of funding as it’s a grass-roots organization.

    • Aleks,
      To address some of your points:
      1) Fair questions to ask.
      2) Agreed, but the risk of assimilation is far more mitigated in the Orthodox community. There is a more material issue to address in the most exposed (non-Orthodox) sector.
      Russian Jews are somewhat different in that for many national identity is a stronger consideration and outweighs religious affiliation. However even with this idiosyncrasy in mind, religious education still helps and introduces a stronger bond with Israel.
      3) I would argue that many of the programs that you mentioned have not been very effective. They were based on the “if you build it, they will come” premise. I am not trying to glorify RAJE, however its success in getting the community involved has been excellent. Its outreach should be quantifiable – your first point.
      John Lisyanskiy is hardly a litmus test. He ran as a Democrat, while most Russian Jews are conservative (even if not registered as Republicans). Also, consider the district. What is the proportion of Russian Jewish Democrats in D.47? I think Storobin (despite his loss) in D.48 serves as a better example.

  • Jews for Jesus does more for them than UJA aint that the truth

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