Honoring Russian-American Jews and the 500,000 Soviet Jewish Soldiers Who Fought Nazi Germany
The following is a speech I delivered as Dinner Chair of the sixth annual Russian-American Jewish Experience (RAJE) dinner on May 29. The event honored, “Lives of the Great Patriotic War” – a special exhibit spearheaded by the Blavatnik Family Foundation, which brings to life a largely unknown chapter of Jewish history: the participation of 500,000 Soviet Jewish soldiers in the fight against Nazi Germany:
Tonight we are here to celebrate life, to celebrate Judaism, to celebrate Jewish veterans and those who fight and have fought for the Jewish people. There were many heroic experiences of Soviet Jewish soldiers during World War II who helped contribute to the allied victory. These Jewish veterans fought for survival, and understood that this was a war for truth, for the victory of good over evil. They heroically fought Nazi Germany in this war that affected every family in the former Soviet Union.
These stories must be remembered. There is so much for us to celebrate, standing here only 70 years after the Nazis tried to destroy the Jewish people and killed six million of us. So much to celebrate – today at a Russian Jewish celebration – after the Kremlin worked to extinguish the souls of the Jewish people.
As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, the son of Penny Waga who was born in a DP camp in Poland it is indeed my privilege and honor to stand before you and say Am Israel Chai! The Jewish people live.
Indeed, we live. We live as Jews in Israel, as Jews in America, but wherever we are we know that we are Jewish and we know the importance of our people. We recognize The Israel Defense Forces: The Jewish army that defends the existence and sovereignty of the Jewish nation.
Tonight, we join in celebrating RAJE an organization which is the most effective Jewish education group in America reaching the 750,000 Russian-American Jews. As I have spent the last number of years inspired by RAJE, I invite each of you to see the amazing work we do. We are changing lives – and teaching an entire generation about Judaism, about the importance of our community. Now that “Let My People Go” has become a reality we must now “Let My People Know.”
As Russian Jewry has changed the demographics of, and done so many great things for the State of Israel, so too will Russian American Jews keep changing this country – and our community – for the better. Consider Sergey Brin was born in Moscow in 1973 and moved to the U.S. to evade the persecution of Jews in Russia. As co-founder of Google he is known as one of the most successful and influential people in the world. What would the world be without Google?
Use Whatsapp? Jan Boris Koum sold it to Facebook for $19 billion. The man who was born and raised outside of Kiev, Ukraine, signed the agreement to sell his business on the door of the office where he and his mother stood in line only 20 years earlier to collect food stamps.
This is the Russian Jewish community – as are so many of you, the bright spots in so many ways of American Jewry. For many years, this community has been misunderstood. Yet, there is an authentic cultural and spiritual curiosity and hunger for Judaism in this community.
In so many ways, Russian Jews epitomize the generation which my Zionist hero, Ze’ev Jabotinsky spoke of – a generation of Jews which is strong, proud and fierce. Today, with an eye on the past of the Jewish veterans who fought the Nazis, we look forward at the Jewish future. And we salute and thank the State of Israel, and all the rabbis and Jewish educators who work in Jewish education and fight for Jewish continuity. The educators who teach the beauty of Judaism to youth must be celebrated and embraced. And this, friends is our fight today.
RAJE has reached tens of thousands of 18 to 30-year-old Russian Jews in the New York area – and for the American Jewish community, Russian American Jews are the sole bright spot in otherwise dismal demographic studies. They are the only community where intermarriage rates are decreasing. We need to – and will continue to – do more with your help. We work to create marriage and life and Jewish Parents: Those mothers and fathers who raise families to ensure that Jewish traditions continue from generation to generation – whether it’s sitting around a Shabbat table, learning Torah, embracing a strong Israel, or ensuring that Jewish values will always be celebrated.
As Jews, we know that we must always be cognizant of our need to survive as a people. Life is about meaning. Tradition, family, kids, values, decency and history. These are Jewish concepts which we understand. Russian Jews know these things and understand right from wrong.
Indeed, the whole world has changed. But, how much has it really changed? The whole world stands against the Jewish State. And we need to care for our community, to be involved with our people. And at RAJE we know that, and we understand it. And the time is now.We must continue to fight for what is right – and honor our Jewish past, present and future. Although I am not Russian, my wife Zhanna was born in the Ukraine, and came to this country as a refugee with her mom and a few suitcases. We are so proud that our children, the grandchildren of my mom who was born in a DP camp, who suffered her entire life on crumbs to make me the man I try to be, and the children of Zhanna are able to attend Jewish day schools and feel so connected to Israel and our people. That is Jewish history.
All over the world, Russian Jews continue to make the world better – our fight today is to make sure they continue to do so as Jews. 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.”
More info on RAJE can be seen in this video that was presented at the dinner.