A small arts and music studio in Livingston is making a big impact on the population of a Y overnight summer camp.
Marina Goldin, who runs the Do Re Mi studio, is key to the New Jersey Y Camps’ effort to attract children from the Russian immigrant community in Livingston.
Thanks to her recruitment efforts, 26 children from the community of Jews from the former Soviet Union there have signed up for a session at Camp Nah Jee Wah in Milford, Pa.
“They really want to work within their own community, so we have to partner with people inside the community. That’s a real challenge,” said Leonard Robinson, NJ Y Camps executive director. He is currently working on developing partnerships with Russian communities in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Pelham, and Great Neck as well.
Goldin left the Soviet Union in 1989. She first settled in Brooklyn and eventually came to Livingston in 1995. She will serve as staff at camp this summer, and her 11-year-old daughter Ilana will be a camper.
The NJ Y Camp effort earned praise from the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which launched its own pilot program in 2009 to attract Russian-Jewish families to Jewish camps. The FJC’s biennial meeting in Jersey City earlier this month included a workshop about recruiting Russian Jews — an elusive goal for many Jewish institutions.
“What’s key, and you hear it all the time, is that ethnic groups hold together culturally,” Abby Knopp, FJC’s director of community initiatives, said at the workshop. “If I go in or you go in [to recruit], they may not care or they may tune us out. But this woman with young children speaks the language and answers the questions they have — it’s a trust issue.”
Goldin posted a Russian language flyer on her web page inviting her students to join her at NJ Y Camps, and offered a full presentation in September. Russian families are signing up because they trust her, and they know she will help put their children at ease, said Robinson.
Among those soon-to-be campers is 10-year-old Gabrielle Levin, who was born in the United States but whose mother, Esther Levin, was born in Kiev. Gaby’s first language was Russian, and the family has strong ties in their immigrant community. Gaby has attended the Do Re Mi studio since she was three and also takes ballet at a Russian-owned studio in the area. They are not involved in the local Jewish community.
“Marina forwarded the information to me, and I attended a presentation about the camp,” said Esther Levin. “The whole concept of Marina being [at camp] was appealing. Gabrielle grew up at the studio. And the first time she goes for a long time away, she goes with people we know and people she knows from the Russian community.”
Jews from the former Soviet Union comprise up to 20 percent of Jewish communities in North American cities, but they are essentially absent from the core institutions of American-Jewish life, including summer camps, according to Knopp.
“Nobody knows the exact numbers, but they are definitely underrepresented in the Jewish community,” said Knopp in an interview. Providing a general estimate requires conflating a variety of population studies, she said. “At the very least, it’s a very significant part of the population. But people just do not know they’re there. They congregate around each other and they’re just not coming to Jewish institutions; they are not coming to Jewish schools, they are not coming to Jewish camps, or to synagogues.”
She pointed out that out of 7,000 campers from around the country who received incentive “camperships” from the FJC and went to overnight camps for the first time last summer, a scant 160 were children of recent FSU immigrants.
“We want to start seeing the reality of the Jewish population of North America reflected in our Jewish camps,” she said. “The American-Jewish community did an unbelievable job resettling these people here, providing social services, etc. Now these people are totally integrated into American life. They are successful professionally. The question is, are they going to be Jewish Americans or not?” She sees a camp experience as helping tilt the answer to yes.
‘Comfort of the community’
For Robinson, attracting Russian Jews is about survival.
“This is a huge percentage of the Jewish community in the tri-state area,” he said. A 2006 report by UJA-Federation of New York found over 220,000 people living in 92,000 Russian-speaking Jewish households in the New York area — or 13 percent of the Jewish population.
“As American Jews assimilate, we need the ethnic subgroups — the Russian, Israeli, Persian, Bukharin, and Latin Jews — to be a part of the mainstream community,” said Robinson.
In fact, attracting Russian Jews is only the latest in a series of efforts on his part to penetrate these markets. He has made inroads attracting Syrian Jews as well as Persian Jews and Israelis to NJ Y Camps in previous years.
Through a grant from the Genesis Philanthropy Group, FJC has begun doing research and gathering data about the FSU community. It hired a recruiter from within that community who is focusing on the New York and New Jersey areas, and they also helped launch Havurah, a camp-within-a-camp for Russian Jews at Camp Tel Yehudah, Young Judaea’s national teen leadership camp.
To accommodate the Russian kids, NJ Y Camps has added chess, math logic, and a Russian-language music program run by Goldin. These sessions will be available to everyone, but are expected to attract the Russian kids.
Robinson has also learned that the community is diverse. “Some want to speak Russian; some want to speak English. You need to go in with a lot of different prongs to meet all the needs,” he said.
Levin said she likes the NJ Y Camps model. Gabrielle “will have the comfort of the Russian community, but she will also get to know people not from Livingston,” she said. “Gaby’s first language was Russian. But now she doesn’t like to speak Russian at home, though she does it to please us. She has many friends like her. They speak English among themselves, but they like Russian food, Russian culture. Being there together will make them feel at home.”
Once the children arrive at camp and settle in, their parents really want what everyone else wants for their children; said Levin: “I hope Gabrielle will find going to new places is not so frightening, and that she will learn she can make new friends and bring the fun and enthusiastic spirit of camp home.”