A one-time Jewish refusenik is working with United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ in an effort to connect thousands of local Russian-speaking immigrants to the local Jewish community.
Alexander Smukler, who moved to Montclair in 1991, was a well-known activist among Jews who practiced their religion in secret and were denied permission to leave the Soviet Union before its breakup.
Today he is president of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. The former National Conference on Soviet Jewry is based in Washington.
“We need to find a way to bring Russian-speaking Jews who live in MetroWest into the Jewish community,” he said Tuesday. “There are thousands who came from the former Soviet Union to this area during the last 25 years,” but they are absolutely not integrated here.
Acting as an individual, Smukler began a mission that will involve the outreach efforts of a fellow Russian speaker named Natasha Gluzman.
Born in Riga, Latvia, she is a shliha, or emissary, at MetroWest’s Legow Family Israel Program Center.
“She is a resource we’ve never had before,” said Arthur Sandman, associate executive vice president of UJC MetroWest. “She is in a position to speak to and relate to Russians to the community, and we want to take advantage of that resource.”
Smukler’s meeting with Gluzman and Sandman was a first step in an exploratory process to make new connections between MetroWest and a largely untapped part of its Jewish population.
Smukler estimated there are close to 600,000 Russian-speaking Jews who immigrated to America since the last days of the Soviet Union. Of that number, between 5,000 and 10,000 live in the precincts of MetroWest — the majority in such towns as West Orange, Morristown, Livingston, Bloomfield, and Montclair.
“I’m speaking about young people who graduated here — prominent and successful doctors, musicians, and a lot of business people,” said Smukler.
Their lives are far different from those of an earlier generation of Russian Jews who live in the Ivy Hill section of Newark — “a relatively small community of elderly people,” said Smukler.
Smukler met with Sandman for a joint interview at a restaurant in East Hanover.
Sandman said the federation is ready to assist Smukler in his efforts.
“We want to be relevant and meaningful to the entire Jewish community in our area,” he said. “It is part of our responsibility, and part of the future success of the organization to build ties to the Russian community here.”
Sandman called the immigrant community a unique population with its own social networks and cultural identity. “If we want to have a relationship with them, we have to meet them on their own terms,” he said. “We have to relate to the people in the Russian community in a direct way.”
He said UJC’s next step is to identify individuals in the Russian community who can help make connections and build programming.
“Our role is to find a group of Russians who want to participate with us as organizers and create connections and think about the types of programming…,” he said.
Unlike many of their fellow immigrants, the Smukler family has been active in the Jewish community.
Smukler and his wife, Alla, have been members of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield since they moved to New Jersey. Two of their three sons attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union.
But, Smukler said, he tends to run into fellow immigrants outside of these Jewish institutions.
“The majority are not active in the Jewish community,” he lamented. “They are not religious. A very low percentage belongs to synagogues or temples.
“We are losing people because of the assimilation process,” he said. “We need to give them a ground to identify themselves in the United States as a Jew. They need to find their own path to be Jewish and to continue life as a Jew.”
Smukler’s top priority for his fellow expatriates is “to support Israel first and volunteer at MetroWest. Right now the Jewish world has so many problems and issues. I believe we are going through a most difficult time.”