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To reach Russians, we need a tailored approach

The article “In ‘model’ effort, a local camp reaches out to Russian emigres” in the April 1 issue of NJJN returns several times to the question: Why are Russian Jews not involved in American-Jewish institutions? The people who accept the mission of engaging “minority” communities into the mainstream have to find out what the community needs and how they might be different from the mainstream.

In general, the task is not easy, because Russians deeply distrust authorities, are skeptical about organizations, and are severely “allergic” to any ideology imposed on them. They left Russia sick of being constantly forced to be part of some organization, starting for each Soviet child in the first grade and never optional.

Many American-Jewish leaders and institutions accept as a given that Jews attend synagogue, so the fact that Russians do not attend looks like a failure to engage them Jewishly. For Jews in the USSR, attending a synagogue was, at best, for a very small number of people, a form of political protest in the late 1960s to early ’80s (most did not think of attending synagogue in the 1950s; too many perished under Stalin’s repressions).

For Americans, “Jewish” means religion. For several generations of Russian Jews, their self-identification was secured by their non-Russian last names, was imprinted in their “non-Russian” faces, and was reinforced through name-calling in schools (“Zhid,” or kike). Adult family members and their close friends would speak in low voices about double standards for Jews and non-Jews when applying for college admission or a job, or share scary stories of Stalin’s terrible “Doctor’s Plot.” The Soviets taught their Jews that they are Jews very effectively without synagogues.

Why don’t Russians send their kids to Hebrew school? Many do. However, a majority of such schools are at synagogues and for Russians for whom synagogue attendance is not a part of being Jewish, a membership fee that greatly exceeds the tuition is a turn-off. People are ready to pay for something they value, but are not ready to pay for something they do not need.

What is traditional for American services (songs, prayers) is not traditional for Russians, so they often feel they don’t belong. There is enrollment of Russians at the JEPY school in Livingston, affiliated with Aish HaTorah, because it has no membership fee, and the talks given by its rabbis during the High Holy Days (which most Russians do attend) is more philosophical than purely religious. It appeals to people intellectually active but lacking a basic religious education.

Another issue is that in Russia, education was one of the highest priorities for Jewish families — perhaps their only social defense. With all religious institutions destroyed, business opportunities eliminated, and anti-Semitism blossoming, education was the only asset that would help them hold a decent position in the society. So some families are just not satisfied with the level of instruction in religious schools and consider it rather a social club than a school.

I am glad that the executive director of NJ Y Camps, Leonard Robinson, has offered services that meet the needs of Russian families. NJ Y Camp’s work proves that if a person or organization really cares about the needs of a minority community, the community will make steps toward the mainstream.

That being said, let’s not forget the Russians who are creating “parallel structures” within the Jewish world. Here are just a few examples among my fellow Russian Jews in Livingston:

  • Alexandra Kreifus organized a fund-raiser for the LIBI Fund, featuring a Russian-Jewish expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which collected $7,500 to assist members of the Israel Defense Forces.
  • Russian families at my music school presented a Russian children’s Purimshpiel at the Livingston Public Library.
  • •Alla Meikson is a project manager of “MyStory,” which aims to preserve the oral history of the last wave of Russian-Jewish immigration to the United States. Russian Jew Sergey Brin (one of the creators of Google) donated $1 million to HIAS for this project.
  • Four local Russian Jews are organizing a Museum of Human Rights, Freedom, and Tolerance (see related article). More than 90 percent of its sponsors are Russian Jews.

These and many other examples show that being Jewish is important for Russian Jews, but Russian Jewry is a separate ethnic group with a different history, cultural values, language, and sense of humor.

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