Its imperative we understand heritage of Russian community

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More than 20 percent of the Jewish community of New York speaks Russian — a fact known to demographers and communal professionals for several years. But the implications remain largely unknown, particularly because so few Russian-speaking Jews are affiliated with synagogues and Jewish organizations. There is a very real possibility that the vast majority will be lost to the Jewish people unless some dramatic changes take place very soon.

That was the underlying premise of a significant meeting that took place recently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, bringing together about 120 leaders of the Russian-Jewish community and Jewish social work professionals. Appropriately named “At The Crossroads,” it sought to launch an open and honest dialogue between the two groups. The tone was set at the outset of the five-hour meeting when John Ruskay, executive vice-president and CEO of UJA-Federation, acknowledged that for the last decade “we haven’t figured out how to interact with the Russian Jewish leadership” in New York.

Russian-speaking participants said later they were impressed and pleased with Ruskay’s blunt admission, and with his statement that while “we know the future of the Jewish community here will in part be shaped by what we do together, we must first recognize what we don’t know.”

What is not known, veteran communal professionals say, is how to connect with, become a resource for and inspire more Russian-speaking Jews — the great majority of whom relate to their Jewishness culturally and historically rather than in religious terms, and who resent outreach efforts to have them join synagogues or Jewish organizations.

One example of the way Russian-speaking Jews here are misunderstood: A Jewish communal professional told me of an older Russian man who complained to her that Jewish museums in New York are closed on Yom Kippur, a day that many Jews in the former Soviet Union expressed their Jewishness by taking off from work and visiting a Jewish cultural institution.

“You don’t understand us,” the man told her.

“And he was right,” she said. “It was an ‘a-ha!’ moment for me.”

Many of us think of Russian Jews here as mostly the elderly and poor, adrift in a society whose language and culture is not familiar to them. But there is also a dynamic and growing population of young people who have achieved great educational and financial success in a short time in New York, and who resent the stereotypical image of Russian Jews as old and needy.

It was the younger group that was most visible at the meeting, typified by Gene Rachmansky, a chairman of the cross-divisional task force at UJA-Federation on Russian-speaking Jews. Rachmansky, a 33-year-old partner in a private investment firm, said that about eight years ago he had attended a UJA-Federation event for its Russian-speaking division and “it struck a chord with me.” Since then he has been active in trying to partner the grassroots dynamics taking place around the city among Russian Jews with the leadership of UJA-Federation, which is “now taking corrective action,” he said.

“The Russians here feel it could have been done better, but it’s less a feeling of resentment than a desire to fix what might have been done wrong,” Rachmansky said.

Sitting in on two of the various breakout sessions at the meeting, I came away with a sense that the Russian speakers were offering up a mixed message. On the one hand, they said they wanted their own institutions for Russian speakers — a prime theme was to have a 92nd Street Y-type cultural facility of their own. Yet they also asserted their desire for a seat at the table of UJA-Federation and to be part of establishment decision-making.

In addition, while they made it clear that they are secular, and religious practices and rituals are not for them, they also said they wanted more Jewish education, preferably from Russian-speaking rabbis and teachers. (Unfortunately, there are few if any Russian speakers currently enrolled in rabbinical schools in New York.)

One explanation for this seeming schizophrenia is the pattern of timing, or lack thereof, between the American Jewish community and the Russians since the major waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the past three decades.

When the Russian speakers started to come in big numbers, we were ready to embrace them Jewishly, offering to send their children to Jewish schools and find a place for the families in our synagogues and communal institutions. But they were coming from atheist countries where to be labeled a Jew meant only hardship and prejudice. They simply wanted a place to live, a job and a chance to learn English.

By the time, a few years later, the immigrants were more settled and may have been more responsive to Jewish outreach programs, we had written them off already as only nominally Jewish and ungrateful for our efforts. Resentment festered on both sides.

But now may finally be the time that we are ready to listen to and work with each other. Among the common concerns of both veteran Americans and Russian speakers (even the definitions can be tricky and divisive) are the State of Israel (where almost all the Russian speakers have close relatives), career skills and high-quality education.

Programs addressing those issues may bring the two groups closer, and Abby Knapp, a UJA-Federation professional co-staffing the cross-divisional task force, said projects are in place that train Russian-speaking college students involved with Hillel to work in schools and day-care centers, interacting with parents and children in Russian. Efforts are also under way to bring Jewish content to after-school enrichment programs popular in the Russian-speaking community.

The recent program ended on a high but realistic note, with both sides emphasizing that the event was the most serious attempt so far to better understand each other. Rachmansky said the onus was not just on UJA-Federation professionals but on the Russian speakers as well, and Ruskay noted “this was neither an answer nor an endpoint. Clearly we have our work cut out for us.”

It was a start, however, and the stakes could not be higher in determining, as Ruskay said, “whether we will allow ours to be a shared community or parallel communities.”

No one knows how many of the hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants over the years have been lost to the Jewish community forever. It would be a tragedy if we let that happen again.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, where this column previously appeared.