Young Russian Jews Carve Out Their Niche

The Jewish Week explored a cultural shift among Russian-speaking American Jews. “No longer a community of mostly engineers and doctors, no longer segregated in South Brooklyn and Central Queens, no longer immigrants but acculturated, hyphenated Americans, the Russian Jews are a distinct and increasingly powerful community,” writes reporter Steve Lipman.

Today’s young Russian Jews are hipper, wealthier and more actively Jewish than their parents. They are creating their own institutions and making their presence felt in the wider Jewish community.

“They’re no longer a poor immigrant group that needs to be supported,” said Rabbi Jay Henry Moses, director of the Wexner Heritage program, which recently created its first “cohort for Russian-speaking Jews.” The new leadership-training program, which will start at a five-day institute in Aspen, Colo., next month, was launched in partnership with UJA-Federation and is guided by Russian Jews for Russian Jews.

About 20 percent of the eight-county Greater New York Jewish community — some 200,000 Jews — is composed of Russian-speaking Jews, members of families that came here since the late 1970s; it’s a figure that has remained constant for about 20 years. As Roman Shmulenson, executive director of COJECO – The Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, said, “This community cannot be ignored.”

In New York, young Russian Jews have coalesced at events and Shabbat dinners organized by Russian American Jewish Experience, or RAJE, “an independent outreach organization founded by St. Petersburg-born Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky that has offered its own leadership training program and a series of ongoing events since 2006,” the Jewish Week reported.

Members of RAJE in the recent Celebrate Israel parade. (Photo via The Jewish Week)

Young Russian Jews say they are more American than their parents, yet more Russian than their American-born peers. And they tend to be more conservative and more pro-Israel than most non-Orthodox American Jews, less likely to intermarry, more likely to provide their children’s Jewish education at a JCC Sunday program than at a synagogue Hebrew school, less likely to identify themselves in traditional denominational terms.

The article draws a contrast between young Russian-speaking Jews and mainstream Jewish society in the U.S.

“Even though — perhaps because — many Russian-speaking Jews were deprived for years of a Jewish education or the ability to affiliate with other Jews, the strong emotional connection that many Russian-speaking Jews have with their Jewishness and to Israel and the Jewish world at large is tribal,” Odessa-born Misha Galperin, president of international development at the Jewish Agency for Israel, wrote recently in a JTA op-ed. “This stands in contrast to the majority of North American Jews who define their Jewishness as a religious identity.”
About 80 percent of FSU-born American Jews who have participated in Birthright trips to Israel — often with Russian-speaking groups — identify themselves as “Just Jewish,” a figure nearly four times a high as among Birthright participants with no Russian roots, according to a study issued last year by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

Despite its recent emergence, the distinct identity of Russian-speaking Jews may be short-lived, Lipman writes.

Like the immigrants who came to the United States a century ago and founded self-help organizations for fellow newcomers, the current generation of young Russian Jews may find that their distinct organizations will not be needed in a few decades, many Russian Jews say. Their children, who will be increasingly unfamiliar with the Russian language or Russia, will feel less need to socialize among other members of émigré families.

With time, the distinctions between the children of émigré families and Jews with longtime American roots may disappear.

“When we have kids,” Biana Shilshtut said, “the kids will be fully American.”

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