Opinion | Opinion

Put Russian-speaking Jews on the community’s radar

NEW YORK (JTA) — With the contemporary music world buzzing about Regina Spektor’s upcoming album more than a month before its release, I cannot help but think about the young musician’s rise in the context of Russian-speaking Jewry. Spektor, who came to the United States with her parents when she was a young girl, still identifies deeply with the Russian-speaking Jewish community and has been an outspoken defender of Israel. And she is not an exception.

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. This stands in contrast to the majority of North American Jews who define their Jewishness as a religious identity.

While the Russian-speaking Jewish community, particularly the second generation, has gained much success in commerce, the arts, technology and medicine, I am concerned about its third generation. Without even a faint memory of life behind the Iron Curtain, my children’s children will need more than an ethnic sense of connectedness if they are to choose being Jewish. And unless the organized Jewish community can figure out how to tap into the potential of what is undeniably a vast infusion of energy, passion and creativity, we are looking at an epic failure in recognizing and addressing a game-changing opportunity.

Twenty percent of the Jewish world is Russian speaking, but it occupies only a small percentage of our thinking as an organized Jewish community. While the members of an emerging generation of Russian-speaking Jews worldwide are connected to one another and feel a strong kinship with Israel, their strong identity is decidedly not reflected in affiliation with organized Jewish life.

Perhaps a million Jews remain in the former Soviet Union, but most are highly assimilated and it is estimated that our outreach efforts are only reaching 8 percent to 15 percent of them. The majority of the 1 million Russian-speaking Jews who are now making a tremendous impact in Israel remain disconnected from the Jewish communal milieu. More than 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews now live dispersed across 180 communities in Germany, where a generation without great knowledge or practice of Judaism has no Jewish community to seek.

And in North America, where Google, PayPal and VoiceOver IP would not exist if not for Russian-speaking Jews, synagogues and federations — the core institutions of Jewish communal life — barely register on the Russian-speaking Jew’s radar.

To be fair, some of the more visionary leaders do get it. In partnership with UJA-Federation of New York, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, which identifies young, talented and committed Jewish leaders from across the professional spectrum and trains them in contemporary Jewish leadership, has launched a cohort exclusively for Russian-speaking Jews. It is a great model. But unless it is scaled and replicated by federations across North America, the impact will be negligible. We need a cadre of Russian-speaking Jewish lay leaders in every major city.

The second issue is directly related to the first. Once these talented and motivated people are ready to lead, they will need to be continually engaged. There is a severe lack of first- and second-generation Russian-speaking professionals in the Jewish communal arena who, through shared history and personal experiences, can harness the energy of potential leaders and keep them involved. In North America, there are less than a few dozen trained Russian-speaking Jewish communal professionals to work with a population of 500,000. Building a platform to sustain the engagement of networked lay and professional leaders should be a top priority.

The third challenge is more deeply rooted in the psyches of many Russian-speaking Jews: the notion of “collective” response. Not surprisingly, the idea of centralized giving and planning does not sit very well with a population that associates collectivism with identity suppression, corruption and inefficiency. To many it is what they were all too happy to leave behind.

We need to explore models by which Russian-speaking Jews do not feel threatened but rather empowered to innovate, and where there is flexibility for them to direct their philanthropy in accordance with their own ideas as Jews.

At The Jewish Agency for Israel, we’ve found that the high-profile visibility of Israel’s struggle can be a powerful window of opportunity for mobilizing their support. A recent Brandeis University study of Birthright Israel applicants and alumni, focusing on those with at least one Russian-born parent, showed their emotional attachment to Israel and global Jewry to be much higher than that of their American peers, despite a weaker knowledge of Judaism. Given the positive backdrop with which to work, but cognizant of the dangers looming if these Jews are not brought into the broader communal framework, this is indeed the time to act.

But this is not just the work of The Jewish Agency. There is too much to do; the entire Jewish community must make up for lost time. Today, with the assimilation rates in the Jewish community in general reaching alarming levels, and given the high percentage of Russian-speaking Jews in the overall Jewish population, we must recognize that a strong Jewish future requires that they be a significant part of it.

(Misha Galperin is the president and CEO of international development at the Jewish Agency for Israel.)