A group of two dozen Russian-speaking North American Jews find themselves engulfed in blistering cold at the Great Wall of China. One takes an Israeli flag from his pack to pose for a photo. Before they get a chance to activate their VPNs for a quick Instagram, some Chinese tourists notice the commotion and reach for their cameras. A flurry of flash goes off. Next, a standoff between both groups, with lenses pointed at one another in a comical display of tourists gone rogue.
“Are we the spectators here, or the spectated?” laugh the tourists in their respective languages.
This would be a great set-up for a joke, or anekdot, as we say in Russian. The kicker is that this scene, or some version of it, is real.
It took place a few short months ago and was one in a series of whimsical moments that transpired over the course of 2015, as part of JDC Entwine’s inaugural Russian-speaking Jewish engagement program. (Entwine is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s young Jewish adult engagement platform.) Thanks to a remarkable bit of good fortune, and life’s fine sense of humor, I was present for all of those moments.
The best part? My job is to make them happen.
The idea for the program, made possible through a partnership with Genesis Philanthropy Group, is novel. What happens when you take a group of first and second-generation Russian-speaking Jews — representing a multitude of countries, immigration waves, religious affiliations, socioeconomic backgrounds, and education levels — put them on a plane and send them thousands of miles away from anything remotely resembling home?
At the launch of this program, that’s what I sought to find out. And now, a year later, I’m still discovering the possibilities.
The “RSJ” in my job title, RSJ Project Coordinator, stands for “Russian-speaking Jewish” — a catch-all phrase applied to members of the (former) Soviet Jewish diaspora. But the term encapsulates so much more than just language facility. RSJ is a demographic as much as it is a state of mind. It refers to immigrants new and old, Soviet and post-Soviet, religious and secular, as well as the children of the aforementioned — the newly assimilated first-gens whose Russian fluency is often rusty at best.
Sociologists would probably lump me into this latter category. I’m a second-generation American: My parents emigrated from the Soviet Union in the late seventies as teens and met in New York as adults. But the part that throws people off is that I’m way more “in touch” with the Russian-speaking side of my identity than one might expect from someone American-born. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey that had barely any Jews to speak of, never mind Russian-speaking ones. I was one of two RSJs in my entire school, had never set foot in my parents’ birth countries, and until we moved to Brooklyn when I was 14, had no semblance of a Russian community outside of my immediate family.
But still, I was a weird kid. Maybe it was because my parents reared me on vintage Soviet cartoons. Or because my childhood nannies were from various former Soviet bloc countries. Or that my weekends were spent at my grandparents’ home on Brighton Beach. Whatever the reason, it was pretty obvious — I was a Russian kid. Or some peculiar version of a Russian kid, born and bred in the States with a vague, displaced nostalgia for an empire that collapsed before I could walk.
By the time I got to college, my love for the culture was more ardent than ever. I attended Russian club meetings religiously, took Russian language and literature courses, had a tight-knit circle of quirky Russian-speaking friends and somehow became actively involved in the Russian music festival circuit. But something from this experience was glaringly absent.
I’d still never been to Russia or any former Soviet state where the language was dominant.
Enter JDC. One fateful afternoon, a meandering Google search directed me to Entwine’s website, where I found an assortment of travel opportunities for Jewish young professionals. I wasn’t keen on signing up for a Jewish trip, as a semester abroad in Tel Aviv had gotten that out of my system. But one trip in particular caught my attention: a week in St. Petersburg, at the tail end of the White Nights. Suffice it to say, I didn’t take much convincing. Two months later, I was on a plane headed for Russia.
The experience was in many ways transformative. Discovering St. Petersburg and witnessing the revival of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union wiped away my cynicism and rekindled my interest in Jewish subjects. Fast-forward seven months, when I was offered a job at JDC, spearheading Entwine’s new RSJ program and helping to build a cadre of first-and-second-generation Jewish leaders. This past year has had its successes and challenges, as any pilot program might — but the most rewarding part of it all has been watching my peers embrace and redefine their RSJ identity in a global context, month after month, trip after trip.
Rather than rehash RSJ narratives in the former Soviet Union, our overseas experiences had a different goal from the outset: to foster a sense of “Jewish peoplehood” by building bridges between foreign cultures. On our recent RSJ trip to China, participants connected with local Jewish expats and paid a moving visit to the Jewish Refugee Museum in Shanghai. Eyes lit up as we made our way through the museum space, poring over the Russian-language relics on display. Local accounts of life under Communism resonated on a visceral level, echoing themes from stories of our own parents and grandparents. Somehow, discovering this little-known chapter of our collective history brought many of my RSJ peers closer to their identity than ever before.
The thing about the RSJ community that some people struggle to understand is that, while many, if not most, of us are unaffiliated secular Jews, we identify Jewishly down to our very core. What I’ve learned through these trips is that beyond connecting on a Jewish level, even the most assimilated RSJs rejoice in the unspoken “Russianisms” that make up our cultural tapestry. When together on a bus, something magical happens. Old song lyrics are recalled. Old Russian jokes are retold. There is a remarkable familiarity that manifests between perfect strangers within minutes of meeting one another — and then, of course, there’s the trip itself.
I have witnessed participants bond over Soviet films and engage in heated political discourse within the course of a single Shabbat dinner. I have seen staunch atheists debate the meaning of talmudic texts. But perhaps most striking is what happens when these young leaders are exposed to harsh realities facing Jewish communities abroad. It’s one thing to simply pay a visit to a poor, elderly Jewish woman receiving social services in Argentina. To have concern for her well being as one would have for one’s own grandmother, herself a recipient of such aid — seeing that humbled me, and reminded me of the difference between sympathy and empathy.
There’s a resounding sentiment in North American Jewish circles that RSJs are less communally engaged than they perhaps should be. Unlike their Western counterparts, Jews from the former Soviet Union did not grow up with institutionalized tenets of personal giving, and volunteer service was compulsory in the USSR — a fact older RSJs recall without much fondness. Old-world stereotypes aside, my experience with young RSJs has been anything but cynical. These individuals return home galvanized to act. Leadership opportunities that first coalesce abroad continue post-trip in the form of trainings, planning group meetings, awareness-raising events, and countless avenues of Jewish engagement. The response has been nothing short of overwhelming, and involvement grows with every passing season.
At the start of this year, my colleagues and I had an enormous challenge before us: to build a cadre of young RSJ leaders and equip them with tools to continue JDC’s legacy of caring for one’s fellow Jews around the globe. Through this initiative, I feel that a powerful narrative has come full-circle; the population that once sought aid to escape the bounds of the Iron Curtain has given rise to a formidable generation of activists and innovators.
Our task at hand is to now cultivate this generation’s potential and provide a platform to lead. And who will be the next Sergey Brin, Google co-founder, or the next David Bezmozgis, award-winning émigré novelist? Time will tell, and I’ll be there when it comes time to cheer them on.
Samantha Shokin is Coordinator for JDC Entwine’s Russian Speaking Jewish Engagement Program.