Russia is one of those uncanny places that historians, writers, and intellectuals have a hard time describing. Not quite Europe, not quite Asia, often times both opulent and impoverished at the same instance, Russians have been known to surprise the world time and time again. Not only do they get up from knockdowns that would level anyone else, we score the winning blows in the process. Think of backward Russia’s leap in scientific accomplishments, the WW2 counter-offensive from the outskirts of Moscow to Berlin, the first space satellite, and first man in space. One might say there is something Jewish in the character of the people.
Speaking of Russian Jews, much has been written and discussed about Russian Jews in the United States. We’ve been an odd bunch ever since the last big immigration wave of the 80s and 90s, and various Jewish groups having been trying to court us before we even stepped off the planes and touched American soil. The Hasidim of Brooklyn had a very direct plan. Circumcisions for males of all ages before they had a chance to unpack their suitcases. Hesitant boys were bribed with ice-cream and video games, the older males with jobs and social mobility. Parents, who were facings all the anxieties associated with immigration were encouraged, to put it mildly, to enroll their kids in Orthodox yeshivas and to not even consider public schooling. The later they were told, would lead to tragedies. The approach had the opposite of the desired effect. Many of the kids and parents were traumatize by this overbearing and often judgmental welcome and in subsequent years would brush off any mention of Jewish communal involvement. We are talking about a period before Chabad got their act together in the Russian community and refined their approach to the community outreach and programming superstars they are today.
The federations and national organizations had a different plan for the RSJs. First, hand out freebies such as college scholarships, career training, and grants. These were gladly excepted by the Russian Jews. The second step was to create bonds between Russian Jews and established members of American Jewish communities through various social interactions. Here the outreach hit a snag. Firstly, many Russian Jews felt, perhaps justifiably, that American Jews were looking down on them. Russian Jews were economically poor especially compared to established Jewish communities, and often this created a poor relative visiting rich relatives dynamic. American Jews also hoped that their Russian brothers and sisters would see American politics and society like they did, through liberal and democratic party ideas. But this was not to be. Russian Jews of the 80s and 90s, much like they do today, lean right of center on most political issues. The left-leaning lecturing emanating from leaders of large Jewish organizations were a significant barrier for RSJ involvement.
As the 21st century approaches the rollover to the third decade, many Jewish organizations are once again looking towards the Russian Jewish community. The RSJs, into which the American Jewish community has invested so many resources to bring here and to get on its feet is economically looking much like the rest of the Jewish community. Many in philanthropic circles are asking the question: when will they start giving back in significant numbers? The answer is, “now,” but if approached with the right strategy.
In the past few months I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from four leaders in the Jewish community that see Russian-speaking Jews as the next big hope. They mention RSJ’s strong support for Israel, clarity on antisemitic issues, and growing involvement in grassroots communal organizations as signs that the Russian speaking Jews are ascending. RSJs are one of the fasting growing groups on Wall Street, and technology sector, and this is not even counting the money that is seeping into Jewish causes from Russian oligarchs living in Europe and Israel.
But lessons from the past must be learned. First, Russian Jews don’t want to be lectured. We might not have had the same Jewish education as many of our native-born friends who went to Jewish schools and camps, but we have our own education, having lived through communism and perestroika, not to mention being forced to memorize classical Russian literature that many of us can quote faster than yeshiva students can recite Talmud. “American math,” as any senior citizen living on Brighton Beach will tell you with a smile “is a joke.”
Second, leave politics out if it. It’s perfectly fine to feed the hungry, help the poor, and heal the sick without attaching a political call of action to the endeavor.
I foresee great things for the RSJs in the next decade. Someone from the community recently said that 20% of NYCs Jewish are Russian-speaking. Which means that the goal should be to have 20% of Jewish nonprofit boards be comprised of Russian-speaking Jews. I think it will happen. Just leave politics out of it!
Gennady Favel is a co-founder of the Jewish Parent Academy, an organization engaged in community building through education for Russian-speaking parents. He also helps Jewish organizations create more meaningful engagement with their target audience.