Russian-speaking Jewry, truly a phoenix rising from its ashes

An evening meeting in the Russian-speaking Jewish community

In the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Soviet Union finally allowed Jews within its borders to leave in mass, the vast majority of those immigrating were doing so for economic reasons. Sure, there was institutional antisemitism, and prohibitions on religious practices in the country they were leaving behind, however most immigrants were motivated by the material comforts and economic opportunities that they believed would be attainable in the United States, not the freedom to celebrate Shabbat. During the 70 years of its existence the Soviet Union did a good enough job of suppressing religion that most Jews who were born after the 1920s had no connection to Jewish culture and practices beyond the limited social mobility that the stamp, Jew, in their Soviet passport imposed on them.

As Russian-speaking Jews (RSJs) were starting their new lives in the land of prosperity and economic possibilities, few chose to take advantage of the religious freedom offered to them. RSJs gladly accepted aid in the form of scholarships and career training from organizations such as HIAS, UJA, AJC, and others, and the orthodox community did convince some families to send their kids to yeshivas, mainly by offering full scholarships and scary portrayals of public schools. However, beyond one or two shuls attended by senior citizens and a few small schools subsidized by the American orthodox community, throughout the 1980s to early 2000s there were very few institutions that could be described as part of the Russian-speaking Jewish community. During this period Russian-speaking Jews were much more interested in discussing the purchase of their first property, landing a good job, and college education for their kids; not listening to some old rabbi drone on about the weekly parsha. Parsha, who needed it, we still had Pushkin!

Then something happened in the early 2000s. The RSJs that came to the U.S when they were just kids were graduating college. Like most children of immigrants, they were focused on high-paying careers and fulfilling their parents’ dream of proving that they can succeeded in the New World. However, unlike their parents, these graduates had a higher sense of Jewish identity. Somewhere during their educational journey, they had come across a Hillel, or Chabad on Campus, or a similar organization with its lure of free pizza and soda, and just a seedling of Jewish learning. Perhaps it was a hip nonjudgmental rabbi who could talk Judaism on an intellectual level over a game of beer pong. Whatever it was, the seed had been planted during the college years.

The result has been quite astonishing to witness. In the past few years, these RSJs who came here as kids not having any idea of what being Jewish meant are building a real community. In South Brooklyn, where the majority of RSJs still live, there are a number of shuls that during Shabbat services are filled with young Russian-speaking families. Many of their kids, who are already American-born, attend Jewish day schools and Sunday schools where the majority of attendees are Russian-speaking themselves. More impressive is that this community is starting and funding their own communal organizations. Organizations such as the Jewish Parent Academy, iMishpacha, COJECO, and others are started, and majority funded by the Russian-speaking community. Russian-speaking Jews have also started their own official Zionist organization backed by Israeli political parties that are seeking greater representation for Russian-speaking Jews in the World Zionist Organization, WZO. It has been remarkable to witness the evolution of communal life in the RSJ community during the past 15 years!

About the Author
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.