What is a Russian Jewish community exactly?

RSJ community marches with JPA in the Israel Day Parade
RSJ community marches with JPA in the Israel Day Parade

When you sit with your friends around the dinner table, at a shul, or other social gathering the topic of community will likely be discussed at some point in the conversation. If you work in a Jewish non-profit or have ever written a grant proposal to one, then the word “community” should probably have its own shortcut on your keyboard, perhaps Ctrl+$. We love building communities, helping communities, and supporting communities. But in order to do that we need to grasp what it is that we are building.

In recent past Jewish communities were easy to identify. The shtetls of Eastern Europe, perhaps the quintessential example of a Jewish community were mostly self-sufficient Jewish towns adhering to Orthodox Judaism. Inhabitants had homogeneous beliefs, and influence from the outside world was viewed with suspicion. There was a communal hierarchy, and religious institutions managed it. Community in this setting was all encompassing and easy to define.

Another example of a Jewish community is the kibbutz – collective Israeli settlements that attempted to to function as independent self-sufficient units. Kitbbutizim varied in structure and beliefs with a diverse array of religious practices and political leanings. However as individual communities they were defined, both in their physical boundaries and general beliefs.

The orthodox and hasidic communities of today to some degree still function on shtetl principles. Members of a community live within physical boundaries usually defined by the walking distance to a synagogue. There are community organizations that handle most everyday social needs such as schools, care for the elderly, career development, and even security and ambulances. There is also an identifiable hierarchy with rabbis playing leading roles.

Other communities are harder to put into neat boundaries. The Russian-speaking Jewish (RSJ) community is much harder to define, yet it is often viewed as its own category, especially in a place like NYC where we number around 250,000. RSJs can be black hat wearing Hasidim. They can be non-observant and lack basic understanding or interest in Jewish history and traditions, and they can be everything in between the two extremes. Yet, there is something that makes RSJs unique.

Perhaps it is similar to what Carl Jung called the Collective Unconscious – the shared ancestral memories of all people, only in our case limited in scope to a particular group. Over four generations ago most of our ancestors lived in the shtetls. Three generations ago our ancestors were either perishing in the Holocaust, running from it, or fighting in the Red Army, and our last 1.5 generation is made up of immigrants who left a land where for generations they were never really welcomed, in hopes of a brighter future for their kids.

These are very strong experiences that inevitably had an effect on the RSJs currently building their lives in America. They effect our language, unconscious behavior, beliefs, likes and dislikes, how we raise our kids, and our views on the world around us. This doesn’t mean we all live in the same neighborhood or believe the same things politically, spiritually, or socioeconomically. But it does mean that we should be responsible for each other the way our ancestors were all those generations ago, because that ultimately IS a community.

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.
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