Twenty-year-old York University student Daniel Goldshtein has finally found and become a part of a community that embodies his entire identity as an Israeli-born, Russian-Jewish Canadian.
“There’s no ‘get to know you’ phase, it’s like you’ve already known them,” says Goldshtein.
It’s a unique combination, but not quite as unique as he thought. The greater Toronto area has at least 50,000 Russian-speaking Jews, as estimated by United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation of Greater Toronto.
Jewski — the group Goldshtein was able to dive right into — started as a Hillel Ontario initiative focused on engaging this distinct subset of college students. Its director, Anna Kissin, says the Jewish community in Toronto noticed the need for niche programming for Russian-speaking Jews in the area because they have not historically connected.
Kissin says the effort has been going strong for about seven years, and she agrees that using identity as a way to engage university students is the perfect opportunity, and “[gives] them a reason to see value with being involved in the broader community.”
The group is unique not only for speaking Russian — Kissin acknowledges that most current Jewski students were also born in Israel.
Goldshtein says his parents emigrated from Moscow to Israel in 1991, but moved once more, to Ontario, Canada in 1999. Canada is the home he knows best, since he was only three when they settled in Toronto, but he said he always knew his perspective was different from most of his classmates’.
“Trying to invite someone over to your house, and trying to explain all of the customs and things like that, they might find it a bit weird,” says Goldshtein. “Whereas with the Russian Jews, it’s all customary; it’s second nature to them.”
When Goldshtein arrived at York, he heard about Jewski and attended some events, but it wasn’t until his second year that he participated in J-LEAD, a Jewish leadership training course specifically for Russian-speaking Jewish university students. He said he was shocked to learn about the huge number of Russian-speaking Jews in his region, and became hooked on leadership and community. He’s now an intern for Jewski, helping plan programs for his classmates and encouraging other Russian-speaking Jewish students to get involved.
Many of these students did grow up together in the Thornhill area of Toronto, but Kissin says that prior to recent years, there was not identity-based programming specifically geared towards community-building.
She herself had been a student at York when Jewski began.
Born in Moscow, Kissin and her family moved to Israel when she was only two. Her parents decided to head to Canada in 1999 when she was eight. As a member of the pilot trip of the Russian Canadian Adventure Taglit birthright trip, Kissin felt “déjà vu” stepping foot back on Israeli soil, as she had not returned to her former home since her family emigrated to Canada years before.
The trip, designed specifically for Russian-speaking Jews from Canada to connect with Jewish young people from Moscow or St. Petersburg, got its start six years ago. It also seeks to link participants with Russian-speaking Israeli soldiers.
The group shared a bus as they toured Israel, and Kissin describes a connection she’d never imagined before. She realized if her parents had stayed in Moscow, she could have been one of the Russian participants; if they had stayed in Israel, she would have been one the soldiers on the tour.
Once you kind of feel that, and you understand the bigger picture, it’s easy to want to belong,” says Kissin.
She sees Jewski as the avenue for Russian-speaking Jewish university students to get that sense of belonging and community, “where it’s safe to be yourself and safe to express the challenges and your proudest moments.”
Kissin embraced the passion she found within the community and has been working as the director of York University’s Hillel for four years.
Students become the bridge to Judaism for their parents
Most parents of students involved with Jewski moved to Israel once the Soviet Union collapsed, but, Kissin explains, “For some families, Israel was never the end destination. It was just the option at the time when they knew they had to get out of the Soviet Union when it was falling apart.”
She says people moved to Canada for various reasons, but often they wanted to leave the conflict in the Middle East and find a safe place to raise their children.
Jewski intern Merilin Kernitzman’s parents moved her family to Toronto in 2006, when she was 10. Kernitzman describes their connection to Judaism as many others’ in the Russian-speaking Jewish community of the greater Toronto area.
“Because I guess we have the Russian background, they’re never too involved in the Jewish side. It was more like, they’re a lot more Russian than Jewish when it came to raising me and my brother,” says Kernitzman.
Kissin says this is common since their parents’ generation had not been allowed to practice religion in the Soviet Union, so they were very secular. Even living in Israel, she says many found it difficult to understand enough to participate in Jewish life with their children. Now, she says, many are learning through their children.
“Last week we did our [Jewski] challah bake [event],” says Kernitzman, “and then that Friday night [our family] had Shabbat dinner all together.”
She said her parents see how excited she gets about Jewish programming and they are happy she is involved.
Kissin also describes a Jewski event she attended while she was in university, making challah on a Thursday night. She made one loaf to bring home to her family, and took an extra ball of dough that had not yet been baked. Kissin says that her family rarely had Shabbat dinners, so when she arrived home with the dough from the Jewski event and her mom suggested they make a challah with it, it was the first time she and her mother ever made challah together — now a cherished memory.
Leading, learning and connecting with community
It was through an advertisement in the newspaper that Kernitzman’s grandfather suggested she go to a summer camp specifically for Russian-speaking Jewish children in the Toronto area called J-Academy. The project is run by J-Project, the overarching Russian-speaking Jewish programming initiative. Kernitzman went first as a camper and then became a staffer at the camp, strongly connecting with other kids like her.
“I find it’s easiest to connect with people that have the same background as me,” says Kernitzman.
She says most of her best friends are in the Russian-speaking Jewish community, and she even met her boyfriend of two years at a Jewski-sponsored Shabbat dinner.
Kernitzman’s introduction to Jewski was from Kissin, who had been one of her counselors at J-Academy. When Kernitzman arrived at York University, Kissin invited her to lunch on campus. Through casual meetings like this, “coffee dates” as they call them, Kernitzman, Goldshtein and other interns reach out to prospective Jewski members at various universities in the region.
Some students find out about Jewski from already being part of the Toronto Russian Jewish community. Much of the association comes from word of mouth, but even some students like Goldshtein who grew up in a largely Russian-Jewish neighborhood of Thornhill had not been involved in any sort of community before university.
Active Jewski members might realize a classmate is Jewish and speaks Russian, and then invite them to the next event, or tell one of the Jewski interns to take them out for coffee.
“I’ve learned to be a very good Facebook creeper,” says Kernitzman.
The fourth-year business student says she literally looks on the social networking site for students who may look Jewish, sees who they are friends with or if they have any posts or comments with Russian-themed responses. She’ll message them directly, offering to meet for a coffee date.
“[Coffee dates] get them that personal connection, so that when you tell them about different [Jewski] events that are happening you can say, ‘Well, I’ll be there. You know me. Come, and I’ll introduce you to other people,’” says Kernitzman of her tactic to encourage attendance.
She says once students come to their first event, they’re often hooked.
The networking process, social media management and marketing exposure adds to Kernitzman’s portfolio as she prepares to graduate with a finance and marketing degree. As the student coordinator, she helps six other Jewski interns as they plan engaging programming and connect with other students at different universities around Toronto, like Ryerson University, University of Toronto, and recently, in London Ontario, at the University of Western Ontario.
Kissin says the intern program started just a few years ago, but it has increased Jewski participation tremendously. The stipend-fueled interns gain invaluable personal experience in planning and leadership.
One Jewski member offered her passion for film and photography in documenting events for Jewski communications. Others have planned programs based on personal interest, like hiking, or organizing a Jewski recipe book, which will feature Russian-Jewish foods. Kissin says she and other staff mainly serve as mentors, guiding the students’ ideas.
Through her internships and experience leading Jewski, Kernitzman is learning that the broader Jewish community is one full of opportunities after she graduates. She says she’s met experienced professionals through fundraising events in Toronto.
“The Jewish community is huge. There’s so much potential and so much room to grow,” Kernitzman says.
Most programming is completely subsidized by donors, Toronto’s UJA Federation’s Emerging Communities Committee and Genesis Philanthropy Group, says Kissin. They don’t want cost to be a barrier for students to participate and get active in the community.
From a personal training class to trendy “paint nights” — where Jewski released its member-drawn coloring book — students bake challah and enjoy Shabbat dinners together.
The girls of the group celebrate International Women’s Day with a “Russian bath night,” first discussing female empowerment from the Jewish perspective and then mixing in the Russian steam room tradition. Even the “swag” the interns show off to their friends comes from donations. Goldshtein says the Jewski-branded smart-touch hand gloves are his favorite.
Jewski has become a well-respected brand within the Russian-speaking Jewish community around Toronto, and members are excited to see it grow.
Kissin says she knows there are small Russian-Jewish focused groups on campuses like Baruch College and Brooklyn College in New York, but nothing to the extent that Jewski has become. They share a love for borscht and wearing traditionally Russian slippers in their homes, but Goldshtein and Kernitzman say being a part of fostering the community that they feel so much a part of is both motivating and rewarding.
“When you organize your own event — there’s so much hard work and time and effort to putting it together,” says Kernitzman. “And then you see the real result and people enjoying it and having fun and posting pictures after, you feel so warm and fuzzy. It’s a great feeling.”