Saturday, 04 April 2009

Major Push To Engage Russians Carries Risks

In the most extensive communal push to date to engage Russian-speaking Jews in the U.S. — a notoriously difficult population to reach — five Moscow-based businessmen are pouring nearly $20 million into a Jewish education and identity-building effort.Admitting that the effort to bring Russian Jews into the fold has been spotty, and perhaps even culturally insensitive, Jewish leaders involved in the new plan now say that cultivating lay leadership will be a focus of the ambitious project.

The Genesis Philanthropy Group was founded by Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven, Stan Polovets, Alexander M. Knaster and German Khan. The GPG's funds will go to various Jewish educational institutions in North America, with the largest gifts to Brandeis University, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Wexner Foundation. The grants come at a counterintuitive moment for Jewish education, when major organizations from day schools to the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, which just closed due to finances, are fighting for survival. But GPG's focus on building Jewish identity in the Russian community is one seen as long overdue, as Russian-speaking Jews now account for more than 10 percent of the American Jewish population, and nearly 20 percent of the Jewish population in New York.
In the 1980s and early '90s, the plight of Russian Jews was at the tip of the communal tongue, but once their exodus from the former Soviet Union was well underway they got lost in the shuffle of other priorities. At the same time, many chose to insulate within their own, largely secular, communities, retaining a strong cultural identity that often didn't include many elements of the mainstream American Jewish community.

The last decade was the decade of movement, of people emigrating," said Len Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institution at Brandeis University. This is the decade of consolidating. There's an entirely new generation of Russian speakers who weren't necessarily born in the former Soviet Union or came from there when they were very young ... [and] we've not taken their contribution, understood them well. We've looked at them as people who need help rather than people who can contribute."
The repercussions of the grants are already being felt, prompting recipients to speculate broadly about what impact an influx of Russian-speaking Jews will have on their communities, and how their institutions can influence this generation of Russian Jews. Among the institutions receiving major grants from GPG are Brandeis University, which will get $10.8 million to fund undergraduate and graduate scholarships and programming, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which will use $4.8 million to send new cohorts of Russian-Jewish campers to camps across north America, and $2.7 to the Wexner Foundation that will go toward developing Russian Jewish leaders.
Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, said GPG wants to focus broadly on Jewish identity for Russian-speaking Jews, especially in the realm of cultivating lay leadership within the Russian community itself.

The Jewish community in North America had the best of intentions and motivations when [Russian Jews] arrived, but I don't believe those intentions manifested themselves in efforts that engaged the Russian speakers to the extent that they could," said Charendoff, whose network serves as GPG's American grantmaking staff.
Part of the mistake that was made was it was North Americans making decisions for the Russian population without always including them in that decision-making process, and some of the activities and offerings were culturally inappropriate."

Rabbi Jay Moses, director of the Wexner Heritage Program that trains lay leaders and will add two additional cohorts of Russian-speakers to its program next year with the help of the GPG grant, agreed that this group has been largely left out of the communal conversation since it was the cause celebre more than 20 years ago.
The American-born Jewish community did a great job of rescuing Russian Jews, getting roofs over their heads, but didn't do such a great job of the next step of that mission — to instill a sense of Jewish identity for them, help create meaningful Jewish experiences that would honor where they've come from and also help link them more deeply to their new homes here," said Rabbi Moses. These Russian-speaking Jews have grown up here or come of age here and in many ways are still formulating how the story will be written of their immigration and how it plays out over the next generations."

For Brandeis, which will use the grant money for scholarships as well as offering educational programs and lectures and strengthening the relationship between Russian-Jews and the larger Jewish, Brandeis and Boston communities, the grant represents a continuation of its thrust to enhance its global connection and couldn't come at a better time.
This has been a great boon and in a period when it's very difficult for kids and their families to find the money to go to a private school this has been a wonderful gift and a win-win," Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University, told The Jewish Week.Reinharz said there are some 150 Russian-speaking students already at Brandeis and that the grant will help them and the new students explore their identities through retreats and cultural events.

Daniel Terris, Brandeis' associate vice-president for global affairs, added that this will help continue to internationalize the curriculum and student body, joining initiatives in India and Africa as well as being a first opportunity to explore Russian-Jewish identity in depth on campus. The Foundation for Jewish Camp will launch a pilot program this summer at Camp Tel Yehudah in Barryville, N.Y., with 144 children; by the summer of 2013, GPG and the FJC hope some 2,000 kids will be enrolled in camps nationwide. We look at this grant as a bull's-eye in our mission as we continue to look at the entire Jewish population and say, 'how do we use this fabulous experience of camp as a portal of entry and continue the message that camp is a wide tent that welcomes everyone,'" said Jerry Silverman, FJC's CEO. Our hope is they build the fabulous type of communities that camps foster...we want that for every child, but especially children for whom this may not be part of what they were grounded in. This type of experience can really accelerate the curve."

Abby Knopp, director of community initiatives at FJC, saw the grant as an opportunity for the mainstream Jewish community to turn its attention to a population with high numbers and a lot of creativity and energy.This is still an immigration in flux, some in the community tend to be more insular, some much less so," said Knopp. A lot of Russian parents are still saying they don't want their kids to lose their uniqueness, language and culture."

Observers in the Russian Jewish community itself see the GPG and its new grants in a mostly positive light, though some worry about how exactly the American Jewish community will embrace its Russian counterparts.Sam Kliger, director of Russian affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said the integration process so far as gone slowly for Russian Jews, but that by and large, for the 1.5 and second generation," it has been successful.Now we are facing a new phenomenon. We see a new cohort of young Jews; many of them speak the Russian language, are interested in their roots, in what was then life in the Soviet Union, why their parents decided to immigrate ... and what their identities will be," said Kliger of the new generation. They want to have something cool, and in this case it's being a bissel Russian," he said. And for their American Jewish friends, too, it's cool to be a little bit Russian."But Igor Kotler, a former Wexner fellow, recalled a time during the early 1990s when the Los Angeles Jewish Federation made gift baskets to greet new Russian immigrants as they were getting off the plane; the baskets included siddurim, something most of them would never have encountered in the secular Soviet Union. He worries that the new efforts might mirror those earlier ones, not addressing the real needs of his community.

I'm afraid people who continue to be experts in this area will go ahead without consulting members of the community and teach things that are not applicable," he said.
Ultimately, though, most recipients of GPG's philanthropy feel excited about the new opportunity for Russian Jews to finally come into their own within American Judaism.
It's not just a question of how do we best serve Russian Jews, but that Russian Jewish culture has an enormous amount to offer American Jewish culture and we're poorer for not having it," said Charendoff. It's not simply melding on Russian-speaking Jews to current programs, it's a completely new look at what we mean by identity and peoplehood and Jewish behaviors, observances and attitudes. But frankly that's the most exciting piece of this — re-examining some of those issues is long overdue."