I’m a Russian Jew. I was born and raised in New York City. I am proud to be an American. But somehow, I am still a Russian Jew.
My family hasn’t been back to the former Soviet Union since they left in search of a better Jewish life, some 40 years ago. I’d never been there at all, until this summer.
Having just completed my undergraduate fellowship at the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, sponsored by the Genesis Philanthropy Group, I, along with the other recently graduated fellows, was given the opportunity to travel to Ukraine, where I expected to find only the desolate remnants of a Jewish world long gone. Instead, I was stunned to witness firsthand the remarkable new wave of Jewish life that is flourishing in the former Soviet Union today. And along with that, the Jewish history—at once glorious and atrocious— that took place there.
We saw Jewish libraries, archives and museums in Kiev and Odessa. The home of Sholom Aleichem. Jewish schools and community centers in Belaya Tserkov and Odessa. The Tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, which attracts some 30,000 Bratslav chasidic pilgrims to the town of Uman every Rosh Hashanah. We met with young, passionate, Jewish community leaders who live Jewish lives so very different from ours. But as I am now writing from my home in the U.S., there are two experiences that, when viewed in light of each other, leave the deepest impression on me. I was particularly moved by the connection I found between the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Odessa, and an honor ceremony we attended at Babi Yar.
At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the director gave us a tour and shared with us some statistics and stories about anti-Semitism in Odessa and the greater Ukraine. I asked him why he and other Jews stay in Ukraine if life could be better abroad. He responded proudly, saying that he is a master in his own city, and that the Ukrainian Jewish community— unlike other Jewish communities that experienced anti-Semitism— survives. He was defensive with me. But that’s pride.
I felt this same confirmation of that pride when I witnessed the first ever IDF wreath-laying ceremony at Babi Yar, where some of the most horrendous massacres were carried out against Jews and others by the Nazis and Ukrainians during WWII. There aren’t many people who can say they’ve seen an Israeli flag raised over a symbol of 20th century anti-Semitism. But I can. And so can the 20 or so IDF officers—from all divisions and ranks—who participated in the honor ceremony.
By sharing this pride, Jewish communities may bond over a mutual heritage that surpasses geographic, and socioeconomic differences.
If the next generation of Jews won’t learn about the past, then an entire chapter in Jewish history will disappear, and the sacrifices made in the name of Jewish perseverance would have been for nothing.
I consider myself a Russian Jew because I come from a very specific narrative within the history of the Jewish people. I was born in a free world because my parents fought to raise me here. I have a heritage that I must struggle to remember, keep, and pass on so that the sacrifices of earlier generations won’t be lost. It is the responsibility of the Jewish community—and even more so, the Russian Jewish community— to learn and understand our history in order to know where we come from, and thereby have a better sense of where we should being going. Thanks to the effort and engagement of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, UJA Federation of New York and other generous funders, there are institutions and programs to support our awareness and growth, if we are willing to acknowledge them.
After all, no matter what education we receive, what paths we choose, and what we ultimately do with our lives, we will be identified as Russian Jews, whether we agree or disagree, like it or not. And it will be our choice, as individuals, to know or not to know about the history of Russian Jewry and the condition of Russian Jews in the world today. It will be our chance to celebrate where we come from and what we share. And it will be our opportunity to be proud.
The author received his B.A. from Brandeis University this past spring. He has accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to Sweden for the upcoming academic year.