Ruben Shimonov likes smoked salmon as much as the next New York Jew, but he’s tired of the common understanding of Jewish identity stopping at bagels and lox.
Starting from his own identity as a Russian-speaking gay Bukharian Jew, Shimonov tries to incorporate the most marginalized pockets of the Jewish world into the community. That started with his work at Queens College Hillel, where he served as director of cross-community engagement and education, engaging with Persian and Bukharian Jewish students at the school who had not been represented at the Hillel before.
“It’s not just about bringing everybody on board,” said Shimonov. “But building these partnerships and doing things together and collaboratively — this is really the future of the Jewish world.”
Now as a student in a joint master’s program in public policy and Jewish studies at NYU, Shimonov is working to make cultural discovery more accessible to all kinds of Jews while creating community for those who have not felt comfortable in traditionally Ashkenazi Jewish spaces.
Shimonov recently led a series, backed by the American Sephardi Federation where he serves as vice president of education and community engagement for the Young Leaders division, on the Greater Sephardi Communities of the Former Soviet Union. He also leads a group for LGBTQ Jews of Sephardic and other Mizrahi backgrounds, the Sephardi-Mizrahi Q Network. The group has been running monthly Shabbat dinners for members who often find themselves alienated from traditional Sephardic and Mizrahi spaces as well as Jewish LGBTQ spaces, which tend to be dominated by Ashkenazi Jews.
“We were really asking ourselves: ‘Is there a space where we can really be our full selves, where all of these parts of our identities could be recognized?’” said Shimonov. “It has really given us a space to hold our full selves.”
Despite his full-time studies, Shimonov hopes to keep working to bring his communities — Bukharian, Mizrahi, Russian-speaking, and LGBTQ — together in Jewish community and to bring them together with other segments of the community.
“There’s a real gap, there’s a real need for this,” said Shimonov. “We’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg with what we’re doing.”
Artist: Shimonov does calligraphy in Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew.