When it comes to Jewish population studies, we are conditioned to expect reports of doom and gloom. Assimilation and intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews have been unstoppable facts of life in the American melting pot. Given its secular bent, the Russian-American Jewish community seems like an unlikely place to look for good news on the Jewish continuity front. But as I read through the latest New York Jewish population study, sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, the numbers seemed to just pop off the page.
According to the study, while the overall intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews continued to increase, Russian Jews living in the eight-county New York area experienced an unprecedented decrease in intermarriage, from 17 percent in 2002 to 13 percent in 2011. That is an almost 25 percent drop. At a time when there was no significant Jewish immigration from the Former Soviet Union, the total number of Russian-speaking Jews increased from 202,000 in 2002, to 216,000 in 2011.
As one of a small number of Russian-speaking Jewish communal professionals, I’m used to hearing all sorts of stereotypes regarding our community being unresponsive to Jewish educational efforts, apathetic, deeply secular and allergic to synagogues. Yet somehow, when it comes to Jewish continuity, a bright spot of sorts was achieved, and if there is one rule for creating real change, it is the importance of being able to identify and build on positive information.
Over the past six years, 3,000 unmarried Russian-American Jews in the New York area — roughly 10 percent of the entire target population of marriageable age — have participated in a unique transformational experience called the RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience) Fellowship program. The semester-long program consists of 10 sessions, four and a half hours each, two weekend retreats and a two-week educational trip to Europe and Israel.
Over the course of a single semester the students experience over 250 hours of highly impactful and transformative programming, a deeper level of engagement then any program of its type within the Jewish community. As a direct result, most have remained involved in Jewish communal life by actively participating in follow-up programming or finding alternate venues of engagement within the community. They are continuing their Jewish education in one form or another and getting involved in countless Jewish organizations.
A 25 percent drop in intermarriage within our target population is only the latest indication that something seems to be working right. In an American Jewish communal landscape, which is so used to segmenting itself by denominational lines and particulars of religious observance, a very different type of “peoplehood centric” Russian American Jewish community is emerging. It is a community that can be observed in the hundreds of Russian-American Jewish college students and young professionals marching in the Salute to Israel parade, a rare sight among the usual groups of day school children who are the mainstay of the parade. It is a community that united to ensure that Councilman Charles Barron, known for his highly critical comments about Israel, not be elected to Congress from Brooklyn. Numerous volunteers were galvanized to make phone calls and go door to door to encourage like-minded members of the community to vote for Barron’s opponent, Hakeem Jeffries, who won handily.
It is a community where those who observe Shabbat and those who do not, sit at the same Shabbat table and feel a connection to each other that goes far beyond religious particulars.
There are many problems faced by the Jewish people that do not have obvious solutions, and which no amount of resources can reasonably ensure a desired outcome. When it comes to Jewish continuity, at least for the estimated 750,000 Russian Jews in America, there are indications that intensive engagement, combining education and socialization, can be effective. This blueprint, if nurtured and embraced, can be scaled both in the New York area and nationwide, strengthening the Jewish people and leading to more positive reports in future communal studies.
Mordechai Tokarsky is co-founder and executive director of RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience), www.rajeusa.org.