Like 500 other young Jews from the former Soviet Union who marched in this year’s Celebrate Israel Parade in June, Boris Shulman wore bright orange. In addition to signifying support for Israel’s settler movement — which also uses orange — the color contrasted sharply with the 500 older Russian Jews who marched in the parade, wearing blue and white.
Color choices are not all that separate the younger and older generations of Russian-American Jews.
Unlike their parents and grandparents, who came to the United States as adults in the 1970s and ‘80s, these young Russian Jews — born or raised in America, fluent in English and now in their 20s and 30s — grew up in the same culture and country as their non-Russian Jewish American peers.
Now, they must figure out how to integrate into the American Jewish mainstream — and whether they even want to.
While Russian Jews of all ages express a desire to grow closer to the rest of America’s Jews — or at least admit that such blending is inevitable — a debate is now taking shape among younger Russians that is pulling them in two different directions, and that may result in less than full integration into the wider community. Several key issues are at play: a desire to influence the political debate in the wider community, as well as a desire to retain a unique identity as Russian Jews. And then there is the wild-card issue: the Russian community’s hard-line conservatism on Israel — which has put some Russian Jews at odds with the mainstream.
Michael Nemirovsky, director of Russian-speaking community outreach at the Jewish Community Relations Council, hopes that instead of combating the mainstream community, young Russians will teach non-Russian Jews about the Russian-Jewish experience and, through that, influence American Jewish support for Israel.
“The younger generation are not immigrants,” he said. “They have the behavior of American Jewish people. Our elderly people cannot deliver these ideas to the mainstream Jewish community.”
Young Russian Jews are working out how they would deliver those right-wing views to the mainstream. The Russian contingent’s showing in the Israel parade — a kind of mega-event for the New York Jewish community — signifies a desire to participate in the same events as the mainstream. But the group that sponsored the orange float, Russian American Jewish Experience (RAJE), has also been quick to look at Russian-Jewish Israel activism as a corrective for the failures of American Jewry — not exactly talk of integration.
“The American [Jewish] community could do more for Israel; people need to realize that now is the time to make our voice heard,” said Alen Gershkovich, 32, who sits on RAJE’s board. “It’s important, especially with what occurred in Europe, the Holocaust, to preserve Israeli security at all costs.”
Other activists with RAJE — a group based in the Russian hub of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which aims to engage Russian-speaking Jews ages 18 to 30 in Orthodox Jewish religious observance and conservative Israel advocacy — echoed these sentiments.
Mariana Leybengrub, who attends RAJE events, said, “American Jews feel more secure in their place in the country. They don’t fully understand the threat to Israel and Jews all over the world.”
Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, RAJE’s director, said that the group conducts Israel activism because of “the advent of J Street [the self-billed pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby] and groups that are apologetic regarding their support of Israel.”
RAJE has taken more than 2,000 young Russian Jews to Israel during the past three years. This year, one of its trips focused on Israel advocacy. That trip, according to Rabbi Tokarsky, was funded by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which is led by Avigdor Lieberman, head of the conservative Russian Yisrael Beiteinu party. Last year, RAJE founded the Rapid Reaction Force, which demonstrates against what the group perceives to be anti-Israel actions, including President Barack Obama’s recent speech, criticized by the Jewish right, which argued that talks between Israelis and Palestinians be based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed upon land swaps.
Aside from RAJE, Ezra, a Russian-oriented youth organization, has led 9,000 participants on Russian Jewish Birthright Israel trips. Larger groups like the American Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry (AFRSJ) have begun reaching out to the community’s youth, and non-Russian organizations like UJA-Federation of New York and Masa Israel Journey have hired young Russian Jewish liaisons.
The Russian Jewish community in America has long been more right wing than the rest of American Jewry. Polls leading up to the 2004 and 2008 elections conducted by the Research Institute for New Americans showed that the majority of Russian Jews in New York City planned to vote for the Republican presidential candidate — a departure from the larger Jewish community’s Democratic character. In the 2008 presidential election, for instance, Obama garnered 78 percent of the Jewish vote.
Igor Branovan, president of the American Forum of Russian Speaking Jewry, an umbrella group, is less concerned about how the Russian community is relating to the mainstream than about the Russians’ survival as a distinct group. He worries that too much mixing between Russian and non-Russian Jews could cause the Russian-Jewish community to disappear.
“Our goal is to integrate into the general Jewish community, but we don’t want to see our community disappear into the mainstream,” he said.
Mark Kozhin, a member of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Young Russian Leadership Division, hopes that the Russian community’s conservative activism could both assuage Branovan’s concerns and fulfill Nemirovsky’s hopes for greater integration. Like Nemirovsky, Kozhin wants to see the young Russian Jewish community influence Israel activism in the U.S. But like Branovan, Kozhin hopes the young Russian Jews do this while still identifying as Russian Jews.
“A lot of people haven’t recognized the Russian Jews as active, but they are becoming more of a voice,” he said. “For the most part, we’re recognized for our differences as well as for our similarities.”
Some think that this talk of integration has come too soon for a community that, aside from having experienced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, has a lack of Jewish background. Esther Lamm, who left Ukraine in 1987 and now heads UJA-Federation’s Young Russian Leadership Division, feels that while it remains a discrete community, the Russians’ emphasis should be on Jewish education, not Israel or communal integration.
“First they need to build up their own identity as Jews because of 70 years of no Jewish education,” she said. “Once that’s done, once people feel that they’re part of the community, the idea is to integrate.”
Leybengrub said that because the Russian Jewish community has had less Jewish education than the American community, it “has a very separate identity from the American Jewish community.” Jewish education, she said, will bring integration in its wake.
“You first have to bring the Russian American community to understand what it means to be Jewish,” she said. “They don’t know enough about the American Jewish community to integrate. Once somebody grows into understanding their Jewish identity, it’s almost automatic. You feel more united.”
Others, including Boris Shulman — who attended the parade with RAJE — mentioned the lack of Jewish education in the former Soviet Union as an important issue. But Yan Klatz, another RAJE activist, said that no matter what the Russian community prioritizes, disappearance into the mainstream Jewish community is inevitable.
“Over the long run it’s going to be hard to preserve a Russian Jewish community,” Klatz said. “How many generations down the line are we going to be called Russian? Everyone who grew up in America is called American. It’s going to be hard to differentiate.”