Luba Gendelman, Jewish activist in her native Ukraine and Hebrew-school teacher in Brooklyn, had a simple reason for joining a leadership training program offered by the American Jewish Committee two years ago.
“I didn’t know anything about the American Jewish community,” she says.
As part of the first Leadership Training Institute sponsored by the AJCommittee and the Council of Jewish Organizations-Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Gendelman took part in a two-month-long series of workshops on topics ranging from Jewish identity and history to fund raising and public relations.
Today, as an educator at the Shorefront Y’s Center for Jewish Learning, a project for emigres supported by a UJA-Federation continuity grant, she teaches more-recent newcomers about Judaism.
“I feel I know something more than they do,” she says. She gives credit to the training institute, whose third group graduated recently at AJCommittee headquarters in Manhattan, at a ceremony featuring Russian folk songs and Bukharan dancing.
“They showed us how to be part of the American Jewish community,” Gendelman says. “It gave me a real picture.”
Ninety immigrants from the former Soviet Union, ranging from college students to retirees, have received completion certificates from the institute’s 1997, 1998 and 1999 sessions. Another 60 have attended some sessions without graduating. Most already have taken their place in leadership positions, paid and volunteer, of a wide range of Jewish organizations in greater New York.
At the graduation ceremony, Peyrets Goldmacher, president of the Council of Jewish Organizations, said that after the intensive immigration of Russian Jews started in 1989 with the breakup of the USSR, “we achieved critical mass and it was time to do our best to become an active part of the American Jewish community.”
A retired engineer who emigrated from Moldova 21 years ago, he was a founder of the council, an umbrella group of 14 emigre organizations housed at UJA-Federation headquarters.
Goldmacher and a few fellow activists in the immigrant community designed the training institute because they believed that newcomers from the one-time Soviet republics, who grew up under communism, were unprepared to serve in American Jewish organizations — or in many cases to just lead Jewish lives. “We didn’t know enough,” he says.
The immigrants, who now comprise one-fifth of the Jewish community in New York City, represent a largely underused resource, especially with the growing assimilation of American-born Jews, Goldmacher says. Most Jewish organizations here, which advocated open emigration for Soviet Jews, were reluctant to accept the immigrants as potential leaders, he adds.
“We were neglected,” Goldmacher says.
He approached the AJCommittee in 1996, and the organization immediately agreed to sponsor the training institute.
“We have a very strong interest in immigration,” says Laura Lewis, assistant director of the AJCommittee’s New York chapter, which has assumed responsibility for the institute. She calls the immigrants “a terrible resource to let go to waste.”
AJCommittee pays the expenses, lines up guest speakers and coordinates such activities as a walking tour of the Lower East Side and a working visit to Washington.
“Everything in English,” Goldmacher says. Most of the topics covered in the training sessions are new to the participants.
“It’s basically a crash course in the American Jewish community,” the model for similar programs in Chicago and Atlanta, says Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the AJCommittee.
“This program would be interesting even for Americans,” Gendelman says, referring to American-born Jews. In addition to teaching at the Shorefront Y, she is active in her Sheepshead Bay synagogue and serves as an interpreter at community events.
The training institute “removed many barriers of not knowing [the American way],” says Ilia Rizhinushvili, a native of Soviet Georgia who was in its first group and now is president of an independent young leadership group for Soviet emigres.
A securities analyst who lives in Forest Hills, Queens, he says he has used the fund-raising skills he learned at the training sessions at several communal events.
Participants in the institute are recruited by council leaders. While most of the institute graduates have moved into leadership positions with immigrant organizations, “in two or three years you will see many more … involved in the mainstream community,” Bahat says. “We [the American Jewish community] benefit greatly from it. This is where the growth of the American Jewish community comes from.
“You see a tremendous passion. You see a tremendous enthusiasm — a fire in the belly to be part of the American Jewish community,” she says. “Every wave of immigration has added to the nature of the American Jewish community.”
UJA-Federation’s decade-old Russian Division has its own leadership training program, which concentrates on preparing immigrants to participate in the philanthropy’s fund-raising activities, says division director Lydia Vareljan.
In the last year the division has raised $1.4 million from 7,500 contributors, who had no history of communal giving in their homelands, says Vareljan, a native of Odessa.
“We feel like a family,” she says of the need for a separate division for immigrants. “They feel somehow different. They want to have their own identity.”