Reaching Russian Speakers, Where They Are

Reaching Russian Speakers, Where They Are

They express their Jewish identity more through culture than religion.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Gennadiy Elikman came with his family to Chicago from Moldova, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, as a teenager in 1999. He was immediately enrolled at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school, knowing “nothing, zero” about Judaism, he says. But he has a vivid memory of being given a Torah to hold. “I didn’t know what it was but my hands began to shake — it was a powerful feeling.”

Now a physician in Chicago, he takes pride in his strong Jewish identity, having been involved in Hillel at DePaul University and currently helping to start a local Russian Kehillah (Jewish community).

Last weekend Elikman was in Parsippany, N.J., as one of more than 800 participants in the fifth annual American conference of LimmudFSU, a nonprofit group that offers a unique window into young Russian-speaking Jews. In part it reflects the volunteer-led, cross-denominational model of Limmud, the international organization that focuses on Jewish learning and celebration. And it emphasizes the heritage and interests of the Russian-speaking Jewish community — geared to those in their 20s and 30s.

Purists might describe this three-day conference as Limmud Lite, with little Jewish textual study or exploration of religion. But organizers and participants say LimmudFSU fits the needs and interests of young Russian-speakers who express their Jewish identity more through culture than religion and who have a strong interest in meeting and socializing with people like them, as they seek to navigate American society while maintaining their ethnic heritage.

Elikman, a first-timer at LimmudFSU, said he came because his friends told him about it and he loved the experience, especially meeting other singles and attending lectures on a variety of subjects. Among the more popular of the dozens of offerings: a session on Jewish matchmaking from the shtetl to the Internet; Lihi Lapid, a novelist and Israeli newspaper columnist (and wife of Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid) on finding her voice as a woman; cutting-edge entrepreneurs discussing their innovative style, featuring LimmudFSU chair Matthew Bronfman, real estate developer and community leader Edward Mermelstein, and business and communal leader Jerry Levin; and a debate between Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (author, most recently of “Kosher Lust”) and businessman-philanthropist Feliks Frenkel on whether there is a God. (The results were inconclusive but the hour was entertaining and drew about 400 people.)

On Shabbat afternoon I moderated a discussion on the status of the current Mideast peace process with two Knesset members and a former key aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Representing right, left and center, Herzl Makov (the former Shamir aide), Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) and Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid) agreed that the short-term prospects are bleak and called for anchoring any agreement with the Arab states, not just the Palestinians. Not surprisingly, the questions and comments from the audience, reflecting the right-of-center political views of many Russian-speaking Jews here and in Israel, were highly critical of the peace talks and expressed frustration with Israel’s perceived lack of resolve.

Aggressive Recruiting And Funding

The LimmudFSU approach is based on lessons learned from past failures in engaging Russian-speaking Jews in communal life here.

Early efforts to bring large numbers of Russian Jewish immigrants into the active Jewish community in the 1970s and ’80s, when the floodgates opened, met with limited success. Our timing was off. On their arrival, when we offered synagogues and Jewish schools, they wanted homes, jobs and a chance to learn English. A few years later, when they might have been ready for more Jewish content after growing up in the godless USSR, we’d given up on them.

A generation later, though, many young Russian-speaking professionals are responding to a variety of communal efforts to address their interests and needs.

Sarah Polyansky of Clark, N.J., and her friend Irina Kogan, from Brooklyn, both came to the LimmudFSU conference via RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience), a popular New York group that offers educational and social programs and trips to Israel to college students and young professionals.

Esther Lamm, the director of development for RAJE, estimated that up to 100 participants at the conference were recruited through her group. Others heard about LimmudFSU from COJECO (the Council of Jewish Émigré Organizations) in New York, campus Hillels, and word of mouth, much of it from satisfied former attendees.

Registration for the conference was $275, which included two nights in a hotel and kosher meals. But there were various discounts, and an estimated 60 percent of the participants received subsidies.

They came mostly from the New York area but there were groups from Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, and elsewhere. LimmudFSU was created in 2006 by an unlikely duo in their 60s who are still at the helm. Chaim Chesler, an Israeli who served as treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel, has a long history of leadership in the effort to free Soviet Jewry. Sandra (Sandy) Cahn, a New York philanthropist, serves on a variety of boards, including UJA-Federation of New York and the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Chesler is the sometimes brash Israeli and Cahn is the sophisticated New Yorker; together they are a formidable pair, raising funds for and extolling the virtues of LimmudFSU as an invaluable vehicle for sparking and sustaining Jewish identity among a large and Jewishly-vulnerable population here and around the world.

Some critics complain about Chesler and Cahn’s relentless promotion for their conferences and imply that they profit unduly from their efforts; others, though, credit the pair for their commitment and drive, and dismiss the complaints as motivated by jealousy over LimmudFSU’s success in attracting large numbers of funders as well as participants to annual conferences that have been held in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus as well as in Israel, the U.S. and Canada.

Mikhail Chlenov, a wealthy Russian businessman and Jewish leader, helped found the group, and Matthew Bronfman has been chair almost since the outset (and participated this year on crutches after a recent ski accident).

At this conference LimmudFSU announced a new dean and partner in Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who founded and heads the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which raises more than $100 million a year in donations from Christians for Israel and Jewish causes. Sources say Rabbi Eckstein’s group is now the chief supporter of LimmudFSU, which he attended for the first time.

Based on this most recent conference, the formula of creating a comfortable environment for social and professional networking as well as Jewish exploration seems to be working.

Misha Britan and Gregory Magashak, local partners in Qbix, a social mobility networking app they created for organizations, said they enjoyed the sessions on innovation, this year’s conference theme. And Boris Nekatlov, a law school graduate from the Bukharian community in Queens, said he appreciated the conference because one could be observant or not, and “there were so many [program] choices.”

Esther Lamm of RAJE said she loves the idea of LimmudFSU “bringing the community together.” Her father was a Refusenik in her native Lvov — she and her family came to the U.S. when she was 7 — and she remembers hearing of the famous Soviet Jewry March on Washington in December 1987, which drew 250,000 protestors.

“It touched me deeply,” she said, “and it’s important to remember that we are still one family, one nation.”

Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 "Between The Lines" columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as "the Jewish rabbi's son" in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details. 

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