Young people of Russian background, coming from secular homes and with little or no formal Jewish education, are considered among the most unaffiliated and at-risk of American Jews in terms of Jewish identity. But a comprehensive new study of that cohort finds that a Brooklyn-based program founded in 2006 to address the problem has produced some striking results.
According to the report, made public here for the first time, graduates of the RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience) fellowship program are far more likely than their peers to study and practice Judaism, give to Jewish charities, volunteer for a Jewish organization and marry a Jewish spouse.
The program offers free, two-week trips to Israel and Europe for 18-to-30-year-olds who have completed a semester of RAJE classes (250 hours in all) on a wide range of courses on Jewish history, culture and traditions.
Of the 35 percent of RAJE alumni who married after completing the program, “94 percent married a Jewish spouse, and of them, 52 percent report having met their spouse at the RAJE program,” according to the study conducted by the Research Institute for New Americans, led by Sam Kliger, director of Russian Jewish Community Affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
Those figures indicate an intermarriage rate of just 6 percent — compared to 17 percent among Russian Jews in New York generally and far below the 28 percent found among Birthright alumni overall. (The national intermarriage rate among American Jews is 58 percent, and 71 percent among the non-Orthodox, according to the Pew Research Center’s Study of Jewish Identity in 2013.)
Among the other dramatic statistics regarding the activities of the respondents: in the last year 78 percent have given to charity, and of that group, 82 percent donated to Jewish organizations; 73 percent participated in Jewish organizational activities; 74 percent attended Shabbat dinner; and 38 percent reported that they took part in “a meeting, demonstration or other action in support of Israel.”
The study was conducted among 300 respondents who were selected randomly from a group of 2,240 RAJE alumni who graduated from the program between 2006 and 2011.
Among the several RAJE alumni I spoke with there was a consistent pattern of involvement: They came from unaffiliated families, had minimal Jewish education but were attracted to RAJE through friends or social media and became interested in learning more about their Jewish heritage and history.
Leona Krasner, a 27-year-old attorney, “just showed up” one day at a RAJE class and liked that it “showed ways to apply Judaism to your life. I learned about the culture and got immersed in it.” She found the teachers, mostly Orthodox with Russian backgrounds, “very accepting,” and guest speakers helpful in talking about their own success and offering advice on “how to improve your life.”
She has become more involved religiously, and though “not Orthodox by any means” and feeling no pressure, she has embraced Shabbat and Jewish holidays. “I see those times now as an opportunity for friends and family to put aside their work and truly enjoy each other.”
Krasner said it is very important to her that she marry someone Jewish and is grateful to RAJE for “creating an excitement” about Jewish life and learning. She went on Birthright after completing the RAJE fellowship and is involved in several Jewish programs and organizations, including UJA-Federation of New York, where she is part of a program of Jews and Muslims who have come together to prepare food for the homeless.
Dmitry, who is 30 and owns an insurance and risk management company here, says RAJE has been “a spark” for his Jewish identity. Active in the program for the last seven years, he said he came back from a Birthright trip feeling “more connected, and I wanted to know more about who I am, what I am coming from and what I am a part of. Most Russian Jews don’t have that.”
He was interested in the classes RAJE offered, which include sessions on spirituality, holidays and customs. “But I probably would not have gone if not for my friends and the [offer of the] trip to Israel.”
Married to a RAJE fellowship classmate, Dmitry (he asked not to identified by his last name) was born in Kiev and came to the U.S. at the age of 6 with his parents. They identified Jewishly and with Israel, he said, but he had no religious training. “My generation is a unique breed,” he explained. “We are proud to be Jewish but know very little about it. It was beaten out of us [in the USSR], but it’s a positive connection, even if we lack the knowledge and background.”
When he first went to RAJE classes Dmitry said he’d heard that the teachers “try to make you more religious,” but he found the environment open, friendly and non-coercive. Over time he has increased his level of observance — “still not 100 percent but I have been keeping Shabbat gradually.” He was initially drawn in by the offer of the trip to Israel but “the more you learn, the more you understand, and my Jewish connection has widened,” he said.
Another graduate who met her spouse through RAJE, Lana Yutskaya, a 28-year-old social worker, said a Birthright trip in 2008 motivated her to learn more about Judaism, with a special interest in spirituality, having grown up with no formal Jewish education.
She says she didn’t see herself “as a religious person, but as I learned the meaning [of Jewish mitzvot and rituals], I became more interested.” She has grown in observance and now keeps a kosher home and lights Shabbat candles in addition to other rituals.
‘We Need To Do A Lot More For Them’
Each of the graduates I spoke with had high praise for Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, the soft-spoken founder and national director of RAJE, who is part of the Russian Jewish community. He said more than 10 percent of that community in New York between the ages of 18 and 30 has been reached by RAJE, despite the group’s financial struggles. (Its annual $2 million budget comes mostly from local Russian business people, the rabbi said.)
The point of the survey, the first of its kind, he said, was to learn about “concrete actions more than attitudes” among RAJE alumni regarding Jewish involvement. The four key goals the organization seeks to address are encouraging young people to establish Jewish households, have strong connections to Israel, affiliate with Jewish organizations, and express their spiritual needs through Judaism.
Rabbi Tokarsky is hopeful that the results of the RAJE survey, which he called “incredibly significant,” will motivate philanthropists and foundations committed to strengthening Jewish identity to support and expand the group’s efforts here and in other regions of the U.S.
He said that about 300,000 of the estimated 750,000 Russian-speaking Jews in the U.S. live in the New York area. Other cities with a sizeable Russian Jewish population in North America include Los Angeles and Boston as well as Chicago, Philadelphia and Toronto, where RAJE has begun operating pilot programs.
Jerry Levin, a businessman and the immediate past president of UJA-Federation of New York, has been a guest speaker at RAJE events for a number of years and is highly impressed with the participants and the program.
“What most knocked me out” about the survey results, he said, “was the intermarriage rate. And these are very secular young people. RAJE holds out the prize of the free trip [to Israel and Europe], as does Birthright. But the difference here is you have to get involved [in the educational programs leading up to the trip], and RAJE is outperforming Birthright” in terms of level of involvement in Jewish life.
Levin said he is urging UJA-Federation to increase its support of the group. “We [federation] do a lot to help, but this study says, ‘Hey, we’re misallocating,’ we need to do a lot more for them.”
He said that when he first became involved in federation he was “warned that the Russian Jews aren’t religious and don’t like big institutions. But Rabbi Tokarsky has changed this generation in a serious way.”
Others caution against reading too much into the study, pointing out that the RAJE cohort is a small segment of the Russian Jewish community here, the majority of whom are not drawn to its intensive program.
Officials of UJA-Federation, which over the years contributed almost $400,000 to RAJE, expressed pride in their early support for the group. Alisa Rubin Kurshan, executive vice president of UJA-Federation, noted that the charity was “an early and generous supporter before any studies or national recognition. We deeply admire Rabbi Tokarsky, and his efforts have yielded impressive results.” She said UJA-Federation, which no longer funds RAJE, is “thrilled so many are now aware of RAJE’S excellent work in the Russian-speaking Jewish community. We also believe there is great potential for RAJE to have an impact in other North American communities that also have significant numbers of Russian- speaking Jews.”
Rabbi Tokarsky is focusing on those communities, in part because he believes it would be difficult to replicate RAJE’s success in the general American Jewish community. He noted that the majority of young Russian Jews live in areas with a large, concentrated number of Jews, commute to a local college from home and have relatives in Israel and a strong interest in visiting them.
One expert on trends in American Jewish life agrees with Rabbi Tokarsky about the unique ingredients of the Russian Jewish community that make its young people particularly ripe for a program like RAJE. Steven Bayme, national director of the contemporary American Jewish life department at AJC, says “it is no surprise that the outcomes of the RAJE survey are much more Jewishly impressive” [than other surveys of American Jewish young people]. “These young people have put in 250 hours of Jewish education up front,” unlike Birthright participants, for example, who need not undertake any time-consuming educational commitments prior to going on the Israel trip.
The RAJE participants are among “the most interested, attracted and engaged,” Bayme said, of American Jews their age, adding that the young Russian Jews tend to be first-generation Americans, who have a natural affinity to socialize with other fellow Jewish immigrants. And they and their parents have rejected a Russian system that banned religion. “The opportunity for them to study Judaism is cherished more” by this group than native American Jews “who don’t feel any sense of loss,” he said, and may take for granted their right to explore and practice their religion.
Bayme noted that the survey dealt little with the RAJE curriculum itself and its seemingly traditional religious approach, which could dissuade some potential participants. But he emphasized that the “most exciting” aspect of the results is that “while others are despairing about Jewish continuity,” the RAJE program indicates the “ability to effect positive change if we have the will to do so.” He said he is “deeply encouraged that they built in the study component,” which affirms that “Jewish education is the real key to the Jewish future.”
Now that the RAJE survey is out, perhaps others in a position to make a difference will take note of the organization’s approach and success, and see that efforts to enhance Jewish identity are not a lost cause.