Russian School Helps Kids Maintain Parents’ Heritage

By Ariel Zilber

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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The mass exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the past decade has created a unique quandary for Jewish schools: How can educators help immigrants’ children maintain links to a country they don’t know, and imbue them with knowledge of a religion and culture that is often unfamiliar to their parents?

The Shalom School in Rockville, Md. — near Washington, D.C. — is trying to answer these questions. Now wrapping up its first semester of operation, the Russian-Jewish Sunday school is trying a new method of education — one that links students to their parents’ homeland and introduces them to the religion their parents frequently were not allowed to practice there.

“This is a chance for me to think not only about continuity of my family, but of Jewish continuity,” said Ella Kagan, principal of the school and coordinator of Russian Jewish community programming for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “I want to see this next generation happy and Jewish.”

Pleased with the response she has received from the community, Kagan — a former refusenik from Moscow who immigrated to the United States in 1987 — is confident that her staff can shoulder the burden of educating assimilated children far removed from the cultural heritage of their parents.

The Shalom School’s 38 students range in age from 4 to 18. (The older of Kagan’s two grandchildren, age 7, attends the school.) Weekly Sunday morning sessions are divided into short classes in Hebrew and Jewish history, as well as Russian language, literature and theater. Some instructors are teachers accredited by the local Montgomery County school district, while others include Russian-speaking immigrants, professional philologists, and a historian specializing in Jewish history. The courses are taught in Russian.

“Kids [with Russian-speaking parents] who are born here speak really good Russian as long as they are at home,” said Kagan. “[But] when they’re in public school, they are losing Russian. It becomes their second language, not their first language.”

Because Russian is the students’ second language, Kagan noted, “we cannot use the same methodology that Russian teachers are using in Russia.” The teachers at the Shalom School — most of whom grew up surrounded by Russian, their mother tongue — approach the subject as a foreign language, since the students live in an English-speaking environment.

“It’s not very easy for our Russian teachers to teach Russian language,” she said. “They are highly intelligent and very professional, but they cannot use the same technique” with which they were taught as children.

“When you’re doing something to help increase Jewish literacy and Jewish affiliation, you need to do it from a particular perspective knowing who your customer is,” said Misha Galperin, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and himself an émigré from the former Soviet Union. “One of the ways to do it is in this fashion, in Russian, and also satisfying the desire of many of the parents to ensure that their children learn something of the Russian culture, history and language as well as the Jewish component.”

A Sunday school aimed specifically at the Russian-speaking Jewish community was first established by Boston-based community activist Vladimir Foygelman, who in 2001 founded the Russian Jewish Community School at Temple Bnai Moshe in Brighton, Mass. In 2002, Foygelman passed on the idea to Kagan during a symposium in New York organized by the International Association of Jewish Educators for Russian-Speaking Jewry, and in October 2003, the Shalom School opened its doors.

Whether the concept will find broad backing and spawn more schools in other cities is dependent on the support it can garner from established American Jewry. Some people, Galperin said, believe that the only way to imbue immigrants’ children with deep Jewish knowledge is to send them to a Jewish day school full-time. Galperin disagrees, arguing that yeshivas or Hebrew day schools do not sufficiently address the specific cultural needs of Jewish children of Russian immigrants, who for generations were forced to eschew all things religious.

“Frankly, we discovered a lot of things that work here for American Jews don’t work for Russian Jews,” Galperin said. “The idea was these [are] poor Russian Jews that were freed up and brought here and now they need to be made into ‘real’ Jews. To simply sponsor Russian Jewish kids to attend yeshiva without doing the work with the parents to help parents understand what’s going on, without taking into the account that both kids and parents did not identify religiously,” he said, is indicative of a “patronizing attitude” among some American Jews.

Lack of familiarity with religious texts and practices, Galperin noted, does not mean that Russian Jews are ignorant of Jewish literature.

“A very significant proportion of Russian Jews with a higher education have known and read books about Jewish authors and Jewish figures that Americans never heard of,” Galperin said, citing Leon Feuchtwanger’s “Judean Wars” and Thomas Mann’s “Joseph and His Brothers” as personal examples of his cultural identification with Judaism.

The Shalom School aims to enable immigrants’ children to hold onto their Russian heritage and simultaneously expand their Jewish horizons. By addressing these students’ specific needs, Kagan said, the school ultimately can help them — and, by extension, their parents — better integrate into the wider Jewish community.

“I know that some [Russian] parents would like to join synagogues but they don’t feel comfortable because they are not educated to do it,” Kagan said. “I believe we are playing the role as a bridge.”

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