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Emigrés Are Forming Decidedly Secular Identities; The Ancestral Faith, With a Side of Salami

This is the final installment in a three-part series on the challenges faced in the United States by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

A half an hour before a late-season minor league baseball game at Keyspan Park, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, a series of Russian performers took the field to dance and sing for the few fans who had shown up early. One man twirled hula hoops on his long, sinewy limbs. Another did a sort of belly dance just behind home plate.

Welcome to the first ever Russian-Jewish Heritage Day!

The event, which was hosted by the Brooklyn Cyclones, was certainly fun — and Russian — but one needed to be fairly alert to catch the few nods to Jewish culture, which included a Yiddish version of the song, “If I Was a Rich Man,” from the American musical “Fiddler on The Roof.”

The heritage day was one of many recent efforts to bolster a sense of Jewish identity among the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who have not connected to the Jewish community through religious institutions. Given the low levels of participation in synagogue life among Russian Jews, many Russian community leaders believe that secular avenues are the only ways to make a significant connection with Russian-speaking Jews.

“As these families are establishing themselves in America, many are starting to think about who they are, and how much they are Jewish,” said Vladimir Foygelman, a leader in the Russian community in Boston, who has been at the forefront of communal organizational efforts. “There is more interest in Judaism, but more on a social level — not mostly on a religious level.”

As the pre-game performance suggested, the Soviet era destroyed much of the Russian-Jewish heritage that might have provided the building blocks for a secular Jewish identity for Russians — little Russian-Jewish heritage survived the Soviet Union. But the event at Coney Island also suggested two of the primary keystones in recent efforts to galvanize émigrés looking for a secular identity: support for Israel and interest in Yiddish culture.

Recent surveys show that Russian-speaking Jews are even more concerned about Israel than American Jews. When a leader was chosen to open the pre-game performance in Coney Island, it was the president of an organization called Russian American Jews for Israel. In a separate movement, a small but burgeoning effort has begun to provide younger Russians with a secular Jewish education, one that centers around the secular Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe.

Foygelman is involved in both sides of this effort in Boston. He is the co-chair of Boston’s branch of Russian American Jews for Israel, as well as the principal at the Russian Jewish Community School, which currently provides 45 children from Russian-speaking families in the Boston area with an education in Jewish art and history without any explicit religious content.

Among American-born Jews, the desire for such secular alternatives is much less pronounced than in the Russian community. Even for American Jews who are not religious, there is a widespread ease with synagogue culture, and consequently almost 80% of American Jewish children receive some kind of formal Jewish education. But for many Russian-speaking Jews brought up in the atheist culture of the Soviet Union there is a skepticism about organized religion. Educators like Foygelman have begun to provide a secular alternative to allow some entree into the Jewish world.

Last year, Foygelman’s school, which was the first of its kind, spawned an imitator in the Washington D.C. area – the Education Center Shalom – which enrolled 26 kids at the beginning of its first year and 48 at the beginning of its second. There are plans to create similar spin-offs in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

This sort of Jewish secular education has been available for years at the Workmen’s Circle, an organization that runs Yiddish-based schools in New York City and eight other locations. At the branch of the school in Westchester, N.Y., there are three Russian families enrolled. After class one Sunday last month, Mikhail and Masha Teverovsky explained that they enrolled their 9-year old son Konstantin so that he would have “the sense of identity and belonging,” Masha Teverovsky said, “because non-religious Jews have to belong also.”

The Teverovskys moved to America from Moscow in 1997, with no connection to the religion of their grandparents. When they began thinking about Konstantin’s future, they toured a few synagogues, but the Reform congregations were too expensive and the religious celebrations had no emotional resonance for them. They discovered the Workmen’s Circle two years ago, and were particularly attracted to the Yiddish instruction.

“When I hear Yiddish, something inside me clicks,” Masha Teverovsky said. “Even though we don’t speak and don’t understand Yiddish, it was the language of our grandparents.”

But many communal leaders said that Russians will only start filling the schools once they are run by Russians. In New York, Dmitriy Margulis, a former professor of pedagogy in the Ukraine, has been working to drum up support for a secular Sunday school in Brooklyn, where the majority of New York’s Russian Jews live. Margulis, who is 80 years old, has already been approached by scores of parents who have expressed their excitement for the school. Margulis said “they want that their children will be more involved in culture and music – not so strong with religion.”

In terms of numbers, though, such schools are still only reaching a small minority of the Russian-speaking population. For the larger population, the most prominent way to connect with their ethnicity is through Israel.

A study released in September by the United Jewish Communities found that 43% of Russian émigrés say that they are “very” emotionally attached to Israel, compared to 26% of American-born Jews. The concern for Israel among émigrés was found to be even greater in a study released two weeks ago by the American Jewish Committee, which looked only at immigrants in

New York City. 88% of those surveyed agreed with the statement that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.”

This has led to some unexpected voting patterns, said many observers looking at the study. While a plurality of the Russians surveyed by the American Jewish Committee identified themselves as registered Democrats (38% to 19% Republican), a majority said they would vote for President Bush in this election (54% to only 14% for Senator John Kerry).

There are a number of reasons for the intense engagement with Israel. Compared to American-born Jews, many more immigrants have relatives in Israel — 45%, according to the American Jewish Committee survey. In addition, for Jews in the Soviet Union, Judaism was always a nationality — stamped on the passport — so caring about a Jewish nation has been a natural way for Jews to express their ethnic identity.

The group Russian American Jews for Israel has provided the most direct way for immigrants to act on these sentiments, and the organization is growing. In addition to the current branches in New York and Boston, new affiliates are opening soon in Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The existing branches have hosted everything from social hours to protests. In February, the Boston affiliate organized a rally for Israel that drew over a thousand Russians to Boston’s City Hall Plaza. The New York group has recently been putting much of its energy into organizing missions to Israel for Russians who have never been — always with Russian-speaking tour guides. During the past month alone, close to 270 Russian-speaking Jews have gone for 10-day tours — only a handful of whom were religiously observant.

Roman Kalika, a board member of the New York chapter of Russian American Jews for Israel, accompanied the recent mission to Israel. He said that the interest in Israel was the natural way for many people to express their Jewish identity. In this respect he said, “most people in our community are not religious, but they are very Jewish.”

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