A month ago I attended an event on Russian-Jewish philanthropy. The big name speakers — Russian leaders of major Jewish organizations — explained that we were witnessing a watershed moment. The Russian-Jewish community in America, which had over the past few decades lived off of the welfare of others, had risen to a considerable position of power and wealth. After accepting the help of others it was now in their hands to return the favor, to use their newly established wealth to positively influence the direction of the Jewish community in America and abroad. But there is one problem according to those leaders I heard speak: the Russian-Jewish community has not yet taken upon itself the responsibility to shape the future of Jewish discourse. Their participation peaks when it comes to the issue of Israel, albeit this peak is reached most unfortunately during Israel’s hours of crisis.
This then begs the question: what is the future of Russian Jewry in America? It is a question the majority of American Jews have consciously avoided. True, for many years there was not much time to think, to constructively understand where the Russian-Jewish community could be integrated with their American-Jewish counterparts. When the floodgates of the U.S.S.R. opened the only task at hand was to make sure that the Jews who had braved the Iron Curtain would survive in America. The future of these Jews was to be decided at a later date. Now is the time to confront that which we have put aside, forgotten about, and feared to approach.
I have no empirical data to support some of my conclusions, but nevertheless I’d like to lay out several ways of approaching our situation so that both communities may begin to grow together. First, and perhaps most importantly, is to approach the Russian-Jewish community on equal footing. Lecturing and patronizing them will undoubtedly alienate them. We must never forget to be humble in our interactions with them. The established American-Jewish community has deep, foundational problems of its own such as an ever increasing intermarriage rate and no proven way of dealing with it, a skyrocketing of Jewish day school tuition, and the decline of the synagogue as the center of Jewish life. Accusing the Russian-Jewish community of being “lesser” Jews because they fail to follow the laws of kashrut will without a doubt drive them away. I have seen this first hand with my fellow Russian Jewish friends at Brandeis University. We must develop an equation that leaves out the question of who is the better Jew, while taking into account the perspective of the Russian Jew, the lens with which this person views the world around them.
This is a lens that American Jews must confront, understand, and accept for there to be progress in creating a prosperous Russian Jewish community. But it is also a viewpoint that American Jews will have trouble coming to terms with. The Russian Jew’s outlook on the world has been shaped by 100 years behind the Iron Curtain. Time creates realities that were once artificial. For a Jew in Soviet Russia, the artificiality was no longer being able to keep the Sabbath, celebrate the high holidays, or observe kashrut. Numerous generations were chained to this repressive lifestyle and this new tradition lacking in most forms of observance became the reality.
When the chains were broken two things happened, one disappointing and one amazing. As Russian Jews recognized their freedoms in the U.S., they failed, for the most part, to rekindle the religious Jewish flame that has held our people together in the past. But then the incredible happened and many Russian Jews passed down their Jewish identity without necessarily having been raised with the traditional Jewish upbringing. Let me be clear, I do not advocate that raising a Jew without the age-old religious and cultural traditions is to be preferred — it is not, and specifically because it does not provide for a stable Jewish future.
Part of the strength of this Russian-Jewish identity is connected to Israel, but this is only a fraction of the answer. I think the answer to this strength eludes many in the American-Jewish community because of its intangibility — there is no objective observation, no scientific theory to be verified, and no test to be conducted that could substantiate what I see as being a true phenomena. This identity simply exists in the soul of the Russian-Jew as it does, I believe, in all Jews; it is a characteristic that one cannot extract or make sense of.
It is always harder to believe in something you can’t see, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The strength of the Jewish identity in the Russian-Jewish community is clearly more powerful than once perceived. As a Jew who was raised by an American mother and a Russian father I see myself at a point of tangency; a position where I feel I can see both sides of the equation, both equally valid perspectives. It is more importantly a platform that more American Jews need to reach if they wish to constructively work with the Russian-Jewish community to create a prosperous future for Jews in America.
Ryan Yuffe, 18, was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a freshman studying at Brandeis University.
The Future of Russian Jewry