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Young Russians Move Beyond Their Comfort Zone

June 22, 2011 By:
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A program for Jewish young professionals included a May bash at a jazz club near South Street. Photo by Greg Bezanis

Valerie Khmelnitsky has lived in the United States for 20 years, but her social circle is still comprised almost entirely of other Jews born in the former Soviet Union.

The 33-year-old systems analyst from Northeast Philadelphia is hoping to change that and, at the same time, become more engaged in the broader Jewish community.

Right now, Khmelnitsky is on her first-ever visit to Israel, along with about 40 other Russian-born Jews in their 20s and 30s who now call the Philadelphia area home.

The trip marks the culmination of a three-month program called the Philly-Israel Fellowship, which combines study, community service and a visit to the Jewish state. The twist with this program is that it mixes Russian-born Jews with their American-born counterparts; more than 70 people went in all.

The hope is to bolster Russian participation in Jewish life and lower the cultural barriers between the two groups.

"This gives us the opportunity to venture out of the four little corners that everybody is so used to being in," Khmelnitsky said before she left on June 14. "I wouldn't say it's been seamless. But this is a good thing we are doing this."

The generation of Russian Jews who, like Khmelnitsky, arrived in Philadelphia as teens shortly after the fall of communism, have finished school and embarked on their careers.

But it's no secret that Russian Jews have tended to steer clear of synagogues and other Jewish organizations, even more so than American-born Jews in the same age group.

The disconnect is attributed in part to the Russian experience of living under communism, where religious expression was severely repressed. In addition, according to Russian Jewish leaders, there's a pervasive distrust of American Jewish institutions and a mistaken sense that the immigrants are just not wanted.

While a handful of entities have served the Russian Jewish community for years, it's only within the last year that the community has focused resources on this group of young professionals.

Leonard Barrack, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, noted in an interview last year that the community that fought so hard on behalf of Soviet Jewry was in danger of losing the next generation of Russian Jews to assimilation.

Seed Money

Last year, Barrack used dollars from the Federation president's discretionary fund to provide seed money for a program organized by Davai, a group dedicated to building leadership and Jewish identity in the Russian Jewish community. Davai teamed up with Congregation Beth Solomon Community Center, an Orthodox shul with a large Russian-speaking membership and the New York-based organization RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience).

That resulting collaboration -- considered the first of its kind in Philadelphia -- was an intensive 10-week program focusing on learning about Judaism and Jewish affairs. It was followed by a 15-day trip to the Jewish state with a stopover in Kiev, Ukraine. About 80 people took part.

But for a variety of reasons, the groups felt they didn't mesh-well together. (Some participants said the trip focused too much on the religious aspect.)

This year, two newer educational programs, each with an Israel component, have emerged, both of which receive communal dollars from Federation. One is exclusively for Russian Jews and the other is for both Russian and American Jews, highlighting two different approaches to cultivating the Jewish interest of a particular demographic.

In many ways, the two programs mirror the approaches of other groups that target American-born young adults, with some groups focusing more on religion, others on cultural aspects.

In one of the programs, Beth Solomon and RAJE continued without Davai.

On May 29, a total of 25 Russian Jews from the area returned from the RAJE/Beth Solomon trip to Israel and Spain.

Davai, for its part, wound up teaming up with the Chevra, an 8-year-old group that caters to young professionals with a mix of social, cultural and spiritual offerings.

The Davai/Chevra program became known as the Philly-Israel Fellowship. It started classes in February and left for Israel on June 14.

"It's difficult for them to intermix, but they are so tired of this closed Russian bubble," Dmitriy Moverguz, Davai's director, said of the young Russian professionals.

Moverguz last week also networked on behalf of his organization at the ROI Community Summit in Jerusalem, a prestigious gathering of 120 selected Jewish activists from around the world for a collaborative "think in" about the future of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Akiva Pollack, who helped run the local RAJE initiative, said that his program was about truly experiencing Judaism in Israel. Still, he said that there was plenty of time for outings such as hiking and kayaking on the Jordan River.

Liya Groysman, a 25-year-old who helps run an auto repair business, works as a casino poker dealer and is starting law school in the fall, said her great-grandmother was the last family member to observe any kind of Jewish ritual. Groysman said she felt a piece of her had been missing and she wanted to explore the Jewish faith.

"When we got to Israel, it made everything we had covered in those 10 weeks real and come to life," she said.

"I can honestly say I've never been more proud to be Jewish in my life than after this entire experience."

She's begun lighting candles on Friday night and, while she may not become Orthodox, she definitely wants "to dig deeper."

Both programs had a strong leadership-development component.

For example, the Davai/Chevra program's guest speakers included philanthropists such as Gail Norry, David Magerman, Stephen B. Klein and I. Michael Coslov, who told the group that his own generation had failed to meet its philanthropic obligations to the Jewish community.

A Comfortable Environment

The decision of whether or not to solely target Russian Jews proved perhaps the biggest difference between the two programs.

Pollack, one of the rabbis at Beth Solomon, said he believes it is very important to work with the Russians alone. "I find that when people are comfortable in their environment, they can really grow and thrive."

Groysman agreed, saying it was probably more comfortable for her to learn about Judaism in a group "that came from where I came from and experienced similar things to what I experienced. You have a mutual understanding. If you are American, nobody forced you to lose your religion."

Marina Furman, a onetime refusenik who is the regional director of the Jewish National Fund, addressed both programs and said she prefers the idea of integrating Russian Jews.

"This has never been done before," Furman said of the Davai/Chevra model.

"Everything that has been done with the Russians has been done for the Russians without them ever having met their counterparts. For some, all their friends are Russian. They should be completely assimilated."

The idea of mixing resonated well with the participants. Originally, the Israel trip was supposed to have separate buses for Russian Jews and American-born Jews, but the participants themselves asked for that plan to be scrapped.

Ilya Rakhman, a 33-year-old engineer who lives in the Art Museum area, said that there were many cliques at the beginning of the program, but he thinks that's largely not the case anymore.

"There is definitely a lot of interaction all the time," he said.

Moverguz said the group has come a long way but he doesn't wish to foster unrealistic expectations.

"The barrier is not completely broken down, it's not going to happen," Moverguz said, adding that his long-term goal is to increase Russian participation in the larger community. Creating a group that serves Russians was partly a means to that end. "When you have a certain identity that is deep within you, it's very difficult to change it."

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