Victoria Faykin remembers the day she came home from school, crying, and asked her father if he was Jewish.
He told her that he was.
Faykin, then a 7-year-old growing up in Russia, didn’t want to be Jewish. But her father continued by telling her about what Jewish people have done for the world and about particularly accomplished Jews such as Albert Einstein.
Despite the pride her father raised her with, like most Jews living in the Soviet Union, she grew up knowing next to nothing about Judaism itself.
“My dad raised me proud to be Jewish, but I didn’t know anything about history or tradition,” Faykin said. “We only knew we needed to eat matzah on Passover.”
Faykin immigrated to the United States in 1997. Now, she is the vice president of business development, member services and Russian programming at KleinLife, where she directs the Sunday Jewish program to cultivate Jewish pride and knowledge in students, ages 4 to 13, whose families come from the former Soviet Union.
The program has grown from 30 children to 70 over the past three years. Recently, the program received a grant from the Genesis Philanthropy Group to expand the Sunday Jewish program and hopes to work with Genesis on expanding the program beyond Philadelphia.
“Russian Jewish communities are notoriously unaffiliated,” KleinLife President and CEO Andre Krug said. “So, how do you create meaningful programs for the Russian communities is still a huge problem. With this school, it looks like we’re addressing, at least partially, this issue.”
Many Soviet Jews who came to the United States lost their sense of Jewish identity when they no longer encountered constant anti-Semitism like they did in their home countries. But when they had their own children, Krug said, they wanted to provide them with a Jewish identity and knowledge.
“It was only natural that, when people would come here, they had an opportunity to shed this Jewish identity, that they gladly did so,” Krug said. “Nobody called them derogatory names here, so they were happy to forget about their Judaism. However, when we started having kids, it’s a whole different story because people started wondering ‘What are we missing here.’ ”
Krug, whose own daughter attends the Sunday school, wanted to create this program to meet that need in the Soviet Jewish community. He got funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Bernard and Etta Weinberg Fund and worked with Gratz College to develop the curriculum.
Often, the children go home and teach their own parents what they learned in the program.
“Children become this kind of a knowledge vehicle for their parents, to introduce parents to Judaism,” said Krug, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1989. “We try to give children a lot of information so they talk to their parents and bring parents along for this ride.”
The program includes community service activities, like baking hamantaschen for senior citizens or making mishloach manot for Israel Defense Forces, and religious activities, like a model seder where the children lead their parents. They are planning a program for the children to learn about immigration in late spring, where the children’s grandparents will be invited to share their personal immigration story, before they take a trip to Ellis Island.
The program also puts a special emphasis on Jewish pride, Faykin said, by learning about Jewish heroes and Israel.
Vadim Cherepakhin, a parent of a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old who attend the program, said his kids love it. They knew Faykin beforehand, so when the school opened, Cherepakhin’s kids were some of the first to sign up. When they come home from the program, they tell him about what they’ve learned in class, and he has learned a bit about Judaism from them.
“They tell me which foods need to be on the table for certain holidays, how [to] eat that food. They tell us the history about that tradition,” Cherepakhin said. “It’s very educative for kids.”
Faykin said the journey many of these families have taken to reintroduce Judaism into their lives makes holidays, particularly Chanukah, more meaningful.
“When we came here, our children and us, we didn’t know how to light a menorah,” Faykin said. “We had no idea. Now, it’s like a miracle. I love Chanukah so much because it’s like a real miracle.”