There wasn’t anything quite like the organization Russian American Jewish Experience in Philadelphia before Rabbi Akiva Pollack showed up.
Pollack, 45, learned about RAJE in 2009, having just come to Philadelphia to work at CBS Community Center, home to Congregation Beth Solomon in Somerton. Soon after he arrived, he met a rabbi who worked with RAJE in New York, which was the only place at the time to get involved with the organization.
“And he told us all about programming, and he told us all about how they literally have hundreds of young Russian Jews sitting in their center, learning about Judaism, going on trips. And I fell in love with the program when he told us that,” Pollack said. He contacted the New York office and told them he’d love to bring RAJE to Philly.
Today, Pollack is the CEO of RAJE Philly, teaching and traveling with young local Jews to Israel, Poland and elsewhere in Europe. Participants who complete the Leadership Fellowship are eligible for those free trips.
“We’re really trying hard to help create more Jewish leaders,” Pollack said. And name aside, they don’t discriminate: Around 75% of their participants are Russian-American Jews.
You’ve been a part of RAJE since 2009. Are you still attracted to the organization’s mission for the same reasons?
I’ll tell you the truth, maybe you shouldn’t put this in print, but I do it for the free trip [laughs]. I do love going from place to place, I love traveling. So that’s always very exciting, which actually makes it a little bit hard now, because everything’s closed, you can’t really get around.
But I love teaching about Judaism, teach about Israel, and then actually going and seeing it in practice.
That’s what really gets me excited, to be able to teach that and give it over to everybody and show how real Judaism is, how ancient Judaism is.
What’s the most significant change you’ve seen in the population that RAJE serves?
It’s a little bit more difficult to get people interested in a free trip to Israel — it just doesn’t mean as much as it did 10 years ago. So you need to add some things to it — our European option, the Poland trip and things like that. But in general, people are still very interested.
Is there anything you’ve done differently during the pandemic that you want to continue doing?
We’ve really worked hard on making Zoom as exciting and as accessible as possible. We have very few in-person classes.
So what we’ve done is have branches of RAJE all joined together and done our Leadership Fellowship, instead of it just being to Philadelphia, coming to one community center, we have all of the branches coming together on one Zoom or two Zooms. And we’ll have 50, 60 people at each Zoom session from all over the country. And I see that’s exciting to people because they get to meet people from all over the place.
In many ways, it’s actually better for us because we’re able to have educators from all over the country that’re able to speak.
Another thing that we did recently — we’re actually starting tonight, so I don’t know how it’s going to go, but I’m really excited about it — we did something called the Olami Pro Series, which is really focused not on Jewish education and Israel, but on professional development. And we have major CEOs, we have Hollywood stars coming in, and teaching students how to really be successful in the fields that they are in.