“Russian-speaking Jewry” (RSJ) is an acronym iterated from my mouth more often than any modern-day colloquial abbreviations. Russian born; Brooklyn raised; Boston educated. RSJ has developed from my childhood of English at school, Russian at home, Hanukkah menorahs and New Year’s trees, trips to Israel and churches into a career of JCCs, the JCRC and now my current role at Moishe House as director of RSJ programming. Today I oversee a growing network of 16 RSJ Moishe Houses, a leading platform for engagement of RSJ young adults worldwide in creating meaningful Jewish experiences and developing vibrant communities.
Boston holds a special place in my heart as the city of my professional Jewish education, the place where I was manager of a sister-city partnership with Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine and where I was a lay leader on the RSJ committee at CJP. It’s a community of which I am proud to be a part of in ever-changing capacities.
Growing up I navigated the complexity of the multifaceted RSJ identity and its professional communal landscape in a consistent effort to strengthen the RSJ community. How do we define ourselves? How does the broader community understand us? How do I understand myself? What choices do I make to ensure a preservation of my heritage? Who is responsible for shaping the future?
These are the questions my peers ask. These are also the ones they do not. And that’s precisely why Moishe House is so uniquely adapted to address this population, and it’s precisely why in 2009, Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG) partnered with Moishe House to create targeted RSJ programming. And it’s precisely why the diverse and vast Boston Jewish community is our priority. In partnership with GPG and CJP, we are working to open an RSJ Moishe House in Boston—a platform of connection, engagement and, most important, ownership, for people to own their identity, questions and community. The current network of RSJ Moishe Houses includes 16 across North America, the former Soviet Union, Germany and Australia. Last month our expansion initiatives targeted Boston, and the release of the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study perfectly illustrates why.
“Seven percent of Jewish adults were born or raised in Russia or the former Soviet Union, or were raised in a Russian-speaking household,” the study states, with 42 percent of them young adults (18-34) and part of the largest minimally engaged group of Boston Jewry. It’s the first time I took 7 percent to be quite a large number.
But so what? Seven percent equals nearly 13,000 adults who identify as Russian-speaking Jews. That’s 13,000 people who share a rich Jewish history, a distinct RSJ culture and an immigrant experience. It’s 13,000 adults whose families and heritage miraculously survived brutal history to become part of the most successful immigrant group in the United States. In other words, Boston has an opportunity for real impact in RSJ leadership development and community building.
The study demonstrates young adults’ desire for connection to community, not defined by an attachment to a denomination or institution. This especially resonates for RSJs, and the peer-led, home-based model of Moishe House enables entry for the “minimally engaged.”
The reality of RSJs in North America has changed. We are no longer immigrants benefiting from community resources to assimilate to American society; we are a substantial demographic group rife with success and potential. We need not frame engaging RSJs as a challenge to the Jewish community, but as an opportunity for dimension and the continuity of a vibrant Jewish community.
In December 2015, Moishe House led its first community-building retreat exclusively for the RSJ community at Camp Ramah in New England, bringing together 25 RSJ young adults from 12 cities to delve into what we creatively titled, “True Life: I’m a Russian-Speaking Jew.” Overflowing participant feedback included things like: “I am so thankful to have been included in the retreat. It really helped me feel a connection to my heritage and to the community moving forward, something I have been striving for my entire life.” Now we have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility, to continue the transformational experience for Boston’s 7 percent to create a sustainable and meaningful community for ourselves.
The Community Study was commissioned to understand the community and identify opportunities, and I think it’s fair to say we must not miss the opportunity of RSJs to elevate their connections to each other and to the Jewish community. It’s a community rife with achievement and potential, a group that is vital to Jewish continuity, with influence and intellect to impart.