Russian-American Jews Are Tired of Being Ignored

Feeling ignored by the American Jewish and facing high assimilation rates, some Russian-American Jews are starting to organize things for themselves.

They don't use Yiddish and Hebrew words, as U.S. Jews often do. But they do mix around their English and Russian. Religion is a tricky question for this group of young Russian-Jewish Americans, most of whom left the Soviet Union or one of its successor states between the ages of 5 and 14. Some of them lived for a few years in Israel before their parents decided to move on. They still feel they’re stuck between two cultures.

russian - Natasha Mozgovaya - November 4 2011
Natasha Mozgovaya

After Kiddush at the northeast Philadelphia apartment of Dmitry Moverguz, who set up the nonprofit group Davai for young Russian Jewish professionals, about a dozen young people sit at a long table. When I say "Shabbat shalom" they burst out laughing. Some of them wear skullcaps for Shabbat dinner, and the food they bought is kosher, even though they cooked it during the Sabbath. The TV is on –- a baseball game.

"Davai" is Russian for "Let's!" – so they come together for Shabbat, Halloween, Hanukkah and Russian New Year , some with the same Christmas tree that horrified Israel’s religious authorities during the massive influx of Russian Jews two decades ago. "As long there’s a reason to drink!" they proclaim, the old Russian joke. They arrange Hebrew lessons and martial arts sessions led by an Israeli instructor. They frequently partner with local Jewish organizations for educational and entertainment events or trips to Israel, but they take pains to keep their independence.

Some of their concerns are similar to those of their U.S.-born Jewish peers; marriage, for example. "If I stayed in Russia by now I’d probably be married to some Russian girl and wouldn't care what religion she was," says Misha Vinogradov. "But now I can't imagine myself having kids who aren’t Jewish." If he has a son, he’ll name him after his grandfather Yudel. "It's Yiddish, so maybe Yehuda. It would be a pity to have come to a free country and not marry a Jewish girl."

But marrying a Jewish American is a bit tricky. "U.S. Jews are a little strange; I don’t totally get their mentality,” he says. We talk, but – how can I explain it? – it's not talking from the soul. But there is some hope: We have some mixed couples – some guys who married Jewish American girls. They’re lucky because they have more girls to choose from."
Vinogradov has mixed feelings about the religion – he loves studying tradition with U.S. Orthodox Jews, but he was born to an atheist family, so it’s hard to be entirely comfortable with religion. "Only about three years ago I started feeling ashamed that I’m a Jew and don't know much about Judaism", he says.

russian - Natasha Mozgovaya - November 4 2011
Natasha Mozgovaya

"Oh come on!" Misha Heifetz, a 25-year -old accountant, laughs.

"You can laugh, but I did feel ashamed," Vinogradov insists. "We had guys here who turned completely religious, but it's not really my thing. I’m a believer, but as they used to say in the Soviet Union, with fingers crossed in my pocket."

And how does he feel about Israel? "Israel is my homeland that I probably won't ever live in. I feel like it's mine, but I won't live there." His mother, he says, was a typical Russian Jewish mother afraid to send her son to an army where people actually fight, referring to the Israel Defense Forces.

"I had no problem with that – it's probably the only army where I really was ready to fight and even die for, but I’m afraid of the uncertainty in Israel. I’ve visited Israel three times – what am I going to do there?"

Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya

There’s a great high-tech industry there, a reporter reminds him. "Yes, but Israel looks small and there are many Jews who are coming to work in high-tech companies here. I guess they’re not stupid, are they?"

Heifetz, meanwhile, says he lived in Petah Tikva from 1991 to 1994, when the family moved to Toronto. When he came with the group to Israel, he had some problems at border control.

“The guy there asked if I had an Israeli passport. I hadn't been to Israel for 17 years and didn't have a passport. So he turned the computer screen to me and showed me my father's picture when he immigrated. I had to have a new passport issued there.”

Alexander Shapiro's family also came to the United States after seven years in Israel, for “the security, the economy, the usual reasons," he says.

No nostalgia for Russia

At some point the conversation turns to the recent release of Gilad Shalit and the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. The whole group switches to English while discussing Shalit.

"Stalin refused to exchange his eldest son, [a POW], for a general," says Julia Vinnitsky, who left Kiev for the United States in 1988 and works in sales. "He said he didn’t exchange a soldier for a general. I’m sorry, but one person cannot be exchanged for over 1,000. I feel bad for Shalit, but I also feel bad for the families of the victims of these terrorists. It was like spitting in the face of these families".

"Many people will die because of it," one of the participants adds.

They discuss nostalgically their favorite childhood foods and cartoons, but they feel no nostalgia for Russia. Heifetz hasn’t visited the country since he left when he was 5. Shapiro says he left at 7 but still can read and write Russian "with a few mistakes." All agree they want their kids to know Russian.

"Americans are friendly, but they smile at you even when they hate you," Vinnitsky says, trying to explain why after 20-plus years in the United States she prefers the company of other young Russians.

Heifetz gives a small example. “At our company we were asked to bring in a favorite food for a potluck dinner. So I brought some potato salad and vinaigrette salad. Nobody touched it, but they ate all the pizza others brought."

It seemed that at some point the U.S. Jewish community gave up on the Russian Jewish immigrants. Most of them didn't have heroic refusenik stories, didn't know much about Jewish tradition, showed no particular interest in Jewish community institutions and treated suspiciously any attempt to get them involved in Jewish philanthropy. The younger generation seemed as detached as the older one.

But in recent years, as the Russian Jewish community in the United States was reinforced by Russian Israelis, the Jewish Agency started sending special emissaries targeting American Russian-speaking communities. These communities, some reluctantly, started outreach efforts to the Russian Jews.

Moverguz, the person behind Davai, came to the United States with his family from St. Petersburg in 1992 when he was 12. He studies computer science in Philadelphia, and his interest in Jewish life started only after his studies.

“I guess I was searching for myself," he says. "At first my parents were happy that I got more connected and met Jewish girls. But now, since I’m 31, not married and … established this nonprofit, they’re a bit worried. They don't really want me to become religious, but my curiosity about Judaism is intellectual. There are a lot of Russian Jews around here, so I got some inspiration from the Jewish community organizations.”

These groups created programs for Russian Jews to link up with their American peers. Two groups were sent from Chicago and Philadelphia for a historical-cultural experience in Spain, and Moverguz and a colleague were recruited to expand the program. But the sponsors got cold feet and closed down the operation, so the two of them decided to go forward themselves.

They organized their first event about three years ago, with the help of Facebook. It was a success –- more than 150 people showed up. Gradually the group eclipsed 250 members – all young Russian professionals who came to the United States in the ‘90s, all feeling a bit detached.

A new mix every Shabbat

"We’re different," Moverguz says. "The family background, the interests, the way we think. At college, we had some Russian professors, so we had Russian enclaves. It has nothing to do with immigrants' low self-esteem – I have American friends, but with Russians I feel more at ease. It's the things we grew up with, songs, books. Some Americans feel offended that they struggled to make the Iron Curtain fall and then the Russians came, not showing the least interest in their organizations.

“The American Jews made some mistakes too – I think it's understandable a Russian doctor felt unwelcome when the only job a U.S. Jewish organization offered him was cleaning floors. The Americans didn't understand why Russians needed organizations of their own. But the federations are struggling and trying to reach out more. Some of them see in us – young Russian Jews – their possible salvation, so to speak. They’re beginning to understand that it's not our fault we became so detached from Jewish tradition back in Russia."

Most of his people took part in Birthright programs but were looking for an alternative to membership in a synagogue. "I went to Israel with Birthright in my junior year in college but went to Shabbat after this maybe once," Moverguz says.

Last summer, Davai participated in a program sponsored by several organizations – a trip to Israel with young U.S.-born Jews after a three-month seminar. Many of them continue to meet up. "We love partnerships, but some organizations have their own agenda, and we love to open doors for our members to choose from,” Moverguz says. “But we wouldn't want to endorse the religious agenda of a sponsoring organization, for instance. So we have to walk a thin line."

And why don't they ask for membership fees? "I’m afraid it will scare off new people," Moverguz says. "Those who come more often, I ask them for donations, and they tend to give." But he says he doesn't know what will become of the group.

"It's basically up to our generation, I think …. There’s an organization for young Russian Jewish families in New York, maybe I’ll get some advice from them. Maybe we'll grow and open a community center of our own. Maybe we'll keep it this way. Maybe we'll dissolve in the end, though there is obviously a need, otherwise people wouldn't show up.”

Every Shabbat there is a new mix of people – before dinner, they answer phones and send out e-mails telling people how to join in. Some are group veterans, some relatively new. “You meet people, you learn some history; we didn't have a chance to learn it in Russia,” says Marina Lipkin, a 29-year-old paralegal. “In the U.S., there’s no pressure of the melting pot anymore – you can be with whoever you want."

"No one knows for sure how many Russian Jews live in the United States – estimates are between 750,000 and 1 million, with about half living in New York City and New Jersey," says Louisa Valitsky, the Jewish Agency's main emissary to Russian-speaking communities in North America. She was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, and immigrated to Israel in 1986.

Very few Russian Jews are affiliated with Jewish organizations, with the exception of some large communities in Brooklyn and Queens, for instance. Some organizations work to preserve Russian culture with afterschool activities for kids.

Valitsky says there’s lots of sense in a special outreach to Russian-speaking Jews because "few of them have any previous knowledge of Jewish tradition because of the historical circumstances of the Soviet Union, and their perception of Judaism is mostly secular, unlike that of most affiliated Jews in North America.

“That's why they’re having trouble feeling connected with the American Jewish organizations, and the young generation assimilates even faster than the general Jewish community in North America. The Jewish Agency tries to organize activities to strengthen their Jewish identity and connect them to the local Jewish communities and Israel. They’re very curious about that."

She agrees that many of the young Jewish immigrants are well off but it's unrealistic to expect them to donate to Jewish institutions. "Their connection to Judaism is too weak and many of them have inherited an anti-institutional zeal due to their families’ experiences. But many of them are ready to donate to Israel-related issues."

Valitsky doesn't think relations between the two communities are bad. "There are just some misunderstandings," she says. "But I think it’s beginning to change."