5775: A Make-or-break Year for Russian-speaking Australian Jews

Jewish leaders are desperate to stem the tide of assimilation of the 20,000 ‘KangaRusskis’ in Australia.

SYDNEY, Australia – The future of the estimated 20,000-plus Russian-speaking Jews living in Australia – dubbed “KangaRusskis” – is now a top priority for Jewish leaders, who have thrown their weight behind several initiatives in a desperate bid to stem the tide of assimilation.

So grave is the fear among Jewish leaders here that Dr. Danny Lamm, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, has described it as a “do or die” period for the Russian-speaking Jewish community, which has been largely disconnected and disenfranchised from Australian Jewish life since the first wave arrived here in the 1970s.

This week the Zionist Federation of Australia appointed its first Russian-speaking coordinator in Sydney. Sabina Avshalom will join Sasha Klyachkina, the first-ever emissary for Russian-speaking Jews in Australia, who has been operating in Melbourne since 2012.

Klyachkina, 32, helped organize the first-ever Taglit-Birthright program for Russian-speaking Jews from Australia in 2013. The busload of young Jews was dubbed “KangaRusskis,” a name that has since become a common nickname the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Australia.

Another bus of KangaRusskis went on Birthright this July, although numbers dropped to around 25 due to the war in Gaza.

Tatiana (Tanya) Shvartsman, 27, who was born in Moldova and moved to Melbourne in 1992, was one of the leaders in both Birthright tours for KangaRusskis.

Last month she began work as the program manager for the first-ever Limmud FSU, to be held in Australia next year.

“We all believe that it’s ‘do or die’ – this year there are a lot of new initiatives,” she told Haaretz. “Everything is starting to really take off now.”

Shvartsman credits Klyachkina as the catalyst for the surge in projects aimed at KangaRusskis. “Sasha’s been a godsend for us,” she said. “There was nothing happening for young adults until she arrived.”

Shvartsman and Klyachkina were invited to Russia in May to witness Limmud FSU in action, as 1,200 Jews descended on Moscow for Limmud FSU’s flagship event. Australia will be the 10th country to host a Limmud FSU, with events scheduled for Sydney and Melbourne next March.

“It’s a huge untapped market and we are in all-guns-blazing to make sure people get involved,” Shvartsman said. “There have been a lot of things for the older generation but nothing for the young ones. Limmud FSU is vital.”

Klyachkina said she hopes that 100 people will attend Limmud FSU in Sydney and up to 400 in Melbourne.

“It’s going to be a really big thing for almost all the people involved as presenters, participants or volunteers. It’s going to be the first time they’ve experienced something just for them – it’s Jewish, it’s Russian, it’s theirs.”

She said about 30 people aged between 20 and 80 attended a retreat for the organizing committee last weekend.

“It’s a very heterogenic group of volunteers – some were born in Australia, some are of the older generation.”

Five or six of those who went on the first Birthright program are on the Limmud FSU organizing committee, she said.

Klyachkina, who was born in Russia and made aliyah at 14, told Haaretz: “Almost no research has been done about Russian Jews in Australia but their involvement is really, really small. The problem is that even though the older generation does have some kind of connection to their Jewishness, even though they are not involved in the Jewish community, their kids care less and less.

“If we don’t do that now I’m not sure that in five years there will be anyone to talk to,” she said.

Ginette Searle, the executive director of ZFA, said the first Taglit-Birthright program for Russian-speaking Australians “literally switched them on to Jewish community involvement.”

The ZFA is also supporting Limmud FSU, she added. “It has the potential to not only be a wonderful, engaging and intellectual event in its own right, but it will serve to bring the Russian-speaking Jewish community closer to Israel, to Jewish identity and to the local Jewish community."

Searle added: “No doubt Limmud FSU will be the next big thing for the Australian Russian-speaking Jewish community. This is definitely the KangaRusski year.”

While Klyachkina, Avshalom and Shvartsman are working on the younger spectrum, another new organization for all Russian-speaking Jews has been launched. In July, the Australian Forum of Russian Speaking Jewry was founded in Melbourne in a bid to “facilitate the integration of Russian Jews into Australian society.”

A member of the World Forum of Russian Jewry, the Australian branch hopes to identify “new leadership in the Russian Jewish community in order to increase its influence in Australia,” according to its website.

Its founding president, Alex Taube, says the organization aims to maintain the Jewishness of Russian-speaking Jews, many of whom arrived in Australia detached from their Jewish roots.

“Although Russian-speaking Jews in Australia have achieved significant professional success, their participation in the social life in the existing Australian Jewish community is negligible,” Taube recently told the Australian Jewish News.

“We dream of Russian-speaking Jews becoming an integral part of the Australian Jewish life. We dream that our children will feel Jewish, and acknowledge their heritage.”