Russian-Jewish Americans Build a Community All Their Own

They don't fully connect with U.S. Jews, but they also don't dream of Mother Russia; young professionals gather via 'Davai'.

They don't use Yiddish or Hebrew words, as U.S. Jews often do. But they do mix 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 in Israel for a few years before their parents decided to move on. They still feel stuck between two cultures.

A dozen young people sit around a long table at the Philadelphia apartment of Dmitry Moverguz, who set up the nonprofit group Davai for young Russian Jewish professionals. After Kiddush I say "Shabbat Shalom," which makes them burst out laughing. Some are wearing skullcaps for this Sabbath dinner. The food they bought is kosher, even though they cooked it after the start of the Sabbath. The TV is tuned in to a baseball game.

Oren Shomron

"Davai" is Russian for "Let's!" The group meets for Shabbat, Halloween, Hanukkah and Russian New Year. For the latter, the home is decorated with a New Year tree, that Christmas tree-lookalike that horrified Israel's religious authorities following the massive influx of Soviet Jews two decades ago. "As long as there's a reason to drink!" they proclaim, the old Russian joke. The organization offers Hebrew lessons and martial arts sessions through an Israeli instructor. They frequently partner with local Jewish organizations on educational and entertainment events or trips to Israel, but they seek to maintain their independence.

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They share some concerns with their U.S.-born Jewish peers: marrying within their faith, for example. "If I'd stayed in Russia, by now I'd probably be married to some Russian girl, and I wouldn't care about her religion," 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 come to a free country and not marry a Jewish girl."

But they won't necessarily marry native-born American Jews. "U.S. Jews are a little strange; I don't totally get their mentality," says Vinogradov. We talk, but - how can I explain it? - it's not from the soul. But there is some hope: We have some mixed couples - some guys who married Jewish Americans. They're lucky, because they have more girls to choose from."

Vinogradov has mixed feelings about religion - he loves studying with local Orthodox Jews, but he was born to an atheist family, so he's not entirely comfortable with religion. "About three years ago I started feeling ashamed that I'm a Jew but don't know much about Judaism," he says.

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

"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, I have my fingers crossed in my pocket."

How does he feel about Israel? "Israel is my homeland, but I probably won't ever live there. I feel like it's mine, but I won't live there." His mother, he says, was a typical Russian Jewish mother who feared sending her son to serve in an army where people actually fight, namely the Israel Defense Forces.

"I had no problem with that - it's probably the only army I would 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?"

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

Heifetz says he lived in Petah Tikva from 1991 to 1994, at which point the family moved to Toronto. When he visited Israel with the group, 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 deal that freed Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. The whole group switches to English.

"Stalin refused to swap his eldest son, [a POW] for a general," says Julia Vinnitsky, who left Kiev for the United States in 1988, and who works in sales. "He said he wouldn'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 nostalgically discuss their favorite childhood foods and cartoons, but they feel no nostalgia for Russia. Heifetz hasn't visited since he left at age 5. Shapiro says he left at 7 but still can read and write Russian "with a few mistakes." All say 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 more than 20 years in the United States, she prefers the company of other Russian immigrants.

Heifetz gives a small example. "At our company we were asked to bring 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."

At some point, the U.S. Jewish community seems to have given up on its Russian Jewish immigrants. Most didn't have heroic refusenik stories, didn't know much about Jewish tradition, showed no particular interest in Jewish community institutions and were suspicious of 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 community here was reinforced with the arrival of Russian Israelis, the Jewish Agency started sending special emissaries to work with Russian-speaking communities there.

Davai's Moverguz came to the United States with his family from St. Petersburg in 1992, when he was 12. He studied computer science in Philadelphia, and his interest in Jewish life started afterward.

"I guess I was searching for myself," he says. "At first my parents were happy that I was more connected and meeting Jewish girls. But now, since I'm 31, not married and ... I've 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 to connect Russian Jews with their American-born peers. Two groups from Chicago and Philadelphia were sent for a historical-cultural experience in Spain, and Moverguz and a colleague were recruited to expand the program. And when the sponsors got cold feet and closed down the operation, the two decided to proceed on their own.

They organized their first event about three years ago, via Facebook. It was a success - more than 150 people showed up. Gradually the group grew to more than 250 members in Philadelphia - all young Russian-speaking professionals who came to the United States in the 1990s, 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 if 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 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 group's members took part in Birthright programs but were looking for an alternative to synagogue membership. "I went to Israel with Birthright in my junior year in college but went to Shabbat dinner afterward maybe once," Moverguz says.

Last summer, Davai participated in a program sponsored by several organizations - a three-month seminar of Judaism studies, followed by a trip to Israel with young U.S.-born Jews. Many of them continue to meet. "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 doesn't the group charge membership fees? "I'm afraid it will scare off new people," Moverguz says. "Those who come more often, I ask for donations, and they tend to give." But he says he doesn't know what the group's future is.

"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."

Different people come every Shabbat. Some are veteran participants, 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 whomever you want."

"No one knows for sure how many Russian Jews live in the United States," says Louisa Valitsky, the Jewish Agency's main emissary to Russian-speaking communities in North America. "Estimates are between 750,000 and 1 million, with about half living in New York City and New Jersey." Valitsky 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 after-school activities for kids.

Valitsky says there is much sense in a special outreach program for Russian-speaking Jews because, "few of them have any prior 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 acknowledges that many of the young Jewish immigrants are well off, but says it's unrealistic to expect them to donate to Jewish institutions. "Their connection to Judaism is too weak and many of them inherited an anti-institutional ethos 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."