As the emergent political force following the 2009 Knesset elections, Israel Beiteinu has lofty goals. But as the third-largest party in the country continues to reach high, it also is keeping an eye down low – at the challenge of establishing grass roots in a party founded 11 years ago. It is perhaps with this in mind that the party recently backtracked – to the heady days of the pre-state era – to find itself a youth movement that could do for it what Betar does for the Likud, Habonim Dror for Labor and Bnei Akiva for the National Religious Party.
Israel Beiteinu found Ezra, a movement better known here as the haredi national religious movement, but a movement of quite a different color in North America and the former Soviet Union.
There, the 90-year-old movement has taken on a completely different face as the youth movement for Russian Jewish young adults, helping them build and understand the Jewish identity in communities where they often feel much more Russian than Jewish.
On Sunday Ezra USA dedicated its first youth center, the Dmitriy Salita Youth Center in Brighton Beach, New York. In attendance were Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Knesset heavyweight and Israel Beiteinu Secretary-General MK Faina Kirshenbaum.
“Israel Beiteinu has a special bond with Ezra USA,” said Ezra USA officials in a notice in advance of the opening. “One of Ezra USA’s goals is to strengthen its members’ connection to Israel. For Ezra USA members, Israel Beiteinu, with its strong Russian support base, represents the important role Russian Jews play in Israel. More importantly, this very senior Israeli delegation lets Ezra USA’s members know that major Jewish leaders value them and want to foster a relationship with them.” “Every Zionist party has a youth movement, everyone, that is, but the third-largest party in the country, Beiteinu, because it is new and doesn’t have those roots” explained Ezra USA director David Roitman.
“The movement was established by the Russians, but has turned into something beyond that.
That is what Ezra is too – it began as something sectoral and ethnic and has become something international, in North America, South America and Europe. So here we have the basis for connection between a major movement that also wants to build something in the Diaspora and Ezra.
“Israel Beiteinu would like to build something based on Russian Jews overseas, but that would take years and it would have to concentrate on just that. And at the same time, Ezra, despite being a growing and dynamic group, was sort of an orphan. As big as we are, sometimes you need that extra support – not even political support, but just of status. Today, all of our Birthright groups come to the Knesset and our youth feel that they are given good treatment – ministers and MKs meet with them – and they feel important and that they have the ability to influence.”
Due to the alliance between Israel Beiteinu and Ezra, said Roitman, “the influence today of World Beiteinu on Jewish youth suddenly became much greater and it is the closing of a circle. A movement started by Jews who came to Israel from the Diaspora is now reaching out again to Diaspora Jews.”
Ezra, he said, “tries to be apolitical in Israel – our members don’t vote and we don’t have a reason to waste our forces on politics. Jewish affiliation is more important to us, but at the same time I think that the general affiliation of most Russian Jews is right-wing, or in our terms extremely right-wing. It is possible, I suppose, that the influence of Beiteinu will make them more political. Today I think they pass more pro-Israel messages than political, because these youth aren’t involved in the elections. These youth are disconnected completely from Israel. If we deal with Jewish affiliation, then Beiteinu brings in the pro-Israel side. They bring the perspective that it is important to us that they are part of Israel, and that gets them involved.”
THE GOAL of both organizations, said Roitman, is not simply political. Instead, he said, they are “acting to resurrect the Jewish Russian community, which is currently not related to Judaism or to Israel.” The second generation in America, he explained “has more Russian characteristics than Jewish ones.” In many cases, Russian Jewish American youth only really become aware of the differences between them and their Christian Russian counterparts when issues of dating and intermarriage arise.
“The first generation at least knew that they were Jewish by the restrictions placed on them by the Soviet regime. They were Jewish because it was written in their documents. But this generation never faced those restrictions, and instead, in America, they listen to Russian music, see Russian films and are immersed in Russian immigrant culture.” Ezra, he said, is trying to combat the phenomenon by offering a “cool” alternative that does not push religion, but seeks to culturally reach out to the youth. Many Russian Jewish immigrant parents who grew up in the Soviet Union were poorly equipped, he added, to teach their children about a legacy that they themselves were forbidden from learning by the communist regime.
Ezra also sponsors a Birthright trip to Israel, a trip designed
specially for the needs of Ezra’s members, with visits to Yad Vashem and
the Western Wall alongside visits to Russian-language theaters and
cultural activities – and to the Knesset, of course, to meet with
representatives of Israel Beiteinu. Ezra members pay their own way,
however, on the movement’s other Jewish-centered tours to South Africa,
Argentina, Europe and the Far East.
Youth movements may seem to be a historical anachronism, but Ezra USA is
nothing but 21st-century slick. The movement has scrapped the
traditional peasant shirt of Zionist youth movements for a polo shirt
bearing the movement’s symbol, and on the movement’s Web site, academic
lectures on historical and Jewish perspectives on Jesus sit side-byside
with Poker Night. And unlike many other youth movements, Ezra USA has
no, well, youth movement.
Instead, it is open to young adults between 18 and 30 and uses the
Internet, social networking tools and hip cultural references (starting
with the slogan a “new Jew-neration”) to draw in the crowds.
And yes, Salita was there on Sunday. Although the Israeli political
figures may be used to political brawls, the Odessa-born religious
Jewish boxer is the image that Ezra USA officials hope will pack the
punch with the new generation of Russian Jews. Salita, like many of the
center’s prospective clientele, grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, but
unlike many of them, discovered Judaism as a boy. The center that bears
his name will offer expert boxing training, but is more focused on what
Roitman calls “Jewish leadership training.”
Roitman, like Salita, came from what he termed an “incomplete family”
and, like Salita, left Odessa at 11. But here their paths differed, with
Roitman immigrating alone to Israel to study in a haredi community and
eventually volunteering for service in an elite IDF unit. Salita and his
mother joined the estimated 1.5 million Russian-born Jews in America,
where he too found himself pursuing a religious lifestyle and training
to become a professional boxer.
Their paths met again almost two decades later, when both found
themselves asking “what happened to the Russian Jews.” “Salita
symbolizes both for the Jewish American community and the Russian Jewish
community the future and potential of the Russian Jewish immigrant
community in America,” explained Roitman.
Roitman also tries to provide similar symbols to the movement’s youth
that reinforce a feeling of community with Russian-speaking Jews living
in Israel. In concert with the opening of the Salita Center, Ezra is
bringing to America a delegation of Russian-speaking IDF officers to
meet with its members across the country.
“The idea is for them to listen to them, see them, and think, ‘Oh,
they’re one of us too,’” Roitman said.
The soldiers, the boxer, the politicians – together with the poker
night, the community service and even the international trips with
no-religious-stringsattached culture are part of the larger plan to
spread a wide net to catch the youth who are quickly slipping away.
This, ultimately, he said, is what links Salita and Israel Beiteinu head
Avigdor Lieberman in a common cause. “Our friendship and our joint
efforts show the effort of a transnational community trying to
rehabilitate itself and return to our roots.”