NEW YORK – The Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, or COJECO, celebrated its “bar mitzva” last night at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan’s Battery Park.
COJECO is the umbrella organization for groups that work with and within the Russian Jewish community in New York to help organize and create opportunities for immigrants and Russian-speaking Jews, and to facilitate integration with the wider American Jewish Community.
Formed in 2001 with help from New York’s UJA Federation, COJECO helps provide services for “building bridges” and “creating gateways,” as assistant executive director Olga Markus put it, between the communities. It does this through youth groups, synagogue outreach, leadership development and other community programs.
The trick, of course, is preserving the unique Russian identity while still empowering people to feel at home in America.
“I think it’s a pleasant conflict,” said Roman Shmulenson, executive director of COJECO.
“If channeled properly it can create a positive energy. We want to empower people and let them be Jewish the way they want to be Jewish. I think people really appreciate that empowerment and that freedom.”
For Markus, who used to work as an outreach coordinator for synagogues, another part of the challenge is showing people that being active in Jewish community life can add value to their own lives.
“They just don’t know how much life could be enriched with Judaism,” she said. “This [being religious] was not part of the Russian Jewish mentality for generations.”
She added that now is the time for outreach because the next generation of Russian- speaking Jews will identify as Americans.
Ilia Salita, executive director of the Genesis Philanthropy group, also had praise for the umbrella organization.
“The path of the Russian Jewish community in New York has not always been easy or clear, but we are in a better place because of COJECO,” he said.
Alisa Rubin Kurshan, senior vice president for strategic planning and organization resources at the Jewish Federation, recalled the first meeting in 2001 when the need for an organization like COJECO became understood.
“We were willing to say we don’t have all the answers, but we need to ask more questions,” Kurshan said. “Today, more the 2,000 previously unaffiliated Jews are active participants in the community.”
The keynote speaker was Joshua Spinner, CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder foundation, who spoke of the need for Russian- speaking Jews to tap into the personal narratives with which many community members can inspire the next generation of American Jews.
“It is the experience of being freed that inspires us,” Spinner said. “Many of us, at Passover, need to stretch to make the narrative of struggle in the Exodus story personal. But you possess your own narratives, and you can inspire the building of the future.”
During the evening, COJECO honored Jill W. Smith, the current president of the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women (JFEW), a board member of UJA-Federation and a philanthropist, with its “Friend of the Russian- speaking Jewish Community” award. It also feted David Kislin, past president and current Board Member, with its “Outstanding Commitment to the Jewish Community” award, and the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life with its “Community Inspiration” award.
“Thirteen years is a long time, and 13 years is a very short amount of time,” said Edward Mermelstein, COJECO’s Board President.