Luminaries such as Josef Trumpeldor, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Natan Sharansky, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Chaim Weizmann, Moshe Sharett and Levi Eshkol were some of the best-known pioneers who shaped modern Zionism and the State of Israel. What do all of these soldiers, linguists, poets, scientists and politicians have in common? They all represent the community that today is called “Russian-speaking Jews.”
Few people are aware of the vital and transformative contributions that Russian-speaking Jews have made to modern Zionism and the establishment of the Jewish state. For many, the connection between Russian Jewry and the State of Israel didn’t begin until the 1990s, when close to a million Jews emigrated from Russia to Israel. Now, Genesis Philanthropy Group, a global foundation that works to develop and enhance a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide, is trying to correct the record about this common misconception.
A new website, “Seventy Russian-Speaking Jews Who Shaped Israel,”
has been launched by The Jerusalem Post
with GPG’s support. The goal of the site is to educate as many people as possible about the contributions of Russian-speaking Jewry throughout history. The project highlights the monumental contributions of 70 Russian-speaking Jews who helped create modern Israel, including artists, intellectuals, political and military leaders, and many of the movers and shakers whose legacies and influence can still be felt throughout the world today.
“Genesis Philanthropy Group was launched more than 10 years ago, with the mission of strengthening the Jewish identity of Russian-speaking Jews around the world,” says Ilia Salita, president and CEO of GPG. “Russian-speaking Jews have contributed a great deal to the world and helped shape the course of world history for the better. But, without a shared sense of pride, it is hard for future generations to connect to their heritage. We strive – through this project and all of our work – to foster intellectual awareness of and an emotional connection to what has been accomplished by those who came before us, and to inspire the next generation of leaders to step into their shoes.”
The 70 Russian-speaking Jews who are included in the project represent a cross section of society, with a wide variety of backgrounds in fields including government, defense and security, Zionism, science and research, business and industry, arts and culture, medicine, technology, sports, social activism and more. Each listing is accompanied by a photo and a brief biography highlighting the subject’s contribution to Zionism and the State of Israel. Their stories are inspiring, historical and – in many cases – the stuff of legends.
To name but a few: the first IDF chief of staff, Yaakov Dori, born in Ukraine in 1899; Prof. Simon Litsyn, coinventor of the ubiquitous USB flash drive, born in Kharkiv (now Ukraine) in 1957; and Avraham Even-Shoshan, author of the authoritative Even-Shoshan Hebrew Dictionary, born in Minsk in 1906. In every area of achievement in the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, the vital contributions of Russian-born Jews are represented proudly.
Salita explains that the project’s benefits and educational value are most important for two groups: Russian-speaking Jews around the world, who for too long have not fully appreciated their history, and the Jewish community at large, which can fully honor and preserve its own history only by knowing the full story. Both groups have something unique to take away from the project, and Salita hopes they both will.
First, he says, as the community of Russian-speaking Jews has spread throughout the world, it is important to remind them of their roots and of the contributions of Russian-speaking Jews to Zionism and the State of Israel.
“It’s more critical now than ever,” he says, “as those next generations of Russian-speaking Jews need to be connected with every opportunity that exists to help them ultimately choose to remain engaged with the Jewish community and involved with Jewish action.”
Second, he says, the Jewish community more broadly – including Jews of all backgrounds and in all countries – needs to be made aware of the impact of Russian Jews throughout history.
“Everyone remembers the huge Russian aliyah, and everyone talks about the Start-Up Nation and the role of the Russian-speaking Jews in helping position Israel as a global technology leader, but that’s not enough,” says Salita. “We need to make sure that the Jewish world around us understands where we come from, what makes the Russian-speaking Jewish community unique, and the role we have played in shaping Jewish history and the State of Israel.”
The many years of antisemitism during Communist rule, Salita says, ironically helped the Russian Jews preserve their identity, “because if the world around you doesn’t let you forget that you are Jewish, then there is perhaps no stronger and more immutable force driving your Jewish identity.”
Once the Russian-speaking Jewish community became global through aliyah and through immigration to the USA, Canada, Germany and other countries, with state antisemitism gone and little external pressure, Salita says, “we started seeing a significant move toward assimilation. Something needed to be done.”
To that end, he explains, “GPG set out to launch and support various institutions, programs and projects to engage Russian-speaking Jewish communities around the world, including Taglit-Birthright, Hillel, Moishe House, Limmud FSU, PJ Library, Yad Vashem, as well as several major universities around the world. Its goal in supporting each of these organizations: to help them understand how they can be more effective and more focused working with Russian-speaking Jews around the world, how they can achieve success with this critically important community.
One of Genesis Philanthropy Group’s greatest challenges is helping to integrate Russian-speaking Jews into the communities where they live today. Salita says that North American Jewish communities have been extraordinarily helpful and welcoming to Russian-speaking Jews throughout the years. But, to ensure that these communities continue to grow and flourish, both sides need to understand each other. “If Jewish communities around the world don’t understand the perspective of Russian-speaking Jews and their contributions, then the relationship cannot be nourished and developed on the basis of full mutual understanding and appreciation. That’s why we must cultivate understanding of Russian-speaking Jews’ contributions, and that’s just what we aim to do with this project.”
To this end, Seventy Russian-Speaking Jews Who Shaped Israel is an important tool for creating better understanding between Russian Jewry and the Jewish world at large. Research has shown that the Russian-speaking Jewish community has extremely strong links between grandparents and grandchildren, and a very strong passion for the State of Israel. “This group could help bridge the gap between Israel and the Diaspora communities,” Salita says.
“As the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel concludes and we look to an even brighter and more prosperous future, it is vitally important to illustrate the contributions of Russian-speaking Jews, both for their sake, and for the sake of the community at large. Without knowing the past, it’s hard to move forward together as one people.”This article was written in cooperation with the Genesis Philanthropy Group. For more information, visit the website.
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