Sana Britavsky and Natan Shiransky.
(photo credit: )
The only long-term social investment fund focused on Russian-speaking Jewry celebrated its second birthday in Tel Aviv last week, and highlighted the profound challenges to identity faced by the far-flung Russian Jewish communities.
Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG), founded by four Russian Jewish billionaire businessmen, has set itself the goal of connecting Jews to "Jewish values, culture, and ethics." But not necessarily to religion.
For Russian-speaking Jews, Jewishness "is more cultural than religious, more emotional than technical," according to Sana Britavsky, executive director of GPG Israel.
Russian Jews know they are Jews, she insists. "We feel Jewish as we wander the world. We are different from the Russian world that we come from." But, alongside their uniqueness as Jews, they are also different from other Jews. "Russian Jewry thinks differently from other Jewish communities, since Jewish identity is very different in different places," says Britavsky.
At Tel Aviv's chic Azrieli towers last week, Genesis held a slightly belated birthday party celebrating two years since its start of operations in September 2007.
It has since contributed millions of dollars to dozens of programs, large and small, in Israel, the United States and the former Soviet region that can help keep Russian-speaking Jews Jewish.
Such a fund has been sorely lacking, believes Britavsky.
As a largely secular cultural world, Russian-speaking Jewry doesn't connect easily to, for example, American synagogue life.
Of over two million Russian-speaking Jews who left the former Soviet Union over the past generation, about half landed in Israel, perhaps 40 percent in the United States, and the remainder in Germany.
What remains of the Jewish community in Russia, Ukraine and the region is almost entirely intermarried and unaffiliated.
Thus, the challenge of preserving Russian-speaking Jewry is formidable; they are scattered in different countries and cultures, face "the tremendous temptations of the modern world," in Britavsky's words, and possess identities largely disconnected from Jewish religious life.
To keep them in the Jewish orbit, Jewish educators must appeal to their sensibilities, developing programs "that fit them and understand their Jewishness," explains Britavsky.
"What I'm trying to do is give them tools for life, in particular this tool called Judaism. I'm looking for programs that show them all the happiness and vividness that comes with that." Enriching their lives on their own terms means that Genesis does not focus on specific religious streams or ideological camps. Programs supported by the fund deal with preschoolers as well as the elderly, secular Jews and the observant, huge globe-spanning organizations like the Jewish Agency and birthright Israel and tiny local ventures such as the immigrant-cast "Mikro" theater in Jerusalem.
"We don't care what religious stream you are, or what your level of religiosity," she says of the programs she seeks, "but you have to be capable of making systemic changes, not just publicity." Thus, Genesis funds about one-third of Nativ, a Jewish studies program operating inside the IDF for Russian-speaking immigrant soldiers. Nativ specializes in helping non-Jewish soldiers who are the family members of Jews to prepare for conversion through Israel's Chief Rabbinate.
In Israel, Genesis funds many such systemic efforts, such as Taglit-birthright Israel, Yad Vashem educational projects and programs by the New Israel Fund.
In the FSU, it funds programs ranging from a Moscow youth soccer club to tolerance programs for high schoolers based on study of the Holocaust. It even supports a Jewish studies research center at the Russian State University for the Humanities.
But its broad reach is most noticeable in the US, where the fund pays for scholarships for Russian-speaking Jewish youth to study at Brandeis University, supports the Orthodox youth group Ezra USA and helps finance the eclectic post-denominational informal Jewish gatherings known as "Limmud" across North America.
Genesis tackles head-on the question of Russian Jewish identity in a way that none have done before. Its Web site explains its funding strategy in Israel by noting the "complications" inherent in Russian-speakers' Jewish identities.
"Having acted on their Jewishness by moving to the Jewish state, [Russian-speaking Jews] find their very identity challenged by the twin forces of the secular-religious divide and the political and religious implications of the 'who is a Jew?' debate, leaving numerous Russian Jews even further on the margins."
Instead of taking sides, Genesis wants to preserve all these interweaving identities simultaneously: "[allowing] Russian-speaking Jews to connect to their Jewish identity, while also helping them integrate into Israeli society, while retaining their links to their Russian-Jewish heritage. As many FSU-born olim become more successful economically and begin to acquire a new identity, Genesis aims to work with them to ensure they see themselves not only as Israelis but also as Jews."
Mikhail Fridman, one of the Moscow-based businessmen who established the fund, sent a short video-taped speech to be played at the Tel Aviv party. He used the speech not for congratulations, but to offer his own account of the challenge of Russian Jewish identity.
Russian Jews "are not very religious," he said. "Most of us don't follow many rules and traditions that are characteristic of Jews. We don't speak the national language, whether Hebrew or Yiddish. We're just simple citizens of the countries [where we live]." Genesis must work to preserve and encourage "the values and principles of the Jews," rather than any specific notion of religion or nationhood, he explained.
And, said another speaker, in strengthening the identity of Russian-speaking Jewry, the Jewish world would gain a powerful resource.
"No other Diaspora group has as many
relatives in Israel" as the Russian-speaking Diaspora, said Ukraine-born MK Ze'ev Elkin. Their relatively recent scattering into Israel, the US and Europe means that Russian-speaking Jewry can be an important plank in better connecting Israel with the Diaspora.
"Regardless of their level of prosperity, American Russian-speakers visit Israel twice as often as other American Jews," he noted. "They are connected intimately, personally to life in Israel."
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