Israel as crucible

Russian-speaking youth explore their Jewish identity through Project Rimon.

Project Rimon participants 311 (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)
Project Rimon participants 311
(photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)
This summer marks 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the beginning of a new era for Russian Jewry. For pain-filled decades this population suffered from discrimination, both in the practice of their religion and in the pursuit of educational and professional opportunities.
Today, the situation has changed dramatically. No longer hindered by the constraints of the communist regime, Russian Jews, alongside their compatriots in post-Soviet countries, now enjoy most of the liberties previously associated with the West.
Despite this transformation, openly displaying Jewish pride in Russia and other former Soviet republics remains a very complex issue. While Russian Jews are free to observe their faith and enjoy freedom of expression, many stigmas still surround public displays of observance, a reflex rooted in the communist era. Sentiments of this kind continue to pervade Russian society.
In recent years, community leaders recognized that in spite of our new freedom, we were losing the battle to sustain Jewish souls. The answer came in the form of one of childhood’s most beloved institutions – summer camp.
Project Rimon, an initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, has for the past three years been gathering campers together in locations around the world and providing a common ground for Russian-speaking Jewish youth united by this unique cultural challenge.
Participants in the Israel program include Russian- speaking teens from former Soviet countries, new immigrants who have come to Israel over the past few years and children born in Israel to parents who were part of the great Russian aliya in the early nineties. These children often consider themselves more Israeli than Russian.
In Israel, the population is more of a mosaic than a melting pot. Those with strong identities that deviate from the standard Israeli one can often feel alienated. The Rimon camp organizers realize that while the campers do not have to “feel” Russian, they can uncover the other ways they are one cohesive group – their Jewish heritage.
As is the case with many Jewish Agency programs, the focus is on Israel as the source of Jewish pride and inspiration.
Over a two-week period, these children, many of whom viewed Judaism as only their ethnic heritage but never as a fundamental, defining aspect of who they were, begin to discover that their Jewish identity had the potential to become a central facet of their lives.
By developing leadership and creative skills, and through dialogue about Judaism and Israel, the campers begin to change their outlook on what it means to be a Jew and how to incorporate their Judaism into their daily life.
For example, on a day trip to Hasmonean Village in central Israel, campers discovered their personal and family connections to the land and people of Israel through the language, food and dress of various local attractions. Actually seeing the how they are part of the history and heritage of the Jewish people is an important part of the Rimon educational program and one that has the most powerful impact on its participants.
The camp never tries to distance the child from his or her cultural identity – the opposite actually – and we firmly believe that this must remain an integral part of how the campers views themselves.
The many questions campers have regarding their “dueling identities” are addressed with compassion and knowledge and children begin to recognize that their strength and uniqueness lies in the very complexity of their cultural heritage, with the connection to Israel at the core.
The author moved to Israel from Moscow in 1990 at age 8. She most recently served as a staff counselor at Project Rimon’s summer camp in Israel. She currently resides in Jerusalem.