JEWISH IMMIGRANTS from the former Soviet Union 370.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Working in the field of Jewish identity empowerment of Russian-speaking Jews in
Israel and worldwide, it is often tempting to concentrate on the mission of
getting out and spreading around as much Jewish knowledge as
The complicated history of Russian- speaking Jewish community
includes many painful pages – “cantonist” theft of children, pogroms and
religious persecution under tzars, the upheaval of the Russian revolution and
the suppression of Jewish religious and cultural institutions, the Holocaust,
and the persistent effort of the Soviet regime to prevent any contact between
the Soviet Jews and Israel and the Jewish communities from abroad, have created
a void which is now being filled.
This history also includes a great
miracle of Yiddish culture, the bravery of the Zionist movement and the
development of the unique character of the Russian Jewish community.
after over 20 years have passed after the fall of the USSR, with the former
lands of the Soviet bloc witnessing a veritable Renaissance of Jewish communal
and spiritual life, there’s still a lot of ground to cover.
generation of the Russian- speaking Jews develops its national identity in
completely different circumstances.
It is free to work on its
understanding of its Jewish legacy, free to exchange experiences and ideas with
its peers in the global Jewish community, free to pursue its connection to
Israel – the place, the nation and the idea. There’s both a constant demand for
knowledge and a necessity to ensure that this precious commodity is of a proper
quality and “packaged” in a way that makes it relevant and
However, as an executive director of the Genesis Philanthropy
Group in Israel, I believe that in our efforts to inform the new Jewish
generation we must remember and promote those values that underpin the whole
concept of “being Jewish” – especially those which create the foundations of
Jewish communal life and inspire the drive for “tikkun olam.” Together with our
partners, we must ensure that the Jewish identity of a new generation and those
which will follow will encompass not only the Jewish knowledge – history,
tradition, sacred texts, culture and language – but also the Jewish way of
thinking, based on the principles of compassion, mercy, charity, mutual help and
care for our neighbors, those who are in need of assistance, protection and
This tradition of solidarity, brotherhood and care was always an
essential part of the Jewish culture, but it was critical for the physical
survival of the Russian Jews and the preservation of the Jewish spirit in the
lands of Russian and then Soviet empire. It was this spirit of communal cohesion
that brought Russian Jews who went to the “goldene medine” to create the
institutions of the future American Jewish community. In Israel, this tradition
found itself transformed into the basic principles which guided the leadership
of the Yishuv on its way to independence and beyond. To revive it today means to
complete the circle of Russian Jewish revival.
This is why, as a matter
of policy, we insist that in all projects that Genesis Philanthropy Group
supports or participates in Israel, there will be a substantial volunteering
component. From the summer youth camps to Taglit-Birthright groups from the
Former Soviet Union, we made it our goal to get the participants to experience
the joy of giving and the spiritual reward of helping to make our world a little
This year, in the framework of our efforts to promote the
Holocaust education, together with the Yad Vashem Memorial Complex, the American
Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint), the Jewish Agency and the Claims
Conference we have initiated the Phoenix project which, by expanding the
knowledge of young Jews from the FSU about the tragic and heroic past of their
communities, aims to motivate them to become a new vanguard of the volunteering
activities, leadership and the community-building efforts at home.
the Russian-speaking community in Israel, the need to provide comfort and
companionship to the elderly is probably even more acute than in the society in
general.This recognition drives the volunteering initiatives of many of our
partners who are engaging Russian-speaking students and young adults, such as
the Shishi- Shabbat Yisraeli project which has developed its own unique
initiative of visiting World War II veterans, especially on Jewish
“Fishka” – a multicultural young community in Tel Aviv – has
given birth to the “Art of Time” – program of workshops conducted by art
professionals in the nursing homes and centers for the elderly.
spectrum of those activities is constantly growing as our partners seek their
own independent ways to contribute to the society and develop their own
voluntary initiatives. For example, the “ISRACAMPUS ” summer camp provides the
children with an opportunity to decide by themselves what kind of volunteering
projects they want to support and to get involved with. The Mibereshit
educational initiative offers the high school students who take part in its
program “a day of helping others,” during which they join the volunteers of
various Israeli organizations working with elderly and disabled as well as
pre-school and special- needs institutions. The Russian-speaking educational
network “Machanaim” made the volunteering effort an integral part of its unique
community-building project “Kehilot.”
In Soviet mentality, both the
subject of children with special needs and psychological care were considered
taboo, with the state providing minimal or no professional care at all. In
Israel, we have supported the initiative of “Kesher” – organization for families
with children with special needs – to expand their activities among the
Russian-speakers, and the “spiritual care” grassroots project “Yad Va Nefesh,”
aimed at helping the immigrants to overcome crisis situations.
can go on and on.
In Israel and the Russian-speaking Diaspora, the
results show that when the element of tikkun olam is introduced, it is not only
accepted but enthusiastically embraced, linking together the legacy of the past
and the future of our community. This gradual interactive development of the
“giving instinct,” leading to the increased sense of community and volunteerism,
is, to my mind, the only way to ensure that our efforts will produce not just a
large number of well-informed Jewish individuals, but a global Jewish collective
– a people.
The author is executive director of Genesis Philanthropy
Group in Israel.