US Russian Jews don’t feel connected to community

Fifty Seven percent of Russian Jews living in the United States do not feel that they are part of the American Jewish community.

Russian-speaking Jew dances at Limmud confab_370 (photo credit: Courtesy Limmud )
Russian-speaking Jew dances at Limmud confab_370
(photo credit: Courtesy Limmud )
Fifty-seven percent of Russian Jews living in the United States do not feel that they are part of the American Jewish community, according to a poll released by Limmud FSU on Tuesday, while 40% said they feel “very much” connected to the community.
Regarding the importance of feeling connected to the Jewish community, 82% replied that it was “very important” to have such a connection and 72% stated that “the most important thing” they looked for in a child’s spouse was that he or she be Jewish.
Some 73% of respondents stated that they consider their Jewishness the most important part of their identity, while 5% replied that their Russian identity was more important and 2% said that they considered themselves American first. One-fifth of respondents said all components of their self-identity were equally important.
“The survey shows very clearly the deep connection that the young Russian Jewish community members have to the State of Israel and their Russian Jewish identity,” said Limmud FSU co-founder Sandy Cahn. “However, the majority of them still don’t feel integrated enough into the major American Jewish community.”
The survey, which was sent out to over 2,000 Limmud FSU members across the United States, examined the views of Russian-speaking Jews on a variety of topics. However, due to only 218 of those contacted responding to the survey, questions have been raised regarding Limmud’s figures.
Natalie Shnaiderman, the director of development and activities in North America and Australia for the Jewish Agency’s unit for Russian-speaking Jewry, attended the Limmud FSU conference at Princeton University this past weekend at which the results of the survey were presented.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, Shnaiderman said that while the survey reflects some significant general trends among Russian-speaking Jews, its numbers are not an entirely accurate reflection of the community.
Because most of the participants in the poll are affiliated with various communal organizations, she said, “They are much more proactive than the rest. Most of the Russian-speaking Jews are not affiliated with any agency or organization at all. They are not involved in anything.”
However, she continued, the poll’s results drawn by Limmud do “reflect the general trend.”
Shnaiderman said that she believed that a wider survey of Russian-speaking Jews would result in a lower percentage saying that their primary identity is Jewish although, she said, most Jews from the former Soviet Union “will never separate their Russian and Jewish identities.”
She noted that 73% of respondents said that their primary identity was “high.”
Regarding the 40% of respondents who stated that they felt “very much” a part of the American Jewish community, Shnaiderman said that she found this number high as well, but specified that the population does not connect through synagogue life.
“Most of the Russian Jews, young or old it doesn’t matter, don’t feel they belong to the mainstream American Jewish community,” she said.
“The American Jewish community is structured very differently and alien to the Russian Jews. They don’t relate to their Jewish identity and Jewish life through synagogue or through federation. It’s more cultural, it’s more family heritage. The entering point is absolutely different; it’s not through synagogue, it’s absolutely not religious.”
Russian Jews, she said, see how American Jews affiliate with synagogues, federations and the JCC, but these types of organizations are not part of their cultural life.
“This is not how they see Jewishness,” said Shnaiderman.
Asked if the survey could be considered truly representative, due to its limited reach, Limmud FSU’s co-founder Sandy Cahn told the Post that the poll represented a random sample of Russian American Jews in that age group and “the number of those that the survey went out to is just the amount of people we have in our database.
“We did not survey only those who are members of Limmud FSU, we surveyed everyone in our database, which is made up of people who either came to an event or expressed interest in our organization.”
Roman Shmulenson, the executive director of the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, an umbrella group for Russian Jewry in the US, called Russian-speaking Jews one of the most successful immigrant groups in the US history.
But, he added, for “a whole range of reasons, the majority of Russian-speaking Jews remain on the margins of the Jewish community.”
However, he said thanks to a number of initiatives, both within the Russian community and through local Jewish organizations, this has begun to change.
According to Shmulenson, one in five Jews in New York lives in a Russian speaking household, “70% of Russian-speaking Jews are saying that most of their friends are Jewish, the intermarriage rate is low, identification and support for Israel are high [and] many people report leading meaningful Jewish lives while not necessarily affiliating with formal institutions.”
However, he said, there is still a long way to go for them to integrate successfully.
“There is a need for a comprehensive, well thought out plan for a meaningful dialogue and programming,” he said. “Time is crucial. Many Russian-speaking Jews are becoming successful Americans, but as they leave behind their unique and distinct Russian Jewish heritage, they do not automatically become members of the American Jewish community.”
Local American Jewish leaders agree, with David Mallach of the UJA Federation of New York saying that his organization sees “the engagement of the younger Russian-speaking community as a high priority.”