‘We’re the future’

A new generation of Russian-descended Jews reconnects with their religion and culture.

Australians and Americans discuss Jewish peoplehood 521 (photo credit: Laura Kelly)
Australians and Americans discuss Jewish peoplehood 521
(photo credit: Laura Kelly)
‘There is no future for the Russian Jewish community in Sydney,” said a young Australian, in a powerful statement to a mixed group of Americans and Israelis, “because young people aren’t as interested in the old traditions.”
This is exactly the kind of sentiment KangaRuski, the only Russian-speaking Taglit-Birthright trip for Australian Jews, is trying to combat.
The first trip of its kind – with 38 participants, organized by the Jewish Agency, the Genesis Philanthropy Group and Birthright – the initiative is part of a broader range of programming looking to reconnect the Russian-speaking community to Jewish culture and religion.
A meeting was arranged between the Australians and their American counterparts to discuss Jewish peoplehood within the context of their strong Russian identity. Around 100 people attended, including Israelis of Russian descent.
Sasha Kliatchkina, the organizer of KangaRuski, is the first Jewish Agency emissary to reach out to the Russian-Jewish community in Australia. The trip is one of her first endeavors toward the creation of a local, young Russian-Jewish leadership.
Kliatchkina said that when she first arrived in Australia, she saw that young people from Russianspeaking families were not being engaged in the Jewish community, as it catered to a much older generation.
According to the Jewish Agency, the Russian-Jewish community in Australia comprises around 25,000 but is completely disconnected from Judaism and Israel. Kliatchkina echoed this sentiment saying any connection young people had to Judaism was irrespective of the religion.
“Being Jewish for many of them means being different,” she said. “Their parents or grandparents came from the former Soviet Union and it actually wasn’t a very encouraging community.”
Nana Khanikov, head of Birthright’s former Soviet Union department, said a different approach is taken with the Russian-only groups because they “are usually coming from [more] assimilated families.
“Their parents were growing up in an atmosphere of never exposing their Jewishness and talking about it.
They are the first generation that has an opportunity to talk about it.”
After the group visited Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Kliatchkina noticed a large shift in the participants’ connection to the country and Judaism.
“They are realizing they are part of something bigger,” she said. “Some have already come to tell me that they want to be more involved. To give them these opportunities is something they didn’t have before.”
Corresponding with the Jewish Agency emissary in North America, Kliatchkina wanted to show her participants the relationship to Russian communities all over the world and what those look like. It was arranged for the groups to meet on their respective Birthright trips, to bridge the gaps between the communities.
The Russian community in America is also struggling to connect its youth to Israel and Judaism.
A poll by Limmud FSU in March found that among the Diaspora, Jews from Russian-speaking families have the hardest time connecting with the American- Jewish community.
BUT UNLIKE Australia, Kliatchkina said, the US has many more Russian-Jewish organizations.
Young Judaea, the Zionist youth movement in America, saw the importance of establishing a connection among young Russian Jews and, within the framework of successful Jewish summer camps, established an emerging leader camp specifically for Jews of Russian descent.
The Havurah training camp is the only leadership camp for Russian-speaking teens. Going into its fifth year, it won the Slingshot Award for being one of the most innovative Jewish programs in the North American Jewish community. The program was recognized for its “community within a community” and supersedes the “cultural divide between the Russian-Jewish community and mainstream American Jewish life.”
Nadav Savaia, the educational director of the Birthright programs for Young Judaea, said that this group of young Jews particularly struggles with defining their identity.
Yes, they’re all Jews, Savaia said, but their Russian ancestors also have a very strong impact on their culture, daily life and how they see the world.
“We want to remind them that they are part of something bigger,” Savaia said. “Russian Jews are different than other Jews.”
“This has never happened before,” said 18-year-old Evan Zlatkis from Sydney. “It’s our Russian-Jewish heritage that connects us, because everyone knows each other, yet no one knows each other.”
Over the course of their Birthright trip, the two groups have met several times. Kliatchkina said the meetings have been meaningful for the participants on both sides, showing that they belong not only to the Jewish people, but a special group inside that share the same history, culture and language.
Ally, an American of Russian descent from Maryland, told the group that when she learned about Birthright, she didn’t know there was a trip specifically for Russians. “I don’t know any Russian and this trip was a surprise – Russians are really nice.”
Another American, a third-generation of Russian descent, said it was a last-minute mix-up that landed him on the trip and it was the best “stupid move I ever made.”
Jon Iflyand, 19 and from Melbourne, added that the trip connected them on a special level. “We all think in a Russian European sense, we communicate differently, we share the same jokes and sense of humor.”
More than one participant remarked at the encounter how being on a trip solely for Russians was a surprising comfort. “It almost feels like you’re one big family,” said Eddie, an Australian who lived in Russia until he was 12. “It’s a great experience being able to talk to people in Russian as well as English.”
And in response to the foreboding prediction of the end of the Russian Jewish community, one brave optimist stepped forth.
“I think that there is a future because we’re the future,” an Australian said. “If there’s one thing Jews do, it’s survive, and we don’t die – we are the Russians.”