Deepening Connections With Young Russian-Speaking Jews

October 14, 2015


When Ruben Shimonov was six and a half years old, he left Tashkent, Uzbekistan with his family, heading for the unfamiliar shores of New York City.

Fitting six people into a small one-bedroom apartment in Queens proved difficult, and Shimonov recalls how his family was drained and hopeful in equal measure — dependent on assistance from others to find their footing in a new place.

That’s why meeting young Georgian Jews in July on a JDC Entwine Insider Service Trip proved so meaningful.

‘If the turn of events were a little different in my family’s life and we had stayed in Uzbekistan, this might have become our story — of living in very humble conditions, depending on aid,” he said. “And then I thought about when we first came to the U.S. with nothing to our name, exhausted day in and day out. It wasn’t so theoretical. It was me. We were dependent on aid, too, on the help and generosity of so many others.”

Shimonov, the cross-community engagement coordinator at Queens College Hillel, is part of an emergent cohort of young Russian-speaking Jews determined to use their unique backgrounds to make an impact in the broader Jewish community.

In this spirit, JDC Entwine and the Genesis philanthropy group have developed a partnership to craft and launch the first global Jewish service program uniquely crafted for Russian-speaking Jews. The partnership will increase the number of Russian-speaking Jewish college students and young professionals involved in JDC Entwine’s overseas Insider Service Trips and Learning Networks in North America.

“We are excited to see the ever-increasing role that volunteerism and service play in engaging younger generations of Russian-speaking Jews,” Ilia Salita, CEO of Genesis Philanthropy Group, said when the partnership was announced in June. “As a leader in this field, Entwine is a natural partner in widening the opportunities available, and we are thrilled to work together to bring more Russian-speaking Jews to learn from and impact Jewish communities around the world.”

Shimonov co-chaired an Insider Service Trip for Russian-speaking Jews to Argentina in August and said he was struck by the intensity of the connection between participants, who came from a wide variety of former Soviet republics.

“It doesn’t have to be a Russian thing either, and that’s what Argentina showed me,” he said. “It breathed new life into the power and effects of this shared experience either being born in or one generation removed from this historical experiment that will never happen again.”

The Argentinian cohort recently reunited for a shabbaton in New York City that drew participants from as far away as North Carolina, Montreal, and Washington, D.C. Some of the trip alumni also want to organize a special Day of Service, and Shimonov hopes to stage a series of events at the Hillel where he works to connect young Jewish professionals with young Georgian Jews, both in Queens and half a world away in Tbilisi.

Shimonov said the experience of the Soviet Union — diverse republics that still shared a highly Russified universal culture — resonates with his idea of Judaism.

“It’s this unity and diversity, which I think also resonates with the Jewish story. You had Russian-speaking Jews who were born [in the U.S.] who still connect with it. There’s really something there,” he said. “We are maybe that last generation that will still have that connection to it, so it’s important to leverage that experience.”

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