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The New Russian Revolution?

April 10, 2010 By:
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Longtime Jewish communal leader Gary Erlbaum addresses Russian-speaking young professionals as part of a new program that aims to bolster the Jewish identity of this demographic group in the area.

Marianna Salz may have been born in Latvia, but she grew up in the city of Philadelphia.

Salz is an immigration lawyer with many friends -- also born in parts of the former Soviet Union -- who work in business, medicine and other white-collar professions. They own homes in suburban neighborhoods like Richboro and Lower Moreland, she said.

So, Salz, who considers herself Modern Orthodox, said that she bristled when she read a new report on Jews from the former Soviet Union living in this area.

According to the survey -- an 11-page supplement to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia" -- half of the 51 people interviewed reported a household income of less than $50,000, with 29 percent reporting less than $25,000.

The average age of the interview subjects was 54; close to 30 percent said that they were just managing to make ends meet. Nearly half the respondents live in Northeast Philadelphia.

"It didn't represent myself or anyone I know, period. Maybe some of my clients," acknowledged Salz, who also works part-time for the Jewish Relief Agency, which serves more than 2,000 Russian-speaking clients, mostly seniors in Northeast Philadelphia.

Salz said that a significant number of the immigrants came here too late in life to save much of anything, and now get by with government and private assistance.

Still, the picture that emerged from the report bordered on a stereotype, she asserted, and did not seem to capture the achievements and advances of a generation of new Americans.

The extent to which the numbers accurately reflect the demographic reality is one important question raised by the release of the report, which was commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

More telling may be whether or not the study -- and the reaction to its release -- illustrates a gap in how the Russian community perceives itself and how it is perceived by the broader Jewish establishment.

'Issues for Further Analysis'

For their part, officials involved with the study readily acknowledge that the supplement, based on limited interviewees, is less reliable than the main population study -- making it difficult, if not impossible, to use the report to compare the Russian population to the larger Jewish community. The primary reason is that a much higher degree of randomness was involved in finding interview subjects for the main study than the supplement.

"It's identifying issues for further analysis. It is not supposed to represent the community," said Etienne Phipps, director of the Einstein Center for Urban Health Policy and Research and lead author of the study.

Instead, Federation officials say that this part of the survey was intended to be a first glance at a population that they admittedly do not know or understand as well as they would like.

"It's a very tough community to get to know; they are not predisposed to open dialogue," said Alex Stroker, Federation's chief marketing officer, who was born in Odessa and immigrated to the United States 35 years ago.

Andre Krug, executive director of the Klein JCC, which serves thousands of elderly Russian speakers in the Northeast, said that the income figures were plausible because of the significant number of Russian seniors who have little or no real income, and rely, in part, on Supplemental Security Income benefits.

"When we talk about seniors, we talk about really poor seniors," said Krug. "Some of the things in the report seemed to be OK, some seemed to be a little off, and some seemed to be way off."

The Federation and other local Jewish organizations have long placed a priority on serving the needs of an elderly immigrant population; many are now asking whether enough emphasis has been placed on promoting Jewish identity among the younger generation.

As Leonard Barrack, Federation's president, put it: Did the community devote inordinate time and resources to help resettle so many Jews from the former Soviet Union, only to lose their children to assimilation?

According to Barrack, Jewish organizations in the area have paid scant attention to the Russian community, which, in turn, hasn't always been open to working with established entities.

"I'm very conscious of this segment of the Russian population who have been unattached, unconnected to the Jewish community in Philadelphia," said Barrack.

Of the 1,217 telephone interviews conducted in the spring of 2009 for the overall population study, just 35 -- or about 2 percent -- identified as Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Federation officials had hoped to include an addendum on Russian Jews in the original report, but it was decided that not enough interviews had been conducted. They did conduct some additional interviews, but because of the sampling method, the study's authors did not estimate the size of the Russian Jewish population. Several officials who work with the community put the figure at about 25,000, which, at a minimum, would account for roughly 8 percent of the overall local Jewish population.

Even with their limitations, the findings did reinforce long-developing trends. One is that while the Northeast is still a major population center -- especially for elderly and less well-off Russians -- the community has branched out to other locales, especially nearby Bucks County.

While 45 percent of respondents live in the Northeast, 39 percent reside in Bucks, 6 percent live along the Old York Road corridor and 10 percent in other locales. Krug, himself a first-generation American, noted that his neighborhood of Huntingdon Valley in Montgomery County has also become a popular neighborhood for Russian Jews.

Not surprisingly, 57 percent of the respondents arrived in the area during the major exodus of Soviet Jews between 1990 and 1999. An additional 20 percent came during the 1980s.

And just 4 percent relocated here in the 2000s, according to the report.

Some say that Russian Jewish young adults are far less Jewishly engaged than their American-born counterparts, a legacy of the religious suppression their elders experienced in the Soviet Union.

Others note that, having achieved financial success and fully established themselves as Americans, some Russian Jewish young professionals are seeking to explore their Judaism.

'A Lot More to Teach'

Rabbi Akiva Pollack, education director of the Beth Solomon Kollel and Community Center, an Orthodox congregation in Northeast Philadelphia that serves a largely Russian speaking populace, noted that he has seen heightened interest, but reported that the challenges are unique.

"Most Russians have no clue about Judaism," he explained. "The lack of Jewish knowledge is much higher. We have a lot more to teach."

Dimitriy Moverguz -- the 29-year-old executive director of Davai, a new organization that serves Russian Jews in their 20s and 30s -- said that many of his cohorts identify either as Russians or Americans, rather than as Jews. While his parents' generation identified as Jews because of unrelenting anti-Semitism, the younger set is having a harder time finding reasons to connect.

"Because of anti-Semitism, Jews had to know that they were Jewish and stick together, in order to virtually survive," he said. "But the various cultural and traditional aspects of that identity were pretty much lost."

If parents clung to their Judaism in their former Soviet homes because of a siege mentality, then their children, living in a free society, are struggling to claim their own reasons for remaining in the Jewish fold, he said. He also asserted that the Russian-speaking community here has been less organized and more distant from the mainstream Jewish community than in other cities, such as Boston and New York, where more programs and organizations work to bolster connections.

Vitaly Rakhman, who publishes several Russian-language newspapers in the area, said that, in terms of resettling in a new country and starting new lives, most families would call their immigration experience a success story.

But in terms of building a viable Jewish community, he considers the story a failure.

Rakhman blames this partially on Philadelphia's established Jewish community. While Federation and other agencies, like the JCCs, have done much to provide for their social-service needs, many underestimated how much Russian Jews needed to learn about their own heritage, he said.

Barrack agreed that the local community, which did so much initially on behalf of Soviet Jewry, hasn't paid nearly enough attention to what he referred to as a potential "lost generation."

Part of the problem, he continued, came from resistance and skepticism from Russian Jewish leaders themselves. But that, he added, is now changing.

Barrack said that he's using his president's discretionary funds to provide seed funding to a joint project run by Beth Solomon, Davai and RAJE: The Russian Jewish Experience, a New York-based program.

It entails a 10-week course in Jewish studies -- participants learn on Sundays -- followed by a 15-day trip to Israel. Nearly 80 people are taking part.

Barrack hailed this as a major first step: "I think we are now on our breakthrough. It's a solid move in the right direction."

Moverguz said that both the program -- and the fact that Federation conducted the Russian study at all -- is a sign of progress, and bodes well for the future cooperation between the next generation of Russian-speaking Jews and the local community.

"For sure, it is a huge breakthrough," Moverguz said of the Israel program, though he added that far more needs to be done. He noted that the Israel trip falls essentially under Orthodox auspices, and a full range of options catering to Russian-speaking Jews needs to be offered.

The early study of the community is a start, but he's hoping to see what "potential things that could be done further."

To view the full supplement on the local Russian community, log on to: www.jewishphilly.org/local_includes/downloads/40088.pdf.

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