For North American Jews of Russian origin, the issue of identity is complex. "Many of the younger generation no longer speak Russian as a primary language and their connection to Jewish heritage is fragile," notes Anna Vainer, recently appointed Jewish Agency shlicha to North America's Russian-speaking communities.
A large proportion of Russian Jews have first-degree relatives in Israel and they take pride in their ties to Israel. Yet, the American Jewish culture of affiliation with synagogues and community institutions does not come naturally to these immigrants. The community is at a turning point in their absorption into American society. There are young parents who want to convey a sense of Jewish identity to their children, but efforts must be invested in developing meaningful and appropriate ways to help them nurture the connection.
The challenge is to create new paths to explore and strengthen Jewish identity. To meet this challenge, Anna joins a team of emissaries sent by the Jewish Agency with the generous support of the UJA Federation of New York, which has taken a pioneering role among Federations in meeting the unique needs of this population. A range of educational projects spearheaded by Jewish Agency emissary Viktor Vitkin focus on nurturing Jewish identity and knowledge of Israel through diverse venues, such as the B'Yachad summer camps which engage teen campers in multidimensional activities to introduce them to Israel's history, cultural arts, and Hebrew. To address the needs of students of Russian origin, the Agency's Telem initiative conducts sessions on Jewish history, identity, and Israel. Students also attend weekend programs and a seminar in Israel, enriching their own knowledge and cultivating the skills to be counselors and leaders in informal educational activities.
Anna Vainer believes that her own background will prove helpful in addressing the issues. She was born in Kiev in 1980 and immigrated to Israel with her family in 1991. Anna completed her IDF service with distinction, earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Haifa and worked for six years in developing educational programs for Russian speakers. Her experience as a "young ambassador" in a program of Israel's Foreign Ministry reinforced her desire to represent Israel overseas. She believes there are many venues that must be opened and a critical component of her work is sharing the urgency of the mission with American Jewish community leaders. By conservative estimates, there are 600,000-700,000 Jews of Russian origin in North America – that is one of every six North American Jews. As the rabbinic literature states: The task is great and time is short.