The Russians Are Camping!
Friends for just a few days, Havurah campers learn Russian-Jewish history and save time to hang
out together outside a bunk. Carolyn Slutsky
by Carolyn Slutsky
Barryville, N.Y. — It’s Russian-Jewish journey day at Havurah, and the refuseniks are shouting.
Chants of, “Let My People Go!” and “Let Us Leave and Live!” echo through the barn-like building while handmade posters, some penned with Russian words, show slogans like, “We Deserve to be Home!”
The campers, part of a pilot project aimed at bringing teenage and young adult Russian speakers into the Jewish fold, have been split into groups around the room strung with Israeli flags. And they are articulately explaining to their peers what segment of the Soviet-era Russian-Jewish community they represent: the Jews who wanted to leave and go to Israel, those who wanted to stay and have equal rights in the Soviet Union, or those others who joined with the Communists and protested any Western influence. One of the counselors, Yasha Moz, wears a T-shirt that reads, “Gorky Park.”
At the end of the activity, one group is given a piece of paper written entirely in Russian.
“Oh my God,” someone says, “are we supposed to, like, read this?”
The campers at Havurah are typical of the rising generation of Russian-speaking Jews: though most of their parents left Russia and immigrated either to Israel or directly to America, staying closely tied to their Russian language and culture, the young adults know little of the modern history of Russian Jewry or the specifics of their parents’ struggles.
And though Russian speakers, who demographers estimate make up some 20 percent of American Jewry, and 25 percent in the New York metropolitan area (along with 750,000 in the United States), comprise a significant segment of American Jewry, most of them have had little exposure to Jewish religion or culture in the former Soviet Union. As a result, years after the last big wave of immigration, they have little connection to the larger American Jewish community today.
The new camp program, believed to be the first of its kind to target Russian-speaking teens, appears as groups like RAJE (the Russian American Jewish Experience) and Generation-R, both formed in recent years, are offering new frameworks for young Russians to engage their Jewish identities.
Havurah’s inaugural year is being held at Camp Tel Yehudah, Young Judaea’s 60-year-old leadership camp located in this hamlet on the Delaware River. The idea is that the kids from Havurah will be able to mix with the TY campers from other Jewish backgrounds, and be introduced to Jewish camping, Shabbat, rafting, as well as new friends. Funding to subsidize the two-week program’s cost, keeping it to a low $675-per-camper, was provided by the Genesis Philanthropy Group, whose aim is to promote Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide. The camp (which ran July 19-Aug. 3) is a partnership of the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
David Weinstein, director of Tel Yehudah, hopes TY’s longstanding traditions of pranks and friendships will make their way fast to the Havurah campers. He also recognizes the need for a program for this population of campers.
“This is the logical next step of Jewish peoplehood,” he says. “If we’re really about pluralism, this is the future of the Jewish people.”
Just before lunch, the kids stand outside one of the boys’ bunks, friends for just four days but already reciting rap lyrics and teasing each other.
On his way to the dining hall, which is located at one end of an idyllic green lawn with the low sound of a riding mower never far away, Max, a 15-year-old from New City, N.Y., strides across the grass and talks about his parents. They immigrated in 1992 from Moscow and made sure their younger son, who speaks English with no accent, is also fluent in Russian.
“Russian will let me get a leg up because with globalization, the more languages you know the better, and my parents understand that,” says Max.
He was not raised in a traditional synagogue, and says, “I don’t believe in organized religion to get my point across to God.” But his family celebrates the Jewish holidays, and he feels asserting his Russian Jewish identity is meaningful.
“It’s really important to continue our heritage in America. If everyone was the same type of American it wouldn’t be a democracy,” he says, articulating his parents parents’ opinion and his own. “And it would be boring.”
In the dining hall the boys are reminded to wear kipot, and everyone directs their attention to a large TV screen that shows transliterations from Hebrew for mealtime prayers. Over a not-exactly Russian lunch of tacos, rice and beans, a few girls talk about camp.
Paulina, 14, from the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, says she came to camp because “my mom wants me to exercise and to learn more about Jewish culture.”
Chantalle, 13, whose mother is from Uzbekistan and father from Israel, says she speaks Russian mainly to her housekeeper in New Jersey, and is meeting new people at camp.
After the meal, a counselor takes the microphone.
“One of the ways we connect to Israel is through song,” he says. “Try it, future leaders!” and they sing a Hebrew song with lyrics that translate to, “Me and you together we can change the world.”
Sam Kliger, director of Russian Jewish Community Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, is an expert in Russian Jewish demographics and community, and also sent his two teenaged children to Havurah. He feels the camp is a helpful step in further integrating Russian Jews into the larger Jewish community, and wanted to expose his own children to Jewish traditions in the company of peers with a similar language and background,
“For my kids, they were born here, they’re Americans,” says Kliger, who took his children and their new friends for pizza when the camp traveled to Manhattan for the day, and watched as they spoke exclusively English. “For them what happened in the Soviet Union is ancient history, they cannot imagine how was life there.”
As an intentional part of its design, Havurah has many counselors from Russian-Jewish families. Most are in their 20s and were born in the waning days of the Soviet era, immigrating to Israel or America as children. They glide effortlessly between Russian and Hebrew, a kind of “Rus-brew” with a sprinkling of English that mirrors the “Spanglish” so ubiquitous on New York City streets.
Sitting in a gazebo in the middle of the lawn, the counselors discuss what drew them to work at camp.
Simona Vainberg, 21, says she’s “kind of a Russian in denial.” Living in Israel, being a Russian Jew has not been a big part of her identity and she was reluctant to work at Havurah.
“But now, having my own process, I’m thinking maybe it’s fine to be Russian, and the kids are coming from a similar place.”
Manashe Khaimov, 21, was born in Uzbekistan where a Jewish camp he attended captured his interest. He immigrated to Forest Hills, Queens, eight years ago and says, “I knew I was Jewish but I didn’t bother with it.”
In college he met other Jews and thought, “If I’m comfortable being Jewish, I should get it out there.”
Anna Vainer, emissary for FSU émigré community in North America at JAFI who helped design the program, says Havurah has a twofold mission: to introduce Jewish camping and Jewish values to Russian-speakers who have not known them or may have been alienated or uncomfortable in Jewish environments; and to provide to non-Russian campers and counselors from the Jewish community a chance to learn about the unique history of Russian Jews.
“It’s natural to assume they would somehow be bridged but now, but somehow they’re not,” she says of the two cultures.
Ben Perlstein, 19, a longtime TY counselor from Boston who is working with Havurah, says seeing kids exposed to Jewish culture for the first time and discovering new parts of themselves every day has made a major impact on him.
At Israeli dancing one day, he was particularly struck by the novelty of the activity for the campers.
“Every kid was dancing and they’d never done that a day and a half ago,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for 10 years so it’d be easy to take it for granted, but at Havurah you take nothing for granted.”
Vainer helped recruit campers in the New York City area, and says it was often difficult to convince Russian parents to send their children to a Jewish camp, so mistrusting were they of anything Jewish. She also points to the lack of Jewish communal workers in the Russian community, and hopes Havurah is training some future leaders, along with providing a fun two weeks.
Moish Soloway, assistant executive director at the Hebrew Free Loan Society and a Russian émigré who works with that community, says for the youngest generation of Russian Jews now living in the United States, the history their parents lived through is often entirely unknown to them. He says that a camp that exposes teens to their own history and heritage, and trains them to be future leaders, is a welcome addition.
“If this is the model of the camp, it’s great,” says Soloway. “This creates something really tangible around which these young Russian Americans can build their identities.”
Back at the lunch table Ilana, a 14-year-old camper, remembers that in past summers, when she and her cousin went to camp, they would speak Russian to each other secretly, a language all their own that no one else would understand.
“Now,” she says, “everyone understands.
August 5, 2009
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