Book Program Connects Brooklyn’s Russian Jews to Their Heritage

The Jewish Week offered a glimpse into a book subscription program for Russian Jews in south Brooklyn with this touching portrait of a grandfather and granddaughter reading together:

It’s the Saturday ritual of Vladimir Kozlov and his granddaughter, Nomi, to snuggle up with a book, but only after Kozlov has gone through it with a dictionary close at hand. That’s because while the two love to read together, they are also study partners.

He is a Russian émigré, and 4-year-old Nomi speaks Russian at home. With picture books, they are helping each other learn English.

The Genesis Philanthropy Group funds projects that aim to build Jewish identity among Russian Jews a group that has tended to stay clear of the larger community. The organization last year started a pilot book subscription program to attract the elusive demographic. As well as helping Kozlov and his granddaughter Nomi learn English, the books help them learn about their Jewish heritage.

Through the PJ Library, a nationwide group that promotes and distributes Jewish children’s literature, Russian families can subscribe to receive free Jewish books and music for children eight and under.

When the PJ pilot launched last January, 1,500 subscriptions were available, but by June, there was a waiting list of over 800 families. A $54,000 donation from a PJ Library family in Westchester supplied the Brooklyn families on the list with subscriptions. By next month, 2,302 South Brooklyn families will be receiving PJ materials in the mail.

The demand demonstrated a desire for Jewish connection on the part of New York City’s Russian Jews, but for decades, the organized Jewish community and the Russians have struggled to reach other, said Lilly Wajnberg, who runs the Russian Division at the UJA-Federation of New York. After escaping an authoritarian regime, Russians distrusted organizations in any form. The concept of tzedakah [charity] was foreign to them as well, because no independent philanthropic sector existed in the former Soviet Union.

According to Wajnberg, Russians make up a quarter of the Jewish population in the New York Metro area but they “can’t be addressed like any other demographic.”

Russians especially tend to shy away from synagogues, a natural PJ Library partner.

“For Russians, synagogue implies membership and ritual, and these are two things to which they cannot relate,” said Leonard Petlakh, director of the Kings Bay Y, one of the three community organizations that are the PJ Library’s local partners in the Russian community.

Differences aside, it may have been the books themselves that did the trick.

The PJ Library’s emphasis on books also turned out to be a great fit for Russian Jews, said Ilia Salita, executive director of the Genesis Philanthropy Group: “Libraries were always a point of pride for Russian families.”

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