Bringing Young Russian Jews Closer to Judaism

RAJE is located at the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. (Photo by Vlad Iorsh, Creative Commons license)

RAJE is located at the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. (Photo by Vlad Iorsh, Creative Commons license)

A Brooklyn-based fellowship program may be making inroads, at least according to a survey of its alumni, into the community of young Russian Jews who have little Jewish education and no familial ties to Judaism.

In a Jewish Week piece, Gary Rosenblatt writes that the program from the Russian American Jewish Experience gives 250 hours of classes on Jewish history and culture to its participants, who are 18 to 30 years of age, followed by a free two-week trip to Israel and Europe.

According to the report, made public here for the first time, graduates of the RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience) fellowship program are far more likely than their peers to study and practice Judaism, give to Jewish charities, volunteer for a Jewish organization and marry a Jewish spouse.

Kiev-born Dmitry, who did not wish to give his last name, says RAJE served as “a spark” for his Jewish identity.

“My generation is a unique breed,” he explained. “We are proud to be Jewish but know very little about it. It was beaten out of us [in the USSR], but it’s a positive connection, even if we lack the knowledge and background.”

RAJE founder Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, himself a Russian Jew, said that the organization strives to get the younger generation to “establish Jewish households, have strong connections to Israel, affiliate with Jewish organizations, and express their spiritual needs through Judaism.”

Rabbi Tokarsky is hopeful that the results of the RAJE survey, which he called “incredibly significant,” will motivate philanthropists and foundations committed to strengthening Jewish identity to support and expand the group’s efforts here and in other regions of the U.S.

He said that about 300,000 of the estimated 750,000 Russian-speaking Jews in the U.S. live in the New York area…

Why the emphasis on Russian Jews?

Rabbi Tokarsky is focusing on those communities, in part because he believes it would be difficult to replicate RAJE’s success in the general American Jewish community. He noted that the majority of young Russian Jews live in areas with a large, concentrated number of Jews, commute to a local college from home and have relatives in Israel and a strong interest in visiting them.

Read statistics on marriage rates as well as charity donations and community involvement among those surveyed, and what RAJE alumni had to say about the program, at The Jewish Week.

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