Russian-speaking Jews and Where to Find Them
by Gennady F
First, let me present my Russian-speaking Jewish credentials. I was born in 1980s Odessa, Ukraine, during the Soviet period. Odessa was the most “Jewish City” in the Soviet Union, the center of Jewish literature, theater, and before WW2 a center for Zionist activities. I've lived all my adult life in South Brooklyn, the most Russian-speaking Jewish area in the U.S, and I've helped lead community outreach for a number of nonprofits operating in the Russian-speaking Jewish community. With that said, let's explore where you may find a good number of Russian-speaking Jews (RSJs)
New Jersey. You might have expected Brooklyn to be the first place to find Russian-speaking Jews. After all, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach is called little “Little Odessa” for a reason, and Brooklyn still has the highest concentrations of RSJs. However, young RSJ families are increasingly moving out of NYC and to NJ towns such as Fair Lawn, Livingston, and Malboro. Why? RSJs are obsessed with high quality education for their kids. NYC public schools are increasingly competitive and even getting top scores on entrance exams no longer guarantees a spot in a high performing public school. NJ towns such as the those mentioned above have good public school systems open to all residents. The other reason is square footage, as in real estate. While American Jews may see a co-op or condo apartment in a luxury NYC building as the ultimate status symbol, many Russians see it as another form of communal habitation – a throwback to Soviet-style living arrangements. We came to America to own a piece of land, and NJ offers this opportunity to middle-class RSJs, while still being an hour-drives away from their relatives in NYC.
Chabad. Russian Jews in America span the full range of religions observance from Hasidic to completely nonobservant. I would say that the majority of RSJs consider themselves “culturally Jewish” and observe Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and organize Bar/Bat Mitzvahs for their kids, but not much else. So why would a population that is mostly nonobservant hang out with an orthodox Hasidic sect?
As I had mentioned in my previous articles, Chabad rabbis have learned early-on that lecturing RSJs into being “more Jewish” doesn't work. Unlike other orthodox groups who tried to shame Russian Jews into being more observant, or the social justice Jews who preach political activism that is the opposite to what most RSJs believe, Chabad takes a different approach. A gathering at a Chabad shul often looks more like a family get-together than an religious event. Smoked fish, crackers, potato salad, bottles of whiskey and vodka, set on a plastic table in a crammed room feel like an intimate gathering at a home of an old friend. Chabad shluchim (emissaries) are notoriously unpretentious and as a matter of business want to be your friends and neighbors, and not all-knowing superiors. To a population like the RSJs that is skeptical of any organization with a hierarchy and bureaucracy, Chabad is a welcomed alternative. And hey, no membership fees unlike at the fancy temple down the road.
Wall Street. There is a reason why RSJs are moving to NJ, and not to let us say, Texas. That reason is that many RSJs work on Wall Street. When computers and algorithms began replacing phones and human traders, RSJs were the ones writing code for the systems that run modern trading firms. Since math and science are studied in Russian families before the baby can begin to walk (this is sometimes an exaggeration) RSJs often excel at quantitative problems solving, which is just the kind of skill Wall Street firms are looking for. The employee lists at quantitative research and development departments for many of the top hedge funds and trading firms often read like a Moscow phone book.
Jewish Community Centers, JCCs. Where do you go if you are an RSJ that is turned off by anything that has to do with religion, but you still have Jewish guilt, and feel that you should do something Jewish for your family? The answer is, you go to a JCC! As the name “Jewish Center” implies, there is something Jewish about these JCCs. Often there is an Israeli flag hanging by the entrance, mezuzahs on the door frame, and donor plaques from Jewish federations. A “Jewish enough” place for many RSJs. As an extra benefit, in these “Jewish enough” places kids can swim, learn to play a musical instrument, and take chess lessons, all of which are must-do activities for Russian-speaking families.
Jewish Parent Academy. You know what they say; just because something is a shameless plug for your own organization doesn't make it not true. The JPA is the fastest growing organization with an exclusive RSJ constituency. Currently, 55 young Russian-speaking parents are going through an exclusive learning program in two locations, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Why? Because as all the above items alluded to, RSJs love learning, and at the JPA they get to learn on a wide range of subjects, without being lectured or pressured, or an agenda.
That's my list. Let me know where you meet the most RSJs in the comment section where this article appears.