February 26, 2004
Hillel Steps Up Russia Outreach
In its 10 years of operating in the former Soviet Union, Hillel has reached thousands of Jewish students.
Now it's trying to reach more.
The move comes as an official recently appointed to head the international Jewish campus group's operations in Russia offered a frank assessment of Hillel's success at reaching students.
"I cannot say we have been that effective in engaging students," said Anna Purinson, director of Russian Hillel, arguably the largest and the most-established group here that works with Jewish college students. "Even today we come across Jewish students to whom Judaism is a shock."
Purinson, who at 26 is a veteran of the movement, made her remarks earlier this month to participants of Hillel's annual conference in Moscow.
Amid the festive mood of the conference, which marked Hillel's 10th anniversary in the former Soviet Union, Purinson and other activists painted a picture of the challenges the group faces as it works to reach out to the former Soviet Union's largely unaffiliated Jewish youth.
Hillel's presence in the region -- brought here with support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee - generally has had a positive impact.
The movement has a network of 27 full-time centers and a dozen affiliated youth groups devoted to bringing Judaism and Jewish experiences to young and mostly assimilated Jews in seven of the former Soviet republics.
More than 10,000 Jewish students participate annually in Hillel's activities in the region, according to Yossi Goldman, the outgoing Jerusalem-based director of Hillel in the Former Soviet Union, who is credited with creating the network of Hillel centers in the region.
But the number of those who participate regularly in the group's regular activities still is relatively small -- and only a fraction of the 10,000 annual participants.
Osik Akselrud, who has headed Kiev's Hillel since its founding in 1995, said his group has about 100 active members, and about 400 more regularly attend holiday events.
But there are perhaps just as large a number of Jewish students in Kiev who are not involved Jewishly in any way, Akselrud said. He recently was appointed director of Hillel in six formerly Soviet countries.
To attract more students, Hillel now is adopting a more aggressive outreach strategy.
"We are coming out into a bigger world, we will be coming to campuses, clubs and museums. We will be going to all those places where we can find Jewish students to engage more of them," Purinson said at the opening of the conference in Moscow on Feb. 4.
Unlike in the United States, where most Hillel chapters work with Jewish students on specific campuses, Hillel in the former Soviet Union operates community-based centers that reach out to a broader student population from multiple colleges.
Avraham Infeld, president of Hillel, attended the Moscow conference. He told participants there that the Russian experience can enrich the Hillel leadership in the United States.
"After these 10 years, there is something your American counterparts can learn from you," he told conference-goers. He made mention of a commuter college in Florida where Hillel is planning to implement a "Russian-type" operation based on the experience of Hillels in the former Soviet Union.
Ironically, the religious freedom that all of the ex-Soviet republics acquired during the past decade has translated into a challenge for Hillel: Jewish students have many more attractive options for their free time.
"A night club versus Hillel. This is a dilemma for many of these unaffiliated students that we should be talking about," said Yevgenia Mikhaleva, the first director of Russian Hillel, who was replaced by Purinson in a major staff overhaul that affected most branches of the movement's leadership in the region. "That is why the 'in' place, like Moscow or St. Petersburg Hillel, has already begun to bring some of its activities to the clubs popular with local students."
Yasha Moz, 19, a Hillel leader in the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals, said Hillel activists are scouring universities in his region looking for potential members.
"If they come across what they think is a Jewish-sounding name, they try to get in touch with the person to at least let them know they have this option to be in Hillel," he says. "And if a newcomer isn't ready yet to come for Shabbat, then he can play soccer or go skiing with us, or study English."
Many of those who participate in various Hillel activities - from English classes and sports to creative workshops and Jewish holidays celebrations - have to go an extra mile to become part of the movement.
Purinson recalled how a Moscow student recently came to the local Hillel office wanting to join the group.
"She found us in the Yellow Pages," Purinson said.
But those who already are active believe that taking the extra step is well worth it.
"I'm getting a huge emotional charge in Hillel," Moz said. "But I know that in my city there is a huge number of kids who can't get this, who can't share this sense of pride with me."
The answer, Purinson said, is to make the group more effective in attracting new members.
"And to meet these new challenges Hillel should be more resourceful in turning professional. It simply has to improve, or it will lose out to other non-Jewish options that exist," Purinson said.