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What to Do with the American Russian-Speaking Jewish Community

by Shmuel Rosner

August 7, 2013 | 7:58 am

There's a new JPPI study on Russian speaking Jews in America. Renowned historian Jonathan Sarna did most of the work – you can see him speak about this study here. But since I also contributed to this study (as did my colleague Dov Maimon), I think it's proper for me to offer one or two snippets from it here, and to invite you to read it in full at JPPI's web site.

Here's part of what it says:

From a Jewish communal perspective, whether Russian-speaking Jews vote Republican or Democratic is far less important than whether they continue to identify as Jews. Long-term, there is much reason for concern, for peoplehood ties, important as they are, have not historically been powerful enough to prevent intermarriage in America. Indeed, intermarriages among peoples of different background have long been commonplace in the United States. American culture champions the individualistic ideal of robust choice in marriage and privileges the goal of romantic love. Ironically, the very qualities that have made American society so desirable to foreign immigrants – its tolerance, its liberal tradition, and it emphasis on individual right and privileges – are the same qualities that encourage the descendants of immigrants to marry across ethnic and religious lines.

Intermarriage poses challenges to all American Jews, of course, not just Russian speakers. But it is most prevalent among those whose religious commitments are weakest. Whereas those committed to a religious lifestyle tend to seek mates who share that lifestyle, those who are secular hardly care. Unless Russian- speaking Jews in the United States develop a strong Jewish identity and a conscious commitment to produce Jewish children, their descendants are thus likely to assimilate into the mainstream.

And here are some of the questions we have for the leaders of the community:

Russian-speaking Jews display an intense desire to become part of the American mainstream, to adopt what sociologists call a "host-country orientation." Few desire to return to the former Soviet Union. While those who emigrated late in life are less satisfied, many of them, particularly grandmothers, assumed responsibility for child care and maintenance of the house, which made it possible for their children, who migrated in their prime, to study hard, acquire English, and succeed in their chosen careers. About half of all Russian-speaking Jews live in Russian-speaking Jewish communities, apart from their English-speaking Jewish cousins. About a quarter though, already live far from other Russian-speaking Jews. Like so many immigrants before them, Russian-speaking Jews may be expected, over time, to abandon their language-based neighborhoods. As they do, many of the factors preserving the Jewishness of this Russian-speaking community will be put to the test.

Specifically, as the leaders of the Jewish community at large look at the inevitable disintegration of the "Jewish Russian enclave," they have to ponder two questions:

A. Where will Russian-speaking Jews move?

B. What will Russian-speaking Jews do to preserve their Jewishness in their new locations?

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