Connecting Russian-speakers with the Jewish community

A new group hopes to foster connections between the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Chicago and the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF/JF). The Russian Jewish Leadership Forum seeks to attract people in their mid-20s through mid-30s and build a bridge to the Jewish community by celebrating their Russian heritage, their Judaism and their American present.

The idea for the Forum grew out of discussions among former student board members of Russian Hillel, a program of Hillels Around Chicago and a JUF partner organization. The traditional Hillel model seemed not to have applied to the Russian-speaking Jews, who came to Russian Hillel programs long after graduation. The need for a new group catering specifically to the post-college crowd was evident, said Olga Shalman, 27, who serves on the founding committee of the Forum and was DePaul Hillel co-president in 2003 and 2004.

“The idea is to provide a cultural and social outlet for young Russian-speaking Jewish professionals under the auspices of JUF,” said University of Chicago MBA student Alex Turik, 30. Along with three other Forum committee members, Turik previously organized networking events for fellow Russian-speaking young professionals. “We want to dispel the myth that Russian Jews don’t give back to the community. We hope the group will change that perception about us.”

The group will focus on community-building through professional networking, social events and volunteering together. Opportunities for all three abound in the Jewish community, but Russian-speaking Jews often hesitate to join official community organizations, Shalman said. They often find themselves in a unique situation: They might have an American education, but their sensibilities carry a distinct Russianness in them.

More than 30,000 Russian-speaking Jews have been resettled in Chicago in the past 15 years, said David Zverow, director of HIAS-Chicago. Exact statistics about the 20-to-30 demographic are hard to come by. Cities all across the former Soviet Union (FSU) are represented among the Chicago population. And much like their native-born counterparts, Russian-American Jews represent all levels of religious observance and political affiliation.

“[As a group] we want to continue learning about our heritage and to define ourselves through informal educational events, discussions with peers and everyone else in the community,” Shalman said. “We want to expand our social and networking circles. We want to help our community grow in many ways. We want our kids one day to be able to easily combine their identities as one: Russian-American-Jewish.”

Some among this group came to Chicago as children with the large-scale immigration waves in the 1990s. They have retained their Russian-sounding names and probably speak Russian with their parents, but are otherwise very American. Others came at an older age—late teens or even early 20s—and completed at least part of their education in the FSU.

“In a way, we are nostalgic about our past, whether one came here at five years old or fifteen,” Shalman said. “Years ago during the big immigration waves, Russian Jews received great amount of support from American counterparts. Yet we were not able blend in, new immigrants felt closer to home with other alike because of language, cultural traditions, social skills and economic issues. Now, as pretty Americanized adults, we seek to find social atmospheres that feel natural.”

Similar groups have emerged in New York (RJeneration) and San Francisco (the 79ers). Much like Chicago’s nascent Forum, those groups seek to create lasting connections among members. The founding committee members will use connections they already have—friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances—to spread the word about the organization, Shalman said.

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.