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Bridging the gap: How Genia Kovelman is uniting Russian-speaking Jews and the greater Jewish community

Kovelman discusses her path to Jewish communal work and why is she so passionate about her work with the Russian-Jewish community.

Genia Kovelman image

For young adults, discovering one's Jewish roots and figuring out what one's Jewishness means is a deeply personal journey. For some, it may mean traveling to, and perhaps living in, Israel. Others may explore their Judaism through involvement in Jewish community programs or dedication to Jewish causes.

Genia Kovelman's Jewish journey has taken her all around the world. Currently Program Director of JUF's Russian Hillel and Russian Jewish Leadership Forum, Kovelman began exploring her Judaism through Jewish community programs as a teenager in post-Soviet Ukraine. Her teenage experiences spurred her curiosity about Jewish life in different parts of the globe, and laid the foundation for her future as a Jewish communal worker and leader.

By the time Kovelman joined JUF in 2008, she had worked with the Jewish community in Sweden and completed a fellowship at the Melton Senior Jewish Educators program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She holds a BS and MS in World History and Jewish Studies from Kiev's Solomon University, and currently lives with her husband in Wheeling.

JUF News spoke to Kovelman to discuss her path to Jewish communal work and why is she so passionate about her work with the Russian-Jewish community. 

JUF News: When did you know you wanted to work in the Jewish community, and what inspired your decision?

Genia Kovelman: I grew up in a very small city in western Ukraine. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Jewish life was reborn and began to flourish. I always knew I was Jewish, but for me it was just my nationality, my ethnic belonging I knew nothing about.

My first Jewish experience was singing in a Jewish choir at the Jewish Agency for Israel youth club. I was 13. Then I started to attend ulpan to learn Hebrew, perform in the Jewish theater, attend summer camps, and slowly discover my heritage. I was so thrilled, humbled, and proud to learn about my roots, and amazed to discover the meaning behind my Jewishness.

It was a turning point of my life that led me to where I am now. I knew I was not alone and many people my age and their parents were discovering their identities just like I was. I decided to learn more, and to dedicate my life to sharing my passion with my people who were still in search for their identity.

Why do you think there is such a distance between American Jews and the Russian-speaking Jewish community?

During the 70 years of the totalitarian Soviet regime, practicing any religion or keeping any traditions or culture was forbidden under the penalty of prison. For the majority of Russian Jews, the only reminders of identity were the fifth column in their passport, a note in the birth certificate and the constant discrimination. Even though many of our grandparents spoke Yiddish and knew delicious Jewish recipes, we didn't grow up knowing much about Judaism… 

According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society statistics, approximately 35,000 Soviet Jewish Immigrants were resettled to the Chicago metropolitan area over the past 20 years. . . Immediately upon arrival these immigrants were supported with a variety of services, economic aid, and professional development. Despite a multitude of efforts to integrate the Soviet immigrants into the community, this distinct community remained mostly separated and uninvolved in the traditionally organized Jewish life.

I have been deeply touched by the passion, commitment, and gratefulness of the Russian-Jewish young adults with whom I have worked. Once you light that spark in their hearts and open the door into the yet-unknown-but-exciting Jewish world-you see a change. In order to help them light that spark, it is important to provide tailored events and programs. These same Russian-speaking Jews are very generous with their time and are always willing to volunteer.

What are you currently working on at JUF, and what are your goals for Russian-speaking Jewish programming at the organization?

About 10 years ago, the work with young adults, children of the Soviet immigrants, started with isolated Hillel programs and transformed into a centralized Russian Hillel program with the Hillels Around Chicago Foundation. About four years ago, a group of leaders from Russian Hillel created JUF's Russian Jewish Leadership Forum as the next step of leadership development and outreach to young professionals.

Russian Hillel managed to reach out to approximately 2,000 young adults, providing them with tailored Jewish education and experiences. . . This group of young adults became young professionals and is a group of potential leaders in the community. . . Thousands of Russian-speaking, Jewish young adults in their late 20s and mid-30s are still in search of their Jewish identity and are looking for opportunities to get involved.

There may be as many as 10,000 Russian Jewish young adults in the Chicago area, who are not involved in the Jewish community, and we have to reach out to them.  

I am in the process of developing a Russian Jewish Division (RJD), a new division under the JUF department of Campus Affairs and Student Engagement. RJD will take over and combine the outreach efforts of both Russian Hillel and Russian Leadership Forum to the Russian Jewish Community at large in the Chicago area. We will focus our work on student engagement, Israel advocacy, outreach to young professionals and young families, leadership development, and fundraising. Expanding the outreach will provide an opportunity for many to find their Jewish path and values and integrate into the greater Jewish community.

We have a wonderful opportunity to change the trend of assimilation through our programs and outreach to Russian-speaking Jews. We can inspire them to learn about their Jewish heritage and promote the value of Jews caring for Jews, while being a positive element of the world at large.

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