By Maxim Ratmansky
With so many Jewish communal studies reporting on the ever-rising tides of assimilation, one can imagine that an interview with a Russian-Jewish demographer would be a bit of a gloomy prospect. Yet, as I sat down for an interview with Dr. Sam Kliger, a veteran of the Soviet Refusenik movement, who is the go-to maven on the 750,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union living in the U.S., I was greeted with a broad smile and a sense of excitement. Dr. Kliger, who serves as the director of Russian Jewish Community Affairs at the AJC and founded the Research Institute for New Americans (RINA), is no stranger to bad news. The Soviet Union spent 70 years systematically uprooting Jewish communal life and denying its citizens opportunities for Jewish education. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children comprise the largest group of unaffiliated Jews in North America. Brought up in an atheist regime, few value the religious aspects of Jewish life, join synagogues, get involved in Jewish organizations, or choose to give their children a Jewish education. It would seem like a community destined to vanish in the American melting pot and the last place one would expect to hear good news on turning the tide of assimilation. Instead, I discovered a fascinating success story of hope and Jewish revival among Russian Jewish millennials.
MR: Dr. Kliger, you seem so optimistic; what is behind your smile?
SK: Studying the state of the Jewish community can sometimes feel like peeking into the window of a dysfunctional family. We just observe the gradual decline and seldom are called upon to evaluate possible solutions. So when RAJE approached me to do a study of their alumni, it seemed like a fascinating prospect. Here is this small organization with a huge ambition: To take millennial Russian Jews, 18—30 year olds, and change how they see their connection with Jewish life and how they engage and affiliate. To do this not just for a few dozen or even a few hundred, but attempt to make a program which can attract the majority and create lasting change. Can this actually be accomplished? This seemed like a fascinating question to explore.
MR: I understand that your work at AJC also involves Jewish leadership development in the Russian Jewish community, so how is the RAJE program different?
SK: Yes, at AJC, where I have worked for the last 12 years, we have established a pioneering leadership training program for young Russian Jews to prepare a new generation of leaders for the community. They learn how to advocate for Israel, how to fight anti-Semitism and how to be active in the broader American Jewish community. More than 350 individuals have graduated from this program since its inception in 1997. Not everyone became a leader in the community, but many visible figures in politics, business, the media, and in Jewish communal life of graduates from this program. It is a success story in its own right, but the mission is different from RAJE. What RAJE is attempting to achieve, much like Birthright, is systematically reaching an entire age group within the Russian-speaking Jewish target population in an attempt to upgrade their sense of Jewish identity and involvement, while the program at the AJC is about leadership development for an “elite” group. Both are vital, but different.
MR: What is the RAJE program model?
SK: Their model, which they launched in 2006, is called RAJE Fellowships. It is similar to Birthright in that a free trip to Israel is used to attract young Jews to sign up for a fun Jewish experience. What RAJE did differently, however, is that they attached to this trip a full semester of local educational programing in the U.S. So to be eligible for the trip, the kids sign up for 10 Sunday sessions of 4.5 hours each, filled with interesting classes, social programs, and workshops. They also include two weekend retreats and the Israel trip. The trip itself is longer, 15 days instead of 10, and with more educational content than Birthright. In total, it’s 250 hours of Jewish educational engagement with young Jews spending time together, learning, growing, and socializing. Since its launch, 3,260 participants, or over 11% of all 18—30-year-old Jews of Russian-speaking background in New York and Philadelphia have completed the program. So this approach seemed very promising. Their question for me was: what did all this Jewish education accomplish? Can we see real change in the behavior of RAJE alumni in the way they engage with their Jewish identity?
MR: Were there specific questions you wanted answered?
SK: Actually, the questions were not my own. As Rabbi Tokarsky, who was one of the founders, related to me, many years ago when they launched RAJE, he met with Michael Steinhardt who challenged him to define what it is that they would like to see as long-term change in Jewish identity and behavior as a result of the program. They came up with a survey of four basic areas of Jewish engagement: establishing a Jewish household, involvement in Jewish communal life, support for Israel, and the expression of one’s spiritual needs through the study and practice of Judaism. Questions included: Did you get married since completing the program? Is the person you married Jewish? What Jewish holidays did you observe in the past 12 months? We polished this questionnaire and used it as a basis of the study. The focus of the study was long-term impact, so we looked at all the students who completed the program between 2006 and 2011.
MR: So what was your biggest revelation from the study?
SK: I think the biggest revelation was the decline in the intermarriage rate. Students who start RAJE are almost all singles, and we saw that 35% have gotten married since program completion. An astounding 94% married Jews, 52% of whom met their spouses at RAJE. In my previous studies, I saw intermarriage rates for Russian Jews in that age group at about 25%. So to see RAJE alumni marrying other Jews at such a high rate, and to also see the clear cause and effect of families actually coming together directly via the program, seemed like witnessing a real comprehensive solution to intermarriage, which has always been such an elusive holy grail of Jewish educational programing. I have to add that with the amount of hours the kids spend in the program, it is hard to determine how much of the success is based on change in attitude, in wanting to marry Jewish, and how much is due to the fact that the kids just end up socializing with so many of their Jewish peers for such an extensive period of time.
MR: What are some of the other findings that you consider most interesting?
SK: RAJE alumni are much more likely to give charity to Jewish organizations, with 78% having made a charitable donation and 82% of them giving to a Jewish organization. Also, 52% report having read a Jewish book in the past year and 78% lit Hanukah candles. Interestingly, 38% report having celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, a Jewish holiday which is practically unknown among other Russian Jews. While the rate of Shabbat observance is practically non-existent among students entering the RAJE program, when program alumni were asked if they observe Shabbat, 22% responded ‘Yes’, and 67% of alumni consider observing Shabbat as being an important part of Jewish practice, a major shift in attitude for a community very much removed from any kind of Jewish ritual observance. In terms of support for Israel, 38% report having taken part in ‘a meeting, demonstration, or other action in support of Israel’ over the past year. That is a level of Israel activism unusual even for most engaged segments of the Jewish community. So all in all, the program creates a firm base of Jewish involvement and continuity. This is real change and such a refreshing piece of good news for those of us more used to documenting problems facing the Jewish people rather than seeing solutions at work.
MR: Are RAJE Fellowship participants similar in their background to their peers who participate in less intensive Jewish educational programing, such as Birthright?
SK: This is a very important question, really central in evaluating the RAJE program’s relative impact. To address this issue, prior to commencing the study of program impact, we compared data from RAJE applicants prior to attending the program to that of U.S.-based Birthright participants of Russian immigrant background. This comparison was made possible by looking at data from the 2011 Cohen Center study of Russian-speaking Birthright participants. The data analysis suggests that RAJE participants are very similar in their Jewish background, affiliation, and engagement to those participating in the Birthright Israel trip, with the notable exception of RAJE applicants having significantly less formal Jewish education than those participating in the Birthright Israel trip. Only 32% of RAJE participants had any formal Jewish education vs. 55% for Birthright alumni of similar Russian immigrant background. When we refer to formal Jewish education, we mean at least a year of Sunday school or a few months trying out a local Jewish day school. It means that for a full 68% percent of those students attracted to RAJE, this is their first time being exposed to Jewish learning and yet they are willing to make this very impressive 250-hour commitment.
MR: So what’s your takeaway on RAJE?
SK: Our study demonstrates strong supporting evidence for the effectiveness of the RAJE program model in strengthening the Jewish identity of a vital, at risk Jewish community. The 750,000 Jews of Russian background who reside in North America are highly concentrated in major metropolitan areas. So a program like RAJE represents a unique opportunity to ensure a Jewish future for an entire generation of young Jews and a realistic solution to help stem the tide of assimilation in North America. While RAJE can’t solve the problems facing other segments of the Jewish population, why not grasp this opportunity to impact Russian Jews with a hope that the children and grandchildren of Refuseniks will have a bright Jewish future? v
For more information about RAJE please contact Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, cofounder and national director at 718-812-0779 or e-mail email@example.com.