The chatter from the third-floor dining area carries all the way down to the entrance of the Jewish community center that straddles the divide between Brighton Beach and Coney Island. Through a small hidden door to the right of the fenced-off main entrance there’s a stairway that leads up, up, and up — into a large, dark room, with two rows of tables, slightly angled. Some 150-odd under-30s sit in boisterous groups of 20 or so around red-checkered tablecloths, with two French flags in the background giving away the theme.
But it’s the bottle of vodka at the Paris-themed Shabbat dinner that betrays the origins of the attendees. A large man in a bright striped shirt brandishes the bottle poking out of a brown paper bag and pours a dose into each plastic cup extended toward him. Even in the low lights, the ones that will be left on through Shabbat, mischievous smiles and faint Russian accents abound.
“To the streets of France and Jewish pants!” bellows Allan Einhorn, a bright-eyed 25-year-old with a dirty-blond five o’clock shadow. Like the other young people at this run-down community center — evidently still recovering damage caused by Hurricane Sandy — he is a member of the Russian American Jewish Experience.
Founded in 2006 by Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, who now serves as its national director, RAJE seeks to give Russian-speaking Jews (the academic term for the group, which encompasses immigrants from across the former Soviet Union and their offspring, though many of them drop the “-speaking” when they describe themselves) a sense of Jewish identity and community. Some of them are entirely secular, while other participants, like Tokarsky himself, are baalei teshuva, those who have “returned” to a religious life. In one of the group’s promotional videos, a bright-eyed young woman tells the world that, “RAJE isn’t just another program. It’s a transformational experience that binds people together in lifelong connections.”
Many participants enroll in a semester-long program of ten weekly Sunday sessions and occasional retreats, which is the core of RAJE’s programming. At the culmination of the program, they go on a trip to Israel and Europe (after Birthright, of course — it is based on a RAJE’s belief that one experience in the Holy Land is not enough to build lasting ties). The program is so popular that it turns people away every time. Though many are lured in by the promise of a free trip, they say they didn’t expect to find a community.
In the video, the young woman looks at the camera. “Hey, you guys helped so many young Russian Jews get to this country,” she says. “We want to do our part to make them feel at home within the Jewish community.”
Tokarsky is also the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Brighton Beach, the building-cum-congregation that houses the RAJE offices. The building is a departure from its surroundings — its façade is more Jerusalem limestone than Brooklyn brick. Its name is spelled out in script reminiscent of Hebrew: the Os looks vaguely like mems, the C like a kaf reflected across a vertical line. Located just outside of prime real estate in some of the most heavily populated Russian-Jewish neighborhoods, RAJE doesn’t have to go far to reach its clientele.
The latest wave of Russian-speaking Jews is establishing a place for itself in the American religious landscape. In recent years, a contingent of young Russian Jews has become one of the largest presences in New York’s annual Israel Day Parade. Another promotional video from RAJE documents the parade, with young people professing their love for the organization — the second family they’ve formed — overlaid on a remixed version of “Hatikvah”, the Israeli national anthem. Among the participants, in a bright orange RAJE shirt, is John Lisyanskiy, a former Christine Quinn staffer and a failed Democratic candidate for city council in a nearby district.
Another of Tokarsky’s congregants, David Storobin, represented a number of neighborhoods — including the heavily Orthodox Borough Park, and the heavily Russian-speaking Manhattan Beach — as New York’s first Soviet-born state senator. The community has come of age, so to speak.
In a sense, this outcome is a bit surprising. Many Russian Jews came over divorced from their Jewish roots, unable to find a suitable American Jewish community to plug into. But through programs like RAJE, the community has grown. RAJE doesn’t overtly try to recruit Russian Jews to Orthodoxy, and that doesn’t seem to be a primary, or even secondary, goal. If it did, RAJE probably wouldn’t boast the robust membership it does today. These members are attracted by free trips and leadership programs — and, yes, a little bit of Judaism here and there. On a more fundamental level, RAJE seeks to keep Russian Jews Jewish, though many of them didn’t grow up observant and don’t quite believe in God.
The outcomes of the program vary: some participants might just more strongly identify as Jewish or become more actively Zionist. Others may spend Shabbat in a synagogue or plan on raising their children to observe the Jewish holidays. And yet others may become baalei teshuva. Some of those who become more observant don’t embrace the Orthodox label; others struggle to find a place for themselves in the broader Orthodox community. Yet others successfully integrate into the Orthodox mainstream.
One of the promotional videos articulates a sentiment many of the participants recall from their own first entries into RAJE: a rabbi stands before a diverse packed room. “I’m not telling you what to think or what to believe,” he says. “I’m simply telling you, this is what Judaism says. I hope you enjoy it, it makes sense, and you can get something out of it. This is a 3,800-year-old wisdom; does it have anything that might be of value in your life?”
How to deal with the latest influx of Russian-speaking Jews has long been a conundrum for American Jewry.
The first big wave of Jewish immigration came before the Civil War, when a few hundred thousand central European Jews arrived. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that almost two million Eastern European Jews crossed the Atlantic, arriving in New York City via Ellis Island and transforming the face of the American Jewish community. About 150,000 German Jews came over before or shortly after the Holocaust, but after, few people received permission to leave the Soviet Union.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jewish families from Russia and other former Soviet states, like Belarus, began to emigrate en masse to America. Today, more than 500,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union live in the United States. The total number of Russian-speaking Jews is estimated at 750,000 &8212; about 10 to 15 percent of America’s total Jewish population. RAJE estimates that the number of Russian-speaking Jews in New York City alone is just over 200,000, with most of them living in Brooklyn.
Tokarsky emigrated from Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — with his family as a child. He landed in Elizabeth, N.J., before finding his way to Brooklyn. A short man with a big presence and a pronounced Russian accent, he leans back on his white leather sectional sofa and the color drains out of the Transitions lenses in his glasses. His white dress shirt, a very sheer variety, puts the tallit he wears underneath on full display.
He’s quick to explain that, for Russian-speaking Jews, the internal politics of American Jewry are as peculiar as the customs of the religion themselves. When the immigrants arrived in this country, they didn’t know how to integrate into the neat subdivisions of American Jews, and categories like Reform, Conservative, Orthodox — not to mention subdivisions like Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or Hasidic — meant nothing. “These divisions, to us, are a curiosity,” Tokarsky says, though he now embraces the label of Orthodox. Religious or not, Jews were Jews in the former Soviet Union.
Now, he explains, “the trend is toward what they perceive as authenticity.” That’s not to say, though, that young Russian-speaking Jews accept Orthodox theology wholesale. Rather, they repeatedly say they appreciate the opportunity to engage in discussion, whether or not they are ultimately swayed.
A Pew Forum survey of American Jewry, released in October, shows that younger Jews are are largely non-religious and that Jews are intermarrying at increasing rates. Fully 32 percent of millennial Jews identify themselves as Jews of “no religion,” compared to 26 percent of those born between 1965 and 1980, and just 19 percent of baby boomers. For 83 percent of Jews who identify as Jews of no religion, Jewish identity is largely bound up with ancestry and culture, as it is for 62 percent of Jews overall.
Half of the Jews of no religion are not raising their children Jewish, and four in five have a non-Jewish spouse. It seems inevitable that, over the next generation or two, the Jewish community will shrink even more. But the Pew survey offered some evidence that certain groups might be bucking the trend of secularization and assimilation. Though Reform Judaism continues to dominate American Jewish life, it is Orthodoxy — the smallest of the three major movements — that seems to be on the upswing. Previous generations of Orthodox Jews suffered from poor retention rates, with about half of those raised Orthodox not identifying as such in their adult lives. This dropoff is slowing, particularly among younger Jews. For the first time in a long time, the share of Orthodox Jews may grow.
The Orthodox share of the Jewish population is likely to grow because of slowing attrition rates and larger average family sizes. But baalei teshuvaalso bolster its numbers.
Those who become more observant commonly find their way through one of two paths: the traditional outreach by their neighborhood Chabad Lubavitch division — a Hasidic movement that conducts a lot of Jewish educational activities for less observant Jews — or through the newer, flashier work done by Aish HaTorah, or “fire of the Torah,” a Jerusalem-based Orthodox outreach organization and yeshiva. But in the Russian-speaking corners of Brooklyn, pockets of Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Bensonhurst, and Sheepshead Bay, Jews are exploring their Jewish heritage, and sometimes finding faith, through the well-funded RAJE.
The young people who find their way into RAJE run the gamut. At the Friday Shabbat meal, the young people are dressed in different levels of modesty. Some men don kippot, while others arrive in plain jeans. Some women dress in knee-length skirts and heavy wool sweaters, while others arrive in pants, skirts baring well more than the knees, or even sheer shirts over little tank tops. The beauty of RAJE, Tokarsky says, is that the goal isn’t to impose a particular model of Judaism on everyone. There’s no one-size mold that participants, or even graduates of its leadership program, are expected to fit.
Many of the participants never go on to higher levels of observance. For them, RAJE might just be a fun place to hang out, a link to a Jewish community, an opportunity for a free trip. For some, it’s a place to network and meet community leaders who might advance their careers. Though all participants have the opportunity for in-depth Torah study or rabbinical advising, only a few choose the path to Orthodoxy.
Many of those interviewed expressed common reasons for seeking out faith: they were drawn in by the examples from people in the community of what a happy, observant life might be like, or were simply drawn to people who shared similar values to their own. They mentioned a dissatisfaction with the modern American lifestyle — going home to independence, a television set, and a cupcake, as Malka Mikheyeva puts it.
Mikheveya was born in Kiev, to a secular Jewish mother and an Orthodox Christian father. When she was very young, her parents sent her to a Jewish day school run by a rabbi transplanted from Borough Park. But after she attended first and second grade in Kiev, Mikheveya’s family moved to New York. They settled in Bensonhurst, a traditionally Italian neighborhood that is now home to a sizeable immigrant Jewish population. When she arrived in New York, Mikheveya learned about things like dinosaurs. She felt like the school had purposefully tried to hide this information from her because of its faith affiliation.
Mikheveya says she often felt alienated growing up. Her fears that her childhood school had attempted to brainwash her made Mikheveya keep the Jewish community at an arm’s length, too.
It was only after first immersing herself in the community as an observer that she began to feel that embracing a higher level of observance might offer an answer to some of the what she felt lacking.
Mikheveya was 23 the first time she accidentally stumbled into a Shabbat service, after reuniting with two friends she had lost touch with growing up. They asked her whether she had any Friday night plans. She didn’t, and they invited her to a RAJE shabbat. Back then, she says, it was a 25-hour ordeal, complete with three meals for all involved. The gatherings drew about 100 people.
She liked it, and went back a second time, then a third. Along the way, another participant asked her where she was from. “Oh, do you know Avigail?” Mikheveya was asked. Mikheyeva thought she didn’t, but — to her surprise — the woman belted out her full Russian-language name. Avigail had been her Hebrew teacher fifteen years earlier, before her family immigrated to the United States.
“To me, that was too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence,” Mikheyeva now says. She decided to immerse herself in Jewish learning, trying to figure out what it all meant.
Like Mikheyeva, Yana Akilov first came to RAJE participant as an observer: she went to a Shabbat dinner at one of the rabbis’ homes. He and his wife had a “beautiful relationship,” she says. There was something special about the rabbi’s home — something that made it different from the other loving homes of her friends from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. “At the end of the day, it’s not mine,” she says of the traditions and customs at the other homes.
Akilov, a strong-willed woman who vaguely resembles the actress Sara Gilbert, was born in Tashkent. Her family left the city during the emigration rush in 1990, moving to Israel when she was seven years old.
They were never religious, but after they moved to Israel, Akilov attended a religious day school. One Saturday, her father found her with a prayer book, trying to pray. “And my dad was like, ‘What are you doing? We don’t do that here.’” As a young girl, she had to balance a dual identity. “I would go to school, and I would have to be religious,” she says, while she didn’t at home.
Still, she made friends. One day, a girl from school invited her to Shabbat dinner. Trying to explain her family, Akilov divulged that back in the USSR, before they knew any better, they all ate salo &8212; cured pork fat. Now they didn’t, of course, because the rules had been explained to them, but they had done so before they knew any better.
The next week, she lost her friends at school. “You can’t talk to us because you’re not kosher,” they said. She was too afraid to tell the teacher, so she became a rebel girl: from that moment on, she wanted nothing to do with Orthodoxy. Before her classmates rejected her, Akilov rejected them.
By the time the Akilovs picked up and moved once again, this time to Brooklyn, she was almost in high school. Akilov spoke no English, and had begun to forget her native Russian, which made her immersion into Little Odessa a “two-fold assimilation process,” she says. She found herself surrounded by other Russian-speaking Jews who had retained that identity even though many of them had been born in the United States. “They still feel this displacement, geographically, culturally, maybe ethnically,” she says. These friends led her to RAJE about five years ago, but Akilov didn’t immediately feel at home. She says she had her own bias and focused in on aspects of their teachings that contradicted her sense of self.
“I wasn’t really mature enough to take in and analyze the ideas that RAJE presented,” she now says. Like the ideal of modesty.
“If you’re not ready to accept that idea, you’re gonna walk away thinking, oh my God, they want me to cover up all my goods and be ugly,” she laughs. She says she believes the rabbis don’t want her to appear unattractive but rather to re-think her sense of self-worth. “Do you want someone who likes you for your tits and your ass, or your personality?”
RAJE explained modesty to her as a weapon. “You go home and you think about it, and it’s so true,” she says. “Guys play games all the time.”
“You don’t have to be a conservative” to go to RAJE, she says, but “it would probably be a bit tricky for you if you were a total liberal.”
Recently, a friend of Akilov told her that she is Modern Orthodox. The rationale: she keeps Shabbat, she eats kosher, she dresses modestly. Akilov was rather taken aback — despite her attraction to the rules and regulations of Orthodox life, she doesn’t like labels. (“They put you in a box,” she says.)
“You can challenge ideas,” she says. “And you can challenge ancient ideas.”
Akilov hasn’t accepted the regulations wholesale. Part of what she likes about the community she found in southern Brooklyn is that she’s not expected to: because many of the participants don’t believe in God, let alone keep kosher or follow strict modesty codes for dress, she’s able to form her own opinions. So gradually, she came to accept a more conservative style of dress; now, she says she wouldn’t go out in a tank top. When she goes shopping, she opts for more modest styles. Recently, she was in the market for a dress.
“I looked at one, and I was like, ‘it would look so sexy on me!’” she says. And then she thought about it some more. “I could wear something more modest that would make me look even better,” she decided.
But while Akilov is still navigating through the first steps of observance, other Russian-speaking Jews have rooted themselves in specific communities.
Lily Lozovsky briefly worked for RAJE first thing out of college, when she lived in Midwood and commuted to its offices on Ocean Parkway. She quickly moved on, to other jobs and to graduate-level work, including a master’s degree in Jewish studies.
Now Lozovsky’s apartment is up two flights of stairs, the only way she can access it on Shabbat — not that it matters; the elevator is broken, anyway. The dim lights — a floor lamp here, a table lamp there — are already turned on. In Lozovsky’s living room, two small sofas are wedged together in an L shape. A bookcase leans against the wall at the end of the long hallway, full of books that suggest her interests: To Kindle a Soul: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents and Teachers, Anvil of Sinai, self-help books like Discover Your Genius, and dozens of Hebrew titles. A fold-out table with a pink tablecloth has been pushed out against it, set for seven.
There are only six guests on this evening, and a table setting is quickly whisked away. The women are starving, but first, they must welcome the day of rest. There’s a small a prayer book for each person, and Lozovsky launches into a soliloquy about angels. In the bubble of Shabbat, she concludes, there’s no need for them; there’s no need for protection, because we are safe. So, Lozovsky asks, will the women sing each verse of “Shalom Aleichem” three times, or just once to speed it along?
“No, no, no — three times. Your dvar totally got me in the right energy right now,” says the woman to her right.
Lozovsky’s voice, steady and confident of the words and rhythm, dominates the song. None of the women at the Shabbat table were raised Orthodox, so all but one — who was raised Conservative — had to learn the words and tunes on their own. It’s obvious that Lazovsky has the upper hand.
Lozovsky has whipped up a feast: in addition to a multi-course meat-based home-cooked dinner, she baked her own challah and prepared her own dips, laid out in little bowls. (Ilana, the round-faced woman inspired by Lozovsky’s speech on angels and Shabbat, jokes that she saved a week’s worth of bread-eating for this night.) The cooking has Russian influences, with a beet salad and a meat-and-rice dish called plov alongside a butternut squash soup and other plates. The only store-bought item on the menu is the sorbet for dessert, brought over by a spunky Columbia University senior named Marisa, who was raised in the Conservative tradition. She couldn’t find their favorite brand of coconut sorbet at the nearby market, Marisa jokes — a sure sign that everyone in the neighborhood is having a meat-based Shabbat meal.
Like an expert, Lozovsky narrates the Shabbat dinner for her friends. This is why we do this, and this is why we do that — and, by the way, what do you think about the Association of American Studies boycott of Israel? The latest news about Israel, or the furor over the alleged “knockout” games in Crown Heights; anything is fair game.
Some Jews who aren’t Orthodox still consider themselves halachic Jews — those who live according to Jewish religious laws — insists Marisa, the Columbia student who traveled to Lozovsky’s home for dinner rather than going to her college Hillel. At the dinner table, Marisa glides flawlessly through all the prayers and traditions, though she knows they give her host an overblown impression of her level of observance and religiosity. Lozovsky pushes back — how are they halachic if they’re not Orthodox?
Marisa pauses. They refer to halacha for important decisions, she says. But do they have a rabbi? Lozovsky wants to know. Yes, Marisa responds. “Or they look it up themselves.”
A 29-year-old graduate of Stern College, the women’s branch of Yeshiva University, Lozovsky grew up in a midsized Jewish community in Jacksonville, Fla. Her family — originally from Minsk — immigrated when she was just a girl, part of the most recent wave of Jewish immigration to the United States.
When they came over, midsized communities around the country were tasked with helping assimilate these new, secular, Russian-speaking Jews. And so the Lozovskys found themselves in Jacksonville.
Lozovsky describes herself as a shy, awkward child. In middle school, her friend group dwindled. “I would even go so far as to say I had no friends,” she says. It all changed when a Modern Orthodox family moved to town and searched for group activities for their daughter, a girl of about Lozovsky’s age. She clicked with the young rabbi brought in by the family to organize activities, and he eventually encouraged her to take on leadership roles and, she says, helped her grow as an individual. Participating in gatherings of Orthodox young people helped her find people who were on the same page as her. Lozovsky says they shared similar values, and modeled what she could grow up to be.
Over the years, her level of religiosity increased. For college, she chose Stern. It was her first time fully immersed in an observant community (like the other people with whom I spoke, Lozovsky’s parents did not become more religious), and Lozovsky took it head on. Many women at the university study abroad at a yeshiva in Israel during their freshman year, but Lozovsky stayed behind at her parents’ insistence. (They were worried about the security risks of living in Israel, she explains.) It was at Yeshiva that she finally “mainstreamed.”
Lozovsky uses that word to explain the changes she went through to adapt to being part of the Orthodox community. At Stern College she learned how to dress (covered up yet fashionable), how to talk (the proper words, shorthand), and made contacts in the community. Connections are vital, and Lozovsky had none; she had to make them from scratch.
When she decided to go study in Israel the next year, she felt she had mainstreamed to a degree such that she declined to attend a yeshiva for students who hadn’t been raised Orthodox. It took a while for her to catch up, but she says the other women there were helpful and supportive. Soon she was caught up with the best of them.
At school, she started an informal group for students like her, baalei teshuva, as well as for students from far away who couldn’t go home for Shabbat. They met together for dinner and learning. One week, when the rabbi set to teach them on Shabbat cancelled, the other students encouraged Lozovsky to step in.
After college, Lozovsky landed in Midwood, Brooklyn, commuting to RAJE’s Ocean Parkway offices for work. Then she moved to Hudson Heights — a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan popular with Yeshiva University graduates, her fellow young, mainstream Orthodox Jews. She still hosts Shabbat meals for others without established roots in the community.
When the dinner ends, two of the guests — Julie, a tall, thin baal teshuva with a slim blond ponytail, and one of two Ilanas at the dinner, a Russian-speaking baal teshuva raised in San Diego who lives in Jerusalem by way of Brandeis, head to an oneg — a Friday night social gathering for Shabbat-observant Jews. Exhausted, Lozovsky stays home, giving Ilana, who is staying on her couch, a key to let herself back in. The other Ilana, an emergency room nurse who lives in West Orange, is napping on the loveseat.
Marisa heads home. She can’t fathom going to an oneg when tired, but, she says, she has nothing to prove. Ilana and Julie are nearing 30, she explains, and any gathering of Orthodox men is a chance for them to meet potential spouses without going through a shadchan, a matchmaker.
With new belief systems and behaviors come new expectations on the dating scene. For Lozovsky and her friends, dating means a conversation without touching. In more more conservative corners of Orthodox judaism, meetings between men and women are often brokered by matchmakers, who specialize in creating pairings for life.
Because each shadchan has a reputation to uphold, young Orthodox men and women often go through a comprehensive screening process to get to the point of a date. Though not a barrier for young people from observant families with extensive networks, baalei teshuva encounter unexpected difficulties in this realm. Whether they’ve been observant for a few years or for a decade, they, too, must find someone to vouch for their suitability as a spouse.
In Mikheveya’s dating photos, her makeup is a pleasant neutral, with a hint of cherry brightness on the lips. She wears a white dress, a crew-neck cut with three-quarter sleeves to meet the modesty requirements of Orthodox Judaism. Little embellishments cover the front of the dress, and a faux-belt of of beads and knick-knacks defines her waistline. A three-strand necklace of colored pearls hangs tight around her neck. This photo, with delicate blurring and soft tones, may be the most important factor in her dating life.
At 27, Mikheveya is in the middle of her friends: while the Orthodox women she meets are likely to be married in their early twenties, secular friends often wait until their late 20s or 30s. She’s not too worried about her age yet, though Orthodox acquaintances frequently call her “nebeh” — “you poor thing.” “I’m so sorry to hear that; that’s so devastating,” she says they tell her.
Like many other women in her situation, she has an outline of her dream man — one who is fit and lives a healthy life. But he should also be a responsible breadwinner — “I want the option of, when I give birth, to stay home with the kids” — and must be observant. He has to believe in God, study Torah, lead a religious life. She wouldn’t mind if he, like her, was baal teshuvah; that would make him easier to relate to. But she says that, in her experience, baal teshuva men often slip up in their religious obligations, so he would also have to be established; Mikheveya doesn’t plan on going back.
The problem for her, though, lies in the fact that many more women embrace Orthodoxy than men. There are no firm numbers by gender, but at least anecdotally, she’s found that to be true. In her religious community, there are no eligible bachelors.
So Mikheveya goes above and beyond: she attends events where there are likely to be eligible men. She networks with Orthodox families. She created a profile on the matchmaking site SawYouAtSinai.com, a popular site for Orthodox singles. (That’s what she had the professional photos taken for; an Orthodox family she met through RAJE connections in Brooklyn told her to think of them as an investment: professional photography, professional makeup, the works.)
Ultimately, she thinks she may give up on Brooklyn.
Like Akilov and Lozovsky, Mikheveya has a double barrier to overcome in creating for herself the same type of family that she saw during her shabbaton, the kind of family she wants to emulate: the first, being from an immigrant background; the second, being from a non-religious family. She thinks it may be easier to find someone to settle down with if she goes back to a seminary in Israel. This time, she says, she’ll go to a less pampered one — one for women who know what they’re doing. Though the seminary is an all-female institution, she’ll be near a community of men with similar insights: men studying Torah, wanting to devote themselves to a life of faith.
But for now, her core community remains in Brighton Beach, at RAJE.