Assimilation and disconnection from the Jewish community are, unfortunately, higher in Jews from the Former Soviet Union who have immigrated to the United States than in many other American Jewish communities. Disconnection from traditional practices due to decades of oppression, differences with the greater American Jewish community about Jewish expression, and a lack of formal structure to address the needs of the community have all played a role in this phenomenon. As a result, many Jews from the Soviet Union, particularly the younger generation and the children of FSU immigrants, are often alienated from their Jewish identity. To combat this issue, a new group called Druzya, the Russian word for “friends”, has recently formed in Washington, DC through the use of social media. Formed by young Jewish professionals, the group aims to reconnect young Jews to their history, their culture, and each other.
Events that have been organized by the group have included Shabbat dinners, Passover seders, and Shavuot parties, as well as many social events. Members of the group have also attended Limmud FSU, and plan to partner with this organization for future events.
For many members, a recent Shabbat dinner was the first time they heard the Kiddush blessing over wine. For others, it was a typical Friday night, and they led the blessings in perfect Hebrew. Some barely spoke Russian, trying out a few phrases they had picked up from their parents while growing up in American suburbia. Others had, just a few weeks prior, disembarked from a plane out of Moscow. Each had much to learn from the others, but a common history and culture united them. A community was born.
At a recent house party, Pugachova, the husky Russian songstress, echoed in the background as twenty and thirty-somethings chomped on home-made Plov and discussed everything from current events in Israel, to the uncanny ability of Russian Jews to imbibe gracefully on a weeknight, to the woes of finding a Jewish significant other in the city. Later, after the obligatory photographs by the Israeli flag on the wall, someone pulled out a guitar and played songs in Russian that some had not heard since childhood, but that were remembered well enough (thanks to the imbibing) for a round of song and dance. This was followed by another round, but with Birthright songs.
Most recently, the group has partnered with the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), also located in Washington, DC, to host the former American Ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, for an evening of conversation. Topics of discussion included the human rights situation in Russia and Ukraine, particularly how it relates to the Jewish minority still living there, diplomatic strategies, and the potential political future of the region.
In the future, the organization hopes to continue to foster relationships with Jewish organizations, connect the young Russian-speaking Jewish diaspora in the United States and abroad, and foster the strengthening of a Jewish identity among its members.
While the organization is relatively new, there is great excitement and many close friendships have been born of the initiative. This type of grassroots community building may, in fact, be the key to re-engaging young diaspora Jews, Russian-speaking or otherwise, as assimilation continues to increase among the younger generation.