It’s estimated there are 60,000 Russian-speaking Jews in the Toronto area. Helping to welcome them into the established Jewish community has been a goal of community leaders for years.
The CJN, for its part, has a mission “to connect our community,” and with that in mind, on March 24 it will launch its first edition of яCJN, which is pronounced “Yah CJN” and translates as, “I CJN.”
The English-language digital newsletter, which will be published monthly and run to six pages in its initial iteration, will feature “stories by Russian-speaking Jews for Russian-speaking Jews,” said Tara Fainstein, The CJN’s chief operating officer.
The first edition will include a print version, but in future, it will be available digitally by subscribing to a CJN mailing list or through The CJN’s website, www.CJNews.com.
It will be produced and designed by a group of volunteers from the Russian-speaking community, under the mentorship of CJN editor Yoni Goldstein and his editorial staff. But “the content will be driven by the interests of the Russian-speaking community,” Fainstein said.
Anna Shternshis, the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto and the Al and Malka Green Associate Professor of Yiddish Studies at the Centre, will contribute a piece to the newsletter’s inaugural edition. It will look at “‘Why are Russian Jews the way they are?” and answer the question often asked by members of the mainstream community: ‘Why do they never meet them at the Canadian Jewish institutions?’
“My answer is usually short: because these institutions do not promote the culture that Russian Jews consider theirs,” Shternshis writes in her piece. Toronto is home to a very vibrant, established community and a large and active Russian-speaking community, and both share a common ancestry. “But neither community is really aware of the other,” she said.
Tracing the history of the two solitudes, Shternshis said Toronto’s Jews are descendants of early 20th century immigrants as well as post-war immigrants.
The Jews who remained “in the old country” lived under the Soviet Union, and became more assimilated under Soviet pressure aimed at convincing “Jews that Judaism is irrelevant to being Jewish.”
Today, Russian-speaking Jews have great affinity for Israel, where many resided and have family, and are more conservative politically than the more established community.
They also diverge substantially on other issues, Shternshis continued. Given their history of maintaining a Jewish identity despite the Soviet state’s attempts to snuff it out, they “believe it should cost nothing to be a Jew” and don’t see why they should pay for synagogue memberships or send their children to Jewish schools.
There’s another factor at play as well, Shternshis suggested. When she talks to Russian parents about sending their children to Jewish schools, the parents tell her they’re “not accepting of us.”
They feel they’re not seen as members of the Jewish community, but as Russians. “I don’t think they’re wrong about this,” she added.
Igor Kozak, an account manager at The CJN, played a key role in getting the supplement off the ground.
Kozak, who was born in Ukraine and raised in Israel, speaks Russian and is familiar with the community. He reached out to his contacts in the Russian-speaking community through Limmud FSU Canada, JAM-Jewish and Modern, and UJA Federation initiatives like J.Academy camp, which are popular among Russian Jews. The CJN brought together community members and leaders from these organizations for focus groups at its offices last fall to determine whether the community would respond to a CJN-initiated publication that was “created by them and for them. The answer was definitely, ‘yes,’” he said.
The project will hopefully bring the communities together. “We support them, they support us,” Kozak said.
Currently, both sides largely reside in their own “bubbles,” Shternshis said, but The CJN’s outreach could lead to “meaningful contact” between them.
Fainstein echoed those sentiments. “This is an opportunity for bridging these communities, with the goal that at some point in the future, they will be more integrated.”