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Jewski engages Russian-speaking Jews on campus

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A Jewski event FACEBOOK PHOTO

For almost 10 years, Jewski has been a home-away-from home for many university-age Russian-Jewish students. It started as a Hillel initiative eight years ago, and began with just small gatherings at York University in Toronto. It is continuing to grow every year, and now there are Jewski interns at Ryerson, University of Toronto, Waterloo University, University of Western Ontario and at York. This year Jewski will be  directed by Lily Fostikova and Anna Kissin, along with a group of interns from the aforementioned university campuses.

Jewski, which is funded by Genesis Philanthropy Group and supported by the UJA Emerging Communities Committee, is a club that targets Russian-speaking Jewish university students. It works alongside Hillel Ontario to engage Russian Jews on campus, especially aiming to engage people who would otherwise not attend any Jewish events.

The organization has events throughout the school year, from parties like the well-known Noviy God event, to cooking classes to get-togethers at the sauna (banya). Jewski is a part of Hillel, and so many of the events are held at the Hillel buildings on their respective university campuses, with the goal of creating a welcoming space for Russian Jews in the overall Jewish community.

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Although there is a Hillel or Chabad presence on most university campuses in Ontario (and in North America), Hillel leaders from a variety of universities found that there was a consistent lack of engagement from the Russian-Jewish community, and sought to find a way to encourage this community to become more involved in Jewish events on campus. This led to the birth of Jewski, which initially started out at York University.

Daniel Goldshtein, 21, is a Jewski intern for the second consecutive year , and is currently a fourth-year student at York. He believes that there is a lack of engagement from Russian Jews simply because they are very different from the general Canadian-Jewish population.

“It all goes back to how we’re Jewish, but we don’t really have that connection to Judaism because our parents lived in Russia, and religion was supressed under the Soviet Union. Most of us are culturally Jewish, but are very distant from the religious aspect of Judaism,” said Goldshtein.

“Jewski takes a very non-religious approach, like when we had a Shabbat dinner, it was very laid back and for a lot of the people there, it was their first Shabbat dinner ever. Jewski became a thing for students who wanted to celebrate their Jewish and Russian roots at the same time,” he said.

Allison Kapps , 20, is a global business and digital arts student at the University of Waterloo, as well as an intern for Jewski for this school year. This is going to be the first year that Jewski is at Waterloo, which has a growing Jewish community alongside Wilfrid Laurier University.

“I chose to get involved with Jewski for two primary reasons: to create a social dynamic and community in Waterloo targeted at Russian Jews that didn’t previously exist, and to participate more actively and give back to a community that has been fundamental to contributing to my sense of belonging as a Jew,” said Kapps, who just completed a four-month internship in San Francisco while helping plan Jewski events for the school year.

“The Russian-Jewish cultural experience is different from that of a Canadian Jew, and it can be difficult for Russian Jews to feel understood or represented within traditional Jewish programming like Hillel and Chabad. In my experience as a first-year student at university, I yearned to find other students who would make me feel understood the way that my Russian-speaking Jewish friends did, in my hometown,” explained Kapps. She also feels that having a Jewski presence on her campus will ease the transition from high school to university for many Russian-Jewish students, especially those who are in their first year.

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“Jewski is important to me because it has identified a point of opportunity for the Russian Jews – it has discovered a way to encourage participation from an otherwise isolated and under-stimulated subculture in the Jewish community,” said Kapps.

For many students, Jewski became a sort of haven where people can bond about their roots and share similar quirks and jokes about their upbringing. However, jokes and parent impersonations aside, Russian Jews benefit from having programming that is catered to them because they are just very different from other kinds of Jewish students, and tend to connect the most with other Russian Jews.

“What I love about Jewski is that it’s very welcoming and familiar,” Goldshtein said. “When you meet someone, you don’t have that initial small talk, you know the person because they’re coming from the same community and cultural background as you, so it’s a lot easier to connect with people. I find that with a lot of my other non-Russian friends, it takes a long time for them to open, but with Russian Jews it’s a lot easier to connect and you become close very fast,” said Goldshtein.

Ultimately, what can be attributed to the success of the Jewski initiative is simply  that this was a place where Russian Jews could come and be completely themselves. Whether it is at a party that plays Russian and Israeli music, or at a networking event, this is a unique club that allows people to meet others in their community with whom they share a common history and culture, which is an opportunity that is rare and special.