TORONTO — A UJA Federation of Greater Toronto program to foster leadership among local Russian Jews was created in part to address a disconnect between Russian-speaking Jews here – who number between 40,000 and 60,000 – and the wider Jewish community.
Historically, the two groups have not been well integrated, according to Marina Morgenshtern, co-ordinator of the Bridges program, which began in March 2011 and will wind up in June of this year.
What makes the program unique is that the bridges extend in both directions, not just toward Russian speakers, said Morgenshtern, a native of Ukraine whose family immigrated to Israel in 1990 when she was 19. She came to Canada in 2004.
“The traditional understanding of integration is that the newcomers eventually become like [the established community], but we are talking about some kind of cross-fertilization and cross-interest,” she said.
One of the important outcomes so far is that the programs’ mentors are discovering that the social and cultural Judaism of the newcomers is “different” rather than “less,” she said.
Participants learn about goals of leadership, leadership in Jewish history, leadership skills and the importance of philanthropy. They also meet with mentors and other community leaders, and serve as interns on federation committees.
Galina Sandler, 50, who immigrated from Kiev to Toronto with her family at age 15, said her integration into the Jewish community was “pretty painless on an individual basis.” She attended high school here, studied history at the University of Toronto (specializing in Russian and eastern European studies), and married a Canadian Jew.
Her children are Canadian-born, and she has worked in jewelry design and product development for many years. At the same time, she believes there’s a “gap.”
In North America, “the Jewish historical narrative is missing the Soviet period,” Sandler said.
“Our lives in the Soviet Union developed differently than North American Jews who had the fortune to be born here… A lot happened from 1917 until the Jews started leaving [the FSU] in the 1970s. Even though religious symbols disappeared and Jewish religious life was gone, and there was a great deal of official antisemitism, which made it difficult for us to have a thriving Jewish identity, we still remained Jewish. If we survived without religious institutions, we developed other ways of nurturing our identity… There are many varieties of Jewish experience. Mine happen to be culturally based.”
Sandler is very positive about the Bridges program. “I’m very optimistic, because I think the timing is right. There are many people like myself who have grown up in Canada and who feel equally comfortable on both sides of the divide, if you will.”
She said that mentorship provides “an informal kind of connection. It’s good insofar as it provides somebody like myself with a bit of guidance and mentoring in terms of how the federation works.” She has become involved with the federation’s “emerging communities” committee.
Shoel Silver, co-chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Committee for the Unity of the Jewish People, is a longtime community leader and a mentor in the Bridges program. He said he thinks it’s important for the community to have “breadth of leadership” in terms of where leaders come from, where they live in the community, and their life experiences.
“We should reach out and make sure as many as possible are engaged at leadership levels.”
On a personal level, he said, the program is meaningful to him because it allows him to hear the perspective of people he wouldn’t otherwise meet. “I think both sides are mentors and mentees.”