Many Jews from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) who landed in Toronto back in the ‘70s, are the pioneers of the Russian-speaking Jewish community as we know it today. Mila Voihanski is one such person, who now, in her position as the director of Limmud FSU Canada, continues to pave the way for future generations.
Voihanski, who was born to a Jewish family in Ukraine, was always driven to lead and excel.“As proud Jews, we were chosen, in a way. We had to excel at everything we did. I was always a person to be involved, it was natural to me”.
In 1974, her family moved to Toronto after spending two years in Israel. Then, the Russian Jewish community consisted of some 300 families (today the Russian-speaking Jewish population in the GTA is estimated at between 50,000 to 70,000.)
As the community grew, Voihanski’s family grew with it. “I met my husband in Toronto. I’m proud to say that at this year’s Rosh Hashanah table, combined with my sister’s family, we will have 18 chairs,” she said in an interview just before the holiday.
Voihanski recalls the struggles and the challenges of a young Jewish community. “Our differences from the general Canadian Jewish community were difficult to bridge. We didn’t have the numbers to be treated differently, nor the involvement. The policy back then was to blend us in the larger community. Unfortunately, by this day, some of the immigrants that came here in the ‘70s feel disconnected and neglected.” Voihanski was determined to change that.
After graduating from Yeshiva University in New York City with a master in social work, Voihanski started working at JIAS Canada (Jewish Immigrant Aid Services), serving as executive national director and then CEO. One of the programs piloted under her was JOLT (a pilot project in partnership with the Jewish family services in Calgary, Ottawa and Vancouver.) The program was focused on promoting Russian speaking leaders, providing opportunities to do an internship at a local Jewish organization and work with a mentor from the organized Jewish community. The program was later piloted in Toronto as well. “When we met with the Canadian mentors, they were amazed to find how little they knew about Russian speakers. It was one step closer to what we saw as an alternative way of integration- we wanted Russians to be accepted, for their talents and challenges.”
Voihanski’s next goal was to bring Limmud FSU to Canada. The volunteer-based organization became exactly what she had envisioned. In 2017, only four years since it was brought to Canada, the Limmud FSU conference had over 700 participants. “Keep in mind, that I am the only paid staff in Canada- everyone else are committed and hardworking volunteers.”
Limmud FSU plays an important role in shaping the future of the community. “The mission of Limmud is to engage more young adults, help them to gain strength in their identity and acquire leadership skills. We want Russians to learn about themselves and connect to Israel.”
Ironically, the conference has caught the attention of many non-Russian speaking community members. “More and more Israeli and Canadian Jews attend our events. They feel close to what we have to offer and our unique heritage and culture. Having said that, our ultimate goal is to integrate everyone.”
Thanks to Limmud and other success stories in the community, the landscape is changing. More is being invested in emerging communities around Toronto. “I am grateful for the generous support we had over the years from the UJA Federation and their Russian outreach department. I would also like to acknowledge the support of J.Projects and the Schwartz/Reisman Centre– we wouldn’t be where we are today without their support,” she says.
“With anti-Semitism on the rise, I wish that [in the new year] we would continue fighting, insuring that our children would never be affected by it. For someone who came from the FSU where we didn’t have a chance to speak up, Canada is a wonderful country to live in and proudly represent our heritage. I wish everyone to be proud of who they are and have a healthy and successful year.”
On Feb. 11, Limmud will be hosting a joint event with J.Projects’s JDY Theatre- an event featuring a theatrical performance and presenters from Canada, Russia and Israel.