More than four decades have passed since the first waves of Russian-speaking Jews began arriving in some of Canada’s major cities.
Some of those Russian-speaking Jews – who are now leaders of the organized Jewish community themselves – are making strides to right the wrongs that were made by community leaders who attempted in vain to integrate them.
Igor Korenzvit said that when he arrived in Canada in 1973, the priority was to get settled by finding work.
“I was a young engineer when I came to Canada, and someone suggested that I go to [Jewish Vocational Service], and when I came to JVS, it was so bad. There was no real help and they absolutely did not understand the issues. Not because they were bad people or because they didn’t care, but there just wasn’t the proper help. And I said to myself, ‘One day, when I am able to, I will do something to fix it,’” he said.
About 10 years after arriving in Canada and getting settled, he got involved in the Jewish community, as he had promised, and has since served in various leadership roles with community organizations such as JVS, Jewish Immigrant Aid Service (JIAS), and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Today, he chairs the board of governors of the Jewish Russian Community Centre of Ontario (JRCC) and sits on the board of The CJN.
“There is still very little integration between the Russian Jewish community and the larger Jewish community. The only integration I see is really through marriage,” Korenzvit said.
Today, the Russian-speaking Jewish population in the GTA is estimated at 50,000 to 70,000.
“You can count on two hands the number of people from the Russian Jewish community who are deeply involved in the larger Jewish community. From 50,000 people, maybe 20. And I’m being generous. That’s an indication that a very big problem still exists,” he said, adding that Russian speakers are involved in committees and organizations, but the numbers are not representative of the number of Russian-speaking people.
“I think there is no question that there is goodwill in the larger Jewish community. No question that there is goodwill in integrating and absorbing or being together with Jews from the Soviet Union. So the question is, with such goodwill, why is there a problem?”
Mark Groysberg, president of the United Community of Russian-Speaking Jews of Quebec and publisher of the Russian Jewish newspaper the Voice of the Community for the past 22 years, said although there are cultural differences between eastern European Jewish immigrants and the wider Canadian Jewish community, he doesn’t think there is such a big divide and feels the community is involved, active and connected to Jewish life in general.
In 2012, when a large donation allowed the David and Eda Schottenstein Chabad Community Centre, home to the Jewish Russian Community Centre of Montreal, to buy a permanent home, Groysberg told The CJN that many members of the Russian Jewish community were excited and donated their time to renovate it.
The centre was founded by Rabbi Israel Sirota more than 40 years ago, soon after he immigrated to Montreal from Uzbekistan, and has served the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Montreal ever since.
Groysberg, who has served in positions at Federation CJA as well as the former Canadian Jewish Congress, said when he arrived in Canada 26 years ago, Montreal’s Russian-speaking Jewish community was no more than about 100 people.
“But they lived like family.”
He said today, there are about 20,000 Russian-speaking Jews in Montreal, but those who arrived when they were young children, or were born to Russian-speaking parents in Montreal, have integrated into the wider Jewish community.
“My children came very young, but in this society, they speak French and English, and they have a lot of English-speaking friends.”
Through his role with the United Community of Russian Speaking Jews of Quebec, Groysberg said he continues to reach out to young people from Russian-speaking families to keep their traditions alive.
“In every program, that’s what we’re doing.”
In Toronto, Korenzvit said he believes the challenge in integrating Russian speakers was that “for many years, and even now, the larger Jewish community acted as a big brother to the Russian Jewish community. ‘We kind of know what’s better for you, we really, honestly want to help you and want you to be a part of us and we know how to do that.’ That [approach] never succeeded,” he said.
“Right now, Russian Jews contribute a lot to Canadian society, but they don’t contribute enough to the Jewish community, because they have not been absorbed properly or integrated properly. We have to understand that this is a good, strong, smart community and listen to them rather than telling them what is better for them.”
He said the idea that the Russian-speaking Jewish community simply needs better cultural programing is what he called part of the “big brother’s solution.”
“That is good for entertainment, but I don’t think it is good for integration.”
Mila Voihanski, director of Limmud FSU Canada, an annual three-day cultural conference targeting Jews from the former Soviet Union, came to Toronto 42 years ago from Ukraine and has spent her professional life working with the Russian-speaking Jewish community through her former role as the executive director of JIAS Canada.
She believes that connecting to a group that is more secular will be more successful if done through culture, music and art.
“Limmud FSU, is a great example of how people… are practising their Jewish identity by coming to the conference, and it gives people an opportunity to own it as well through volunteering,” she said.
“If you feel like you own it, and it’s yours, and you can influence it, then obviously you will be more involved and interested in pushing it forward.”
That approach worked for Russian speakers in Halifax, said Edna LeVine, director of community engagement for the Atlantic Jewish Council.
She said the Russian-speaking community in Halifax is only about eight years old and comprises about 120 out of Halifax’s 550 Jewish families.
LeVine said the Russian-speaking Jews became part of the established Jewish community soon after they arrived.
“We have made an effort to integrate and run programs that would be helpful with settlement and even [help them] get involved,” she said.
“We have an Atlantic Jewish Film Festival, and from the beginning, we’ve had newcomers involved on the committee, so for community events that we do, or programming. We’re always open to suggestions or involvement.”
She said although the newcomers have been vocal about what they want and need, at this point, the main objective is settlement.
She said AJC comes up with programming “in consultation with a newcomer who expresses a need. So basically, I’ll have a program, and I’ll ask, ‘What do you want to see done?’ Some things you can do, some things you can’t do. Some programming requires newcomers or the community to step up and say, ‘This is what we want, get on board and do it.’”
LeVine said the key to Halifax’s successful integration of newcomers is that it involves the Russian-speaking community from the ground up.
“We have people who are passionate, and many newcomers have come with talents that they would like to offer… We use their talents whether it is during Holocaust Education Week and we use musicians who volunteer their time to offer a musical interlude into our program or participate in any way.”
Voihanski said one issue that has always been problematic for Russian-speaking Jews and Canadian-born Jews was how each group understood the concept of Jewish identity, as well as the expectations the local community had about the Russian-speaking Jews before they arrived.
She said when the community was involved in bringing Jews out of the former Soviet Union, it had a vision of how they’d integrate once they got here.
“They expected people to do certain things, like join synagogues, like eat kosher food, and a lot of things that didn’t happen. There was a lot of disappointment,” Voihanski said.
The Winnipeg Free Press reported that from 2005 to 2010, more than 2,000 Russian-Israeli immigrants moved to Winnipeg, using funding and programming from the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and the Manitoba government.
In 2014, JTA published an article that said while federation officials said the campaign was a success, many Russian-Israelis who immigrated to Winnipeg had left for job opportunities in other Canadian cities.
The article also gave voice to critics who said the effort failed to bolster Winnipeg’s Jewish community in the long term or increase membership to the city’s Jewish institutions.
Ian Staniloff, executive director of Winnipeg’s Congregation Shaarey Zedek, told JTA at the time that “the recent influx of Jewish families have been Russian Israelis who seem to be less actively involved in synagogue life and are not involved in Jewish community life to any extent at all. We offer free membership to new immigrant families, but they seem not to be as interested in joining or pursuing a Jewish lifestyle.”
Voihanski said that the old, unsuccessful approach was to program for Russian-speakers instead of planning with them.
“What happened was, whatever was done was basically done from the perspective of the mainstream Jew, which did not resonate with the Russian-speaking Jews,” she said.
Over the years, she said the effort moved from trying to coerce them into participating in mainstream Canadian Jewish life and toward creating programming that targeted them specifically.
“There was a long-term vision of having them be a part of our community… with the understanding that just because it is different does not mean it is any worse or any less Jewish or any less committed,” Voihanski said.
“I think that was the big movement toward having the Russian community, accepting the fact – and welcoming the fact – that they are part of a larger community, and on a macro level that we are all one community.”
For this reason, Voihanski said she doesn’t think it’s fair to say that the Russian-speaking community is still separate from the wider Jewish community.
“[The separation] is something that is lifting – there is no doubt about it. I know, from my own experience, when I speak to people, there is no denying any more the importance of being involved in the mainstream community and supporting the Jewish establishment, both on the volunteer level and the philanthropic level.”
Korenzvit said although there is still a lot of work to do, there has been much progress over the past 40 years.
“Right now, some people say that Russians do not support UJA Federation [of Greater Toronto], or at least not at the level they should. But even though they are not giving directly to UJA Federation, they are still strong supporters of the Jewish community,” he said, adding that Russian-speaking Jews are donating to organizations such as the JRCC.
“I have seen this for 43 years – if there hadn’t been any improvements, I would kill myself,” he said with a laugh.
The major improvement is that the Russians are being taught that tzedakah is an important part of Jewish life.”
Although there has been progress, Moscow-born Kate Noam, director of UJA Federation’s Russian-speaking outreach program, who moved to Toronto from Israel six years ago, said engaging Russian speakers is still a challenging job.
She cited successful programs such as JRoots, a supplementary school running out of the Schwartz/Reisman Centre in Vaughan that serves about 300 kids, and J Academy Camp, which runs out of Camp Northland during the last two weeks of summer to engage Russian-speaking Jewish teens and integrate them into the mainstream Jewish community, has grown from 56 kids in 2010 to 235 campers in 2016.
“Trying to convince Russian-speaking parents six years ago [to send their kids to camp] and that their kids will be safe and have fun living in the woods, they were looking at me like I fell from Mars,” Noam said, laughing. But the program continues to grow.
She said the programming targets Russian-speaking Jews who are most likely to engage.
“The people who are most active and the ones to whom the programming is catered are young families and families with teens and students who came in the 1990s to late 2000s, because those are the ones who come out to the programs,” Noam explained.
“For the older generation who came in their 20s and 30s in the 1970s and had their family here, they’re received large subsidies to send their kids to the private Jewish schools and their kids were born here… so for the purpose of the programing, they’re Canadian-born, they’re Jewishly educated… and they’re in their 30s now and connected to the community they were born into, not the one their parents were born into.”
She said the Russian-speaking Jewish community today has more similarities to the organized Jewish community than ever before.
“These are not poor immigrants from deprived and devastated countries. Today, immigration is by choice. People make a conscious choice to come to live in Canada, to settle in the Jewish populated areas and to send their kids to different programs. This was not the case for the community that came in the ’70s let’s say, or not even the Russian speakers that came to Israel… That was an escape and survival kind of thing.”
Voihanski said she believes the Russian-speaking community is very much a part of the diverse Toronto Jewish community.
“Our community is a kind of microcosm of the larger Canadian community… I see the Russian community as very much a part of the Canadian Jewish community. Whether they are involved in a specific aspect of running this community is just a matter of time,” she said.
“However, it is still a long process, and those specific programs targeting Russian Jews are still very important.”
“The solution is, stop acting like a big brother,” Korenzvit said. “Start understanding and listening to what the Russian Jews really want and expect. You might not like it, but that is what the reality is. We have to find a compromise that fits both.”