Wednesday, April 19th, 2017...11:41 am

RAJMN: The work does pay off

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Ilana Volodarsky of RAJMN discusses creating a program for Russian-American Jews

By MAX SPARBER

It used to be possible to drive around the Twin Cities and see huge banners dedicated to the plight of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union: Save Soviet Jews read one banner than hung from a Minneapolis synagogue for years. In 1987, thanks to political reforms in the Soviet Communist Party, it became possible for a mass emigration of Soviet Jews. About a million Jews left their home countries, with between 30,000 and 50,000 Jews coming to the United States per year for the next decade.

When I spoke to Roman Polonsky of the Jewish Agency for Israel several months ago, he described traveling among America’s Russian-Jewish community, he found many of them were disconnected from the larger Jewish community where they had settled.

A second-generation of Russian-American Jews celebrates Hanuka at a recent RAJMN event (Photo: Courtesy of RAJMN)

In the former Soviet Union, many of them had very little exposure to Judaism. It was a national identity to them, Polonsky explained; it was something stamped onto their passports, but not something they had day-to-day experience with.

In the United States, many of these immigrants found it difficult to maintain relationships with the Jewish community, which had developed programs to bring them to the Unites States but had organized very little long-term programming for them. And so they drifted away from the Jewish community, and from each other.

This story was duplicated here. A large number of Russian Jews settled in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the 1980s and ’90s, largely in a few locations: In St. Paul, most of them lived in a single housing unit, Sibley Manor; in Minneapolis, they largely congregated in St. Louis Park. But as the years passed and they pursued their own lives, and they moved away from each other.

Ilana Volodarsky moved here from Ukraine as a girl in 1989, and she witnessed the community drift apart. Years later, wanting to create a program for Russian Jews in the Twin Cities, she went through the files that existed for the community at Jews organizations and found them badly out of date; even her own address was an old one.

Volodarsky had graduated from the University of Minnesota and afterwards worked professionally as an event planner, but volunteered at Jewish organizations. After college, she was asked to be on the board of the St. Paul Jewish Federation, and there she proposed what would become RAJMN (Russian-American Jews in Minnesota), a program designed to connect the scattered Russian Jewish community — both with the larger Jewish community, and with each other.

But first she had to find them. In an interview with the American Jewish World, Volodarsky describes hand-delivering fliers to Russian restaurants, groceries and businesses. “There was no Facebook, no social media, no database,” she says. “It was impossible to get people together.”

With her background in event planning, Volodarsky was able to both create new programs for Russian Jews and to meet with existing institutions to discuss how to incorporate that community into forthcoming events.

Her work paid off. Russian Jews began to attend the RAJMN events, and Russian parents began to bring their children to events in the larger Jewish community, including Jewish religious school education and summer camps. “They love it there,” Volodarsky says.

She described a certain comfort level Russian Jews and their children experience when they see each other at these events. “Many of the children are bilingual,” she says. “It’s as though you went to another country and saw an American, you would feel like you had something in common. It’s the same with us here.”

RAJMN is approaching its 14th anniversary, and the organization’s events regularly bring in 250-plus attendees, which would be a remarkable for any Jewish organization. The organization has served more than 3,000 people over the years, and their recent Hanuka event brought in 400 people.

“The work does pay off,” Volodarsky says. “People see the benefit.”

For more information on RAJMN, including upcoming events, visit the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul’s website at jewishstpaul.org.

(American Jewish World, 4.21.17)

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