Monday, November 28, 2011

Helping Soviet Jewry Today

Yesterday I helped to bury Boris, a dear friend of mine, who died over Shabbat.  I don't know exactly how old he was, but he was not older than 65. 
Boris and his wife Genya emmigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 90s.  They were regulars at Beth Israel.  Genya died about 6 years ago and since then Boris was a regular at daily minyan in the morning. 

For a number of years, Boris was my Russian tutor.  Once a week, after minyan we would meet in my office for a half hour to study.  Initially we learned from a Russian language text book, and then we moved to a book about Judaism that Boris owned that was written in Russian. 

Unfortunately, Boris lost his voice a number of years ago which made it too dificult for him to teach, but I am proud to say that I was able to write and give a eulogy for Boris in Russian at his funeral. 

The Omaha Jewish community took in a number of Russian Jews in the 1990s.  After the funeral I spoke with a lady that was very involved in setting up apartments for them when they arrived.  She told me how she personally went out to stock the apartments with toiletries and linens, and tried to make sure that the Russians would be made to feel comfortable in their new homes.  I suggested that maybe we start some sort of project to document the Omaha Jewish community's involvment with the Russian Jews. 

She shuffled uncomfortably in her seat.  "Rabbi," she said, "I have never said this to anyone out loud, but I have to tell you that I am not proud of how we treated the Russian Jews.  While it is true that we made it comfortable for them to settle in, once they were settled our community did not do a good job of integrating them."

This struck a painful chord in me as well.  I remember as a kid in gradeschhol the weekly rallies held to free Soviet Jewry.  I recall Rabbis and teachers regularly talking about our Jewish brothers and sisters suffering under communism. Let My People Go!!

Then when I got to high school the Russians were freed and they came to America.  The high school that I went to opened its doors and offered free tuition to Russian students. 
These kids came to our school, they didn't speak the language, didn't know the culture, they looked different, dressed different, spoke funny, and acted different.
There were certainly a few sensitive American kids who reached out to these new immigrants, but what I remember for the most part, including myself, is that we were mean and insensitive to the Russian kids.

I don't know how many other people my age feel this way, but for me it is a past that I am not proud of and a shame that I will never live down.

But that does not mean that it should be forgotten.  It is now going on 20 years since the first wave of Russian Jewish immigrants.  I think it is time to start looking back at that history.  There were many things that the Jewish community can and should be proud of.  Money was given, volunteer hours were spent, and homes were open.  The Omaha community and other American Jewish communities should be proud of that. 
On the other hand, perhaps we could have been friendlier to the immigrants once they were settled.  Why weren't we?  It is worth doing some self exploration to figure that out.  Perhaps it will help us if we are ever faced with a similar situation in the future.  Perhaps it will make us sensitive to people that we could be reaching out to right now.  If we are ever to perfect ourselves, we need to explore and learn from our mistakes in the past.

And finally, the same people who came over 20 years ago are still here.  Many of them were too old to integrate properly.  Some are in need of financial help.  Some are lonely.  Others are alienated from the Jewish community.  While not as severe as the Holocaust, the Russian Jews have a story of persecution that needs to be recorded for posterity.  Engaging an elderly Jew from the former soviet union and taking time to learn their story is something that each of us can do to make sure that their story is never forgotten.

We can never change the past, but there are things that we can do to make sure that the experience of the Russian Jews is one that will help us make a better future.