Little Moscow on the Bay

The Radical Jewish Traveler goes to a San Francisco retreat for young Soviet Jewish immigrants.

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The Jewish Agency for Israel

Given the participants’ connections to Israel and the lack of investment of major American Jewish foundations in Russian Jews, it is not surprising that Mitbachon is organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel--an organization that, once upon a time, focused on aliyah, encouraging immigration to Israel among Jews around the world. Today, as most large Jewish populations live in politically and economically stable countries, and as Jewish immigration has decreased, the Jewish Agency has remade itself.

No longer is it speaking in the name of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, to save downtrodden Jews from around the world. It now speaks the language of Ahad Ha’am, the founder of cultural Zionism, who argued that a Jewish state’s primary role was to serve as a beacon of Jewishness to the rest of the Jewish world.

Since June 2009, the Jewish Agency has been headed by Natan Sharansky, the iconic Soviet Jew, who emphasizes the role of the Jewish Agency in fostering Jewish connectedness, both in Israel and abroad. According to Sharansky, the organization today “must be responsible for building the Jewish people into a tightly connected family that has the feeling of a shared Jewish identity.”

Mitbachon reflects part of Sharansky’s vision. At the retreat, Israelis from the former Soviet Union, working as emissaries in the US for the Jewish Agency, used an American form of community building to develop Jewish identity among their fellow Russian-speaking compatriots, albeit those whose families ultimately chose America over Israel. And the retreat brought together Russian-speaking American Jews to learn about what makes them part of Sharansky’s “tightly connected family.” After all, in my workshop, we did Torah study on Saturday morning like Jews all over the world.

Insiders & Outsiders

russians in san francisco

But as they spoke in Russian about anti-Semitism, Israel, and an American culture that many of them have trouble relating to, the participants may have actually been fostering precisely those feelings of alienation from local Jewish communities that the retreat should have been breaking down.

After all, we were in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Mitbachon organizers live in San Francisco and New York, bastions of pluralistic and radical Jewish culture. If place means anything--and I think that it does--it was important to introduce the participants to their Jewish present in America, not just to remind them of their anti-Semitic Soviet pasts and the possibilities of an Israel-centric Russian Jewish future, as embodied by the emissaries and Sharansky.

In retrospect, I should have spent more time showing them Jewish life in San Francisco, where queer clergy are found at many synagogues and Jewish Renewal is transforming Judaism. I should have taught them about Brooklyn, home to Soviet émigrés, Chabadniks, and Williamsburg hipsters, or Queens, statistically the most diverse place in the world.

In other words, rather than being reminded of their alienation, while we were all traveling in this transient place called Mitbachon, these young Soviet Jewish immigrants might have been encouraged to envision their own sense of Jewishness and rootedness in America.

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David Shneer

David Shneer is an associate professor of history and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and his most recent book is Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust (Rutgers, 2010).