Building community through an academy

Building community through an academy

Local Russian Jews offer classes to fill in the cultural gaps left behind

Before Shabbat started, the community gathered for a group photo at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston.
Before Shabbat started, the community gathered for a group photo at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston.

In some ways, it’s an old problem.

When people immigrate to a new country and their children assimilate successfully into the new culture that surrounds them, the feelings the situation evokes often are mixed. On the one hand, the immigrants left their homes for good reasons; on the other, immigrants generally leave a rich culture behind them and want to retain some ties to it.

It’s probably even more complicated for Jews who immigrated to America, because they took their Jewish culture with them, but often left the specifics of the subculture behind. In America, Jews from Russia, say, or Hungary, or Germany, or Morocco, or Iraq, or Iran, or Argentina, might have to figure out how to be part of American culture, part of American Jewish culture, and then — what? Russian-Jewish-American culture? Sounds good — but it also sounds hard. How do you do that?

Russian Jews — and readers should note that many of us have learned just since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, that the term “Russian Jews” generally means “Jews from the former Soviet Union,” more likely from Ukraine or Belarus or maybe Moldova, the places that used to be in the Pale of Settlement, as most of Russia proper was not — have yet another problem.

Because the Soviet Union forbade the teaching and practice of religion, most Jews knew little about Judaism, even as persistent antisemitism made many of them well aware that they were Jewish. (Others were denied even that vestigial tribal memory.)

When they came here, many Russian Jews settled in Brooklyn. Fairly recently, some of the young parents among them — many of whom had come to the United States as small children in the late 1980s or early 1990s, or perhaps were born to parents newly arrived here — sent their children to the Mazel School, a community day school in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, Natalie Lisak of Livingston said.

The school serves south Brooklyn, home to many Russian Jews.

“The parents realized that their kids were getting a good Jewish education — but they lacked that education,” she said. “So they decided that they wanted to start their own school, for themselves.” They wanted to learn about both Judaism in general and Russian Jews in particular. “They never knew much about the history of the Russian Jews,” Ms. Lisak said. “And they decided that if they were going to do it, they would do it in the best possible way, by hiring the best professors in the field and learning from them.”

So about seven years ago, a group of parents of children ranging from newborn to 18 years old formed a cohort, of between 20 and 25 people, and went to 10 classes on Russian Jewish history and life.

That’s how the Jewish Parent Academy was born.

These classes are serious. Teachers have included such academics as Dr. Zvi Gitelman, professor of political science and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan; Rabbi Michael Paley, who went from being scholar in residence at UJA Federation of New York and an Upper West Side apartment to working for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Budapest; and Arna Poupko Fisher, an educator who taught about Jewish parenting.

The classes are taught in English; the parents, who say they belong to “generation 1.5,” aren’t necessarily fluent in Russia, and certainly they don’t all read and write it with great confidence. “The English language and Russian heritage are the common ground,” Ms. Lisak said.

The Jewish Parent Academy has two intertwined missions. One is to help parents teach their children about their backgrounds by filling in the gaps in the parents’ own knowledge. The other is to create community. “We want to promote Jewish values,” Ms. Lisak said. “When our parents came to the United States, they were busy with survival. They didn’t have the funds to send their kids to Jewish schools.”

Another value the program teaches is philanthropy. The classes it provides cost money to produce; the Jewish Parent Academy charges tuition — but not nearly enough to cover the costs of the 10-class course — and it does a great deal of fundraising as well. “Our parents didn’t have the opportunity for philanthropy, and philanthropy wasn’t what you did in the Russian culture, when our parents grew up in the Soviet Union,” Ms. Lisak said. That, too, must be taught.

The Jewish Parent Academy continued to offer the series of classes to a cohort every year; teachers often were flown to Brooklyn, where they were held. A few years ago, Russian Jews in Manhattan were able to form their own cohort through the JPA.

And then the pandemic happened. Cohorts continued to be formed, but those classes were available only on Zoom. There was the usual tradeoff; in-person intimacy was lost, but people across the country were able to join. “My husband, Vadim, was part of a national cohort over Zoom,” Ms. Lisak said. The Lisaks — Natalie, Vadim, and their three children; two sons, now 10 and 8, and a 4-year-old daughter — had moved to Livingston eight years earlier; “my aunt lived here,” she said. That’s the way communities often build themselves; there’s a pioneer, and then relatives and friends follow.

A member of the JPA board in Brooklyn, Yana Bar, had moved to Livingston during the pandemic; soon she recruited Ms. Lisak and a few other women to develop and implement a new idea. With the pandemic’s most dangerous phase ending, and in-person gatherings resuming, “We decided to open an in-person cohort in New Jersey,” Ms. Lisak said.

Last year saw the first New Jersey cohort, a pilot program full of Russian Jews mainly living in Livingston and Short Hills. Everyone running it was a volunteer. “We charged $360 for the cohort; it’s a five-month commitment for 10 classes,” Ms. Lisak said. “We needed more than that, so we did fundraising locally and we got some seed money from JPA.

“The second year, the federation” — that’s the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — “found out about us, reached out to us, and offered us a grant. So we started working closely with them doing some community events.

“They also provided $500 grants for Russian-speaking Jews going to overnight camps; they saw the benefit of working with our community to bring more people into Jewish camping. When children live in the immersive environment of a Jewish summer camp for weeks at a time, they tend to grow up more closely connected to the Jewish community. They’ve found it to be a source of joy.”

There is a growing Russian Jewish community in MetroWest, Ms. Lisak said. “Most of them are in Livingston and Short Hills; there also are some families in Springfield, Westfield, and smaller groups in Garfield, Chatham, and Summit. There are Russian-Jewish food stores in Livingston now.”

This year, the cohort meets at the Cycle Bar in Milburn; it’s centrally located and convenient to most of the people in the class. “It’s a franchise, and the owner is a Russian Jew.”

There is a growing Russian Jewish community in Wayne, and JPA is considering expanding to that area; there also are Russian Jewish communities in Bergen County, particularly in Fair Lawn, but they are not part of the Livingston-based JPA cohorts. Because one of its main goals is to build community, the organizers want participants to live close to each other; it’s easier to feel connected when you run into other people in your group as you shop or work out or walk your dog or pick your kids up from Hebrew school.

With the help of federation grants, JPA in New Jersey is beginning to offer community events as well as the learning project. “On Mitzvah Day, we organized a volunteer opportunity, packing bags for Holocaust survivors, just for our community, and then recently we did a Russian-speaking tour of the Lower East Side,” Ms. Lisak said.

So far, the demand for the cohort — JPA’s most basic offering — has outpaced the supply of seats. The founders do not want any cohort to hold more than 25 people, and they’d prefer only 20; if you go above that number, it’s harder to create intimacy. So cohort hopefuls are asked to fill out applications, where they explain why they want to be part of the JPA, what they hope to get out of it, and what they can bring to it.

Often people are turned away; in Brooklyn, where it’s been running for seven years,people have applied twice or even three times before they’ve been accepted, honing their expectations as they update their forms. “We also want diversity,” Ms. Lisak said. Members of the cohort mostly are Ashkenazi Jews from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova; others are from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and other Central Asian outposts of the former Soviet Union. Some are not Russian Jews but are married to one.

JPA has begun a cohort on Long Island’s north shore and it’s trying to expand into Westchester too. Each community is slightly different — the Long Island group, for example, is predominately Bukharan, Ms. Lisak said — and JPA’s offerings will vary depending on the community’s needs and interests.

Ms. Lisak began her work with JPA as a volunteer — she used to work in private banking, and then in the nonprofit sector, but the combination of young children and covid made her decide to spend at least a few years becoming a stay-at-home mother with a strong sideline in volunteer and nonprofit work. She’s JPA New Jersey’s only employee now, but her official work as JPA New Jersey project manager is very part-time and her unofficial work for the group is all-consuming.

Last weekend, JPA New Jersey had Shabbat dinner; it was open not only to members of the cohort that is learning together this year, but to their families, and to the entire local Russian Jewish community.

Because more people registered for the dinner than could fit comfortably into the first space JPA New Jersey secured, “we started looking for the largest venue we could find.” Just days before Shabbat, the dinner moved to Temple Beth Sholom in Livingston. “They were so very gracious, and it was a very much discounted rental,” Ms. Lisak said. “There were close to 120 people there, and 52 of them were children, with a wide range of ages.”

The food, of course, was kosher, but it also was traditional Russian-Jewish treats. “People loved it,” Ms. Lisak said. “It wasn’t typical Shabbat dinner food. It was our food.

“This is our community.”

Because the draw for adults is education, the speaker Rabbi Reuven Khaskin, taught the adults. But what to do with all those kids? Ms. Lisak and the other organizers — she is only one of many, Ms. Lisak stressed — worried about that until, at close to the last minute, Tracy Levine, the director of One Happy Camper, “invited the assistant directors from Nah-Jee-Wah and Cedar Lake, and they came and did camp-style entertainment.” That meant that the children were entertained, happy, and quiet enough for their parents to listen to the speaker.It also meant that the kids who have not been to a Jewish summer camp were introduced to it.

The dinner was organized and run by volunteers; that, too, is part of how JPA creates community. “It’s all about not just sitting back, but getting the community involved,” Ms. Lisak said.

To learn more about the Jewish Parents Academy, go to

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