Russian Jewish Women Are Making Impact: A Conversation with Anna Vainer
At age 11, Anna Vainer’s family moved from Ukraine to Israel with two suitcases in hand, shocked that their new home was, in her mother’s words, a “tropical village.” Though there were Russian-speaking Jews everywhere she turned, it took Anna several years to acclimate to Israeli society and to understand who she was and how she wanted to impact her community. Since then, Anna has worked as an informal Jewish educator and community organizer with Russian-speaking Jews all over the world and now serves as the JWRP’s Partnership Manager for the Former Soviet Union and Europe. In our conversation, Anna shed light on the challenges that Jews in the Former Soviet Union face today and how Russian-speaking Jews connect to Israel.
What was it like to move from Ukraine to Israel as a child?
My family moved to Israel from Ukraine in 1991 during a big wave of Aliyah that brought about 800,000 people to Israel from the Former Soviet Union. People used to joke that if an immigrant from the Former Soviet Union exited the plane without a violin case in his hands, he was a pianist. That was actually true for both of my parents — and my mother still works as a pianist. We arrived in the summer and immediately realized that we had absolutely no use for our winter wear in Israel. Coming to Israel marked my parents’ first international trip. It was also their first encounter with Jewish people from all backgrounds and cultures. My parents set out to learn Hebrew, get jobs, and start over.
Why did you decide to work with the Russian Jewish community?
When I was 16, I was chosen to be a young ambassador for Israel. I had elaborate dreams of representing Israel in Tasmania or Singapore, but the staff immediately set me straight. “You’re our only Russian speaker, so you’re obviously going to a Russian-speaking country.” It was then that I realized that I could serve as a cultural bridge to Russian Jews around the world. I understood where they came from and I could help them understand the Israeli experience. I, myself, had put a great deal of effort into defining my new identity and surrounding myself with interesting people who represented all sides of Israeli society. Having grappled with the complexities of my identity and achieved a sense of belonging in Israel and in the Jewish community, I wanted to help others do the same.
What are some unique aspects of the Russian-speaking community in Israel?
The Russian-speaking community is very diverse. We come from different countries, speak various languages, and have multiple voices and narratives. What’s unique about this generation of Russian-speaking Israelis is that we’re deeply proud of our heritage. We want to preserve our language, so we teach it to our children. We also want to infuse Israeli culture with the values and holidays that were important to us in the Former Soviet Union. We believe that our culture is valuable and beautiful and that it’s important for us to make it a part of contemporary Israel.
What are some of the challenges that the Jewish community in Russia faces today?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most young Jews left for Israel or the United States. In periphery areas, the Jewish people struggle to stay together and keep Jewish traditions alive. Also, anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in Slavic culture. Ukraine, which is experiencing a nationalist wave, seeks to create a new national identity. In doing so, they are creating an ethos that blames a lot of the country’s problems on Jews. Jewish people who live in the Former Soviet Union have always known that they were Jewish due to persecution. Even today, they face challenges in articulating their Jewish identity in positive ways. They also struggle to create local leadership that can sustain Jewish life.
How does the Diaspora Russian Jewish community connect to Israel?
Over 85% of Russian Jews have a close relative living in Israel. Russian Jews all over the world are very passionate and supportive of Israel and feel emotionally and culturally connected to the Jewish homeland. Many have visited Israel and are up-to-date on Israeli current events. There are various Russian-language newspapers and news programs about Israel specifically designed for Russian Jews who live outside of Israel. Russian Jews see Israel as a place of inspiration and pride.
What impact does MOMentum have on women from the Former Soviet Union?
So many of our sisters from Russia live with great financial hardship and have almost no connection to Jewish infrastructure. The MOMentum experience is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them, giving them the opportunity to see Israel alongside Jewish women from around the world and, for the first time, to not feel isolated in their Judaism. After their trip, JWRP sisters from the Former Soviet Union support each other for years to come. Together, they create a Jewish home and a Jewish life in areas where neither existed before.