The Russian-Jewish Dilemma: BGI Undergraduate Fellows Reflect on the Program's First Year

by Ben Terris '08

When Esther Tandetnik '13 says that she and her parents speak different languages, she isn't making a comment on the complexities of parent-child communication.

"When I talk to my parents about something serious or political, we always speak in Russian," she says. "But when we're joking around or teasing each other we speak in Hebrew. Sometimes I speak Hebrew to my family and they speak Russian back."

For Tandetnik, who was born in Israel after her parents moved from the Soviet Union, and who grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, her multi-lingual household indicates a complicated cultural identity.

"I don't always know where my Russianness starts and my Judaism ends," she says. "It's indistinguishable."

As a fellow of the Brandeis-Genesis Institute (BGI) - a fledgling initiative tasked with preparing Russian-speaking Jews to become effective community leaders - Tandetnik is one of 16 Brandeis University undergraduates working on, among other things, a better understanding of this cultural makeup.

It's a goal central to the mission of the Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG), an organization dedicated to enhancing Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide. In 2009 GPG committed $10.8 million to create BGI and fund various scholarships for Russian-speaking students who wish to be of service to the Jewish community. The aim is to help nurture a population of people whose traditions were systematically suppressed in the former Soviet Union.

In addition to the undergraduate fellowship program, the grant also finances three full scholarships for graduate students in the Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership, and provides funding for 32 high school students to attend the Genesis summer program at Brandeis University, established in 1996.

The GPG website puts it this way: "Jewish identity and continuity has suffered dramatic lapses in the Russian-speaking communities of the former Soviet Union. The legacy of a totalitarian past has left vast numbers of Russian-speaking Jews profoundly disengaged from their Jewish heritage. As we move into the 21st century, we envision a pluralistic Jewish identity - a source of exciting possibilities for a diverse Jewry and for continuing the task of perfecting the world."

The 2009-2010 academic year marked the arrival of the first class of BGI undergraduate fellows, 16 students chosen from a competitive pool to receive $7,500 of scholarship money and to participate in a series of organized events including lectures, movie screenings, and a retreat in the Berkshires.

They are a group of students who, like Tandetnik, struggle to understand their intertwined cultural identities, and who together make up a small spectrum of the Russian-Jewish-American experience.

"Part of what makes it so difficult to know what it means to be a Russian-speaking Jew is that it can mean so many different things," says Professor Irina Dubinina, a member of the BGI faculty advisory committee and unofficial mentor to many of the BGI fellows. "BGI brings together a wonderful mosaic of people with different experiences and ways of living."

It's a group of students who run the gamut from secular to Orthodox upbringing with wide-ranging interests that include piano, theater, dance, math, student government, glass blowing, and tennis - to name just a few.

Yet, despite their disparate experiences and interests, BGI fellows speak of finding indescribable bonds within the group.

Nera Lerner '12, says that when it comes to her personality, the movies and music she likes, her academic and future goals, and even the food she likes (she's a vegetarian, which she points out is decidedly "un-Russian") she couldn't be more different than her BGI fellows.

"If I was on I probably wouldn't be set up with anyone in the group," she says. "But for some reason, if something is wrong, if I need a talk or to have a powwow, I always go to friends I've made through BGI. There's just something intrinsic about them that makes them like family."

Lerner says the bonding began when the group went on a retreat to the Berkshires last fall. It was a bit awkward at first, she says, to be isolated with a group of relative strangers. But after a weekend of group activities, watching shooting stars together at night, and sleeping in rooms that reminded Lerner of what "Soviet boot camps probably looked like," the group "really came together."

It was at the retreat that many BGI fellows noticed similarities they had never before shared with other students. Parallels appeared in how they spoke (Lerner says she was tickled by how other heritage speakers sprinkle the word "like" into their Russian), in family stories from life in Russia, in their immigrant experience, and even in their parents' simple quirks.

"For the first time I found other people whose parents didn't understand the concept of a sleepover," says Victor Zhivich '13. "My parents would ask me why I'd want to sleep somewhere else when I had a perfectly good bed at home....I always thought my parents were wacky and suddenly I realized there was a whole community of parents like mine."

BGI's goal is not just to help students make connections with one another, but also to facilitate relationships with the Russian-Jewish community and a better understanding of their shared history. Often, this comes in the form of lectures and group discussions like when Professor Sergey Glebov of Smith University came to speak about intolerance in post-Soviet Russia, or when Zvi Bielski, whose father was portrayed in the movie Defiance, came to Brandeis for a multimedia presentation of photographs documenting Jewish resistance to Nazi occupation in wartime Soviet Union.

BGI encouraged fellows to undertake an eclectic range of personal projects. For many of them, it was the independent work they did through the institute that has left the biggest impression.

Tandetnik took this as an opportunity to give back to the community. Teaming up with the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, she used her Russian language skills to translate a series of health fact sheet fliers - including information on H1N1, basic first aid, and Heimlich procedures-from English to Russian.

"It was really the first time I was able to utilize my Russian outside of my home or the classroom," she says. "It was a really good feeling."

Another project found Lerner digging into the history of Russian Jewish artists, much of whose work she was able to see first-hand in Brandeis's own Rose Art Museum vault.

Lerner says the experience of analyzing the works of artists like Marc Chagall and Larry Rivers, as well as learning their stories, touched her on a personal level.

She says she felt special kinship to Rivers - who changed his name from Yitzhok Loiza Grossberg - because she too took on an "American" name for much of her life, going by Nancy in elementary school out of concern her classmates couldn't pronounce Nera.

It was while researching Rivers, Lerner says, that she had "a real moment of catharsis."

"When I saw his family portrait I felt like I knew exactly what was going on there, who each member of his family was and how much they must have had in common with my relatives," she says. "I realized that no matter how different our lives were, we had plenty of shared history."

The independent project served as the impetus for Victor Zhivich to learn about his own family's story, and led him to record oral histories about his grandfather's experiences living in the Soviet Union.

"I was shocked to hear the stories from my grandfather," Zhivich says. "I'm so used to waving my Judaism like a banner, it was strange to hear about him hiding his Jewish celebrations from his neighbors in the communal living apartments by locking all the doors and making sure no one heard the prayers."

While most students chose either to research major figures in Russian-Jewish history or to document the stories of their own family, Julian Olidort '11 was able to combine the two.

That's because his grandfather, Marc Klionsky, is world-renowned artist. Born in Belarus in 1927, Klionsky was the youngest artist to have his paintings exhibited at the Tretiakov National Gallery in Moscow, and since moving to the United States in 1974 his portraits have included the likes of Golda Meir, Elie Wiesel, Dizzy Gillespie, and B.B. King.

Olidort decided he would do more than just learn about his grandfather's story: "I wanted to explore where I came from, and I also wanted to bring that story to campus," he says. He hoped the story could help teach him about himself while also edifying the campus at large.

"It's hard for me to define who I am. Am I Jewish? Am I Russian? Am I Jewish-Russian? American?" Olidort says that at least part of the answer lay in his grandfather's narrative.

"I'd heard snippits from my grandfather since I was young" he says. But it wasn't until he heard the complete story of his journey chronologically - from fleeing the Nazis, to becoming an artist, to leaving the Soviet Union and raising a family - that Olidort could really see where he fit into his grandfather's story.

"I am a product of my family's pursuit of freedom and the suffering that came with it," he says. "It's one thing to read about suffering or see it in movies, but another thing entirely to see it through your grandfather's eyes and his paintings."

In April, Olidort presented his grandfather and a selection of his works to a crowd in Rapaporte Treasure Hall at Brandeis University's Goldfarb Library. The event included Olidort's reflections on his grandfather's work, as well as presentations from Professor Nancy Scott of the Fine Arts department, and Professor Antony Polonksy of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department. (Read more about the event.)

"Julian's event was really powerful," says Zhivich. "It was great to see the work in a historical, artistic and personal context, and for the two different generations to be connected. Not only did we learn about what it meant to be a Russian Jew, I think Julian's grandfather got the opportunity to see a little about what it's like now."

Fellows say that BGI transcends a set of activities and a source of funding. For them, the very existence of the Institute acknowledges their distinctive place in society.

"It's been really nice getting the recognition that I am part of a special community, that my family may have seen persecution and segregation even though I check off  'white' on all forms," says Julia Rabkin '11. She sees BGI as acknowledgment that her family's experiences should not be taken for granted.

"When you feel different from other people it's easy to think that you might be crazy or overanalyzing your differences," she says. "It's nice to be reminded that you are in fact unique... and in doing so form this larger support group of people that will be with me beyond just my time in college."

Even without BGI, Rabkin, like the rest of the fellows, has a full plate. In addition to a full load of coursework, she is president of Russian Club, vice president of Peers Education about Responsible Choices, a member of the student union executive board task force, a member of the student health advisory committee, an orientation leader, and a founding member of Cheese Club. And still, BGI manages to stand out as a significant component of Rabkin's Brandeis experience.

"Being around other Russian-Jews has helped with the process of self-actualization," she says.

It's a process that will take Rabkin to Russia, where she will spend the summer taking classes and interning for a health organization that provides social and educational services for children at high risk for HIV and AIDS. Rabkin says she expects the trip to leave an indelible mark and teach her a lot about herself.

"I'm sure I will find a way to share my stories with the group," she says. "This kind of trip is so important. BGI fellows all know they can go on birthright [to Israel], but going back to Russia and seeing the environment that you came from is just as crucial to solidifying identity."

Much of this quest for self-actualization takes place right at Brandeis.

"The college campus is the most developmental in our lives," Olidort says. "It's where you can develop the most individually. What better place to discover and analyze your social identity than with a group of peers going through the same thing?"

Before BGI, in most cases students had to choose to join a club or take a class that represented one aspect of their heritage; perhaps exploring Russian identity by joining the Russian Club or becoming a Russian major on the one hand, or exploring Judaism by attending Shabbat services or events organized by Chabad on the other.

With the creation of BGI, Jewish students of Russian heritage have a place where they don't have to choose.

"Both parts are of their history are so important," Dubinina says. "If you let one go, the other suffers. At BGI we don't have to worry about making that division."

While their paths may diverge, the BGI fellows are consistent in their plans to stay involved with the Russian-Jewish community well into their futures.

Tandetnik is working toward becoming a children's psychologist, and hopes to be able to reach out to the Russian Jewish community on both a personal and professional level.

"I have an aunt and uncle who were a dentist and a doctor in Worcester, Massachusetts, and because they were Russian, they treated most of the Russians in the area," she says. "I hope that I could maybe do the same."

Rabkin, who says professionally she wants to be "some sort of CEO, CFO, COO - something with a ‘C' in charge of something at a health organization," also recognizes the significance of maintaining a link to her heritage.

She says that not only does she hope to be a board member of a Jewish-Russian organization, but will also make sure that her children are involved in the community.

"In some ways, it's easier for us now, because we have American peers but also have Soviet-Jewish parents and grandparents to foster in us a connection to our past," she says. "The next generations won't have that."

Even those like Olidort, who says he doesn't have any idea where he will be in 20 years, know that this history will remain a large part of their lives.

 "Being involved with BGI has been special and amazing, spending my time actively thinking about my personal heritage, and it will always be an important part of who I am," says Olidort. "It's in my blood, literally."