Yana Tolmacheva

Yana Tolmacheva
MA/MBA’13

"I think ensuring Jewish continuity means embracing diversity. Young people who are traveling and studying overseas have a wonderful opportunity to help open the tent and creatively weave these lost or nearly forgotten heritages into the beautiful landscape of World Jewry." 




Yana's
Short Bio

Yana got her bachelor's degree in 2010 from Hunter College, graduating cum laude with a major in psychology. At Hunter, she participated in their study abroad program at Universidad de Belgrano in Argentina.

While a student, she worked for several years at the Kings Bay Y. After graduating, Yana worked at the JCC in Manhattan for a year and for a short while at both the Jewish National Fund and Oranim Educational Initiatives. In 2011, she enrolled in the Hornstein Program, choosing the Hornstein Program's MA/MBA track offered in partnership with The Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

Yana did her Hornstein fieldwork at the Anti-Defamation League in Boston. After graduation, she first worked at Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston managing the Dnepropetrovsk Kehillah Project (Boston's sister city partnership with Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine) and then at Moishe House as Director of RSJ Programming.


Yana's Professional Network

Visit the websites of the Jewish organizations mentioned in Yana's profile:

Prof. Amy Sales was Yana's advisor. 

Hornstein Alumni Profile


Yana Tolmacheva
 
on Integrating Diversity
  into Jewish Identity
  & World Jewry 


"When we encounter and engage with the diversity in World Jewry, when we embrace it as the rich, full thing that it is, we also address and embrace the diversity of who we are as individuals,” says Yana Tolmacheva MA/MBA’13.

Engaging young people in the Russian-speaking Jewish (RSJ) communities of North America and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) to create meaningful Jewish experiences is Yana’s focus as the Director of Russian Speaking Jewish (RSJ) Programming for Moishe House. She loves her job.

Born in Russia, Yana immigrated to New York City in 1992. Yana’s parents insisted they speak only Russian at home. As a child, she traveled back to Russia regularly to visit family and has maintained strong, positive connections with her family there.

“I think language and culture are very closely intertwined. Both are a reflection of each other and foster meaningful connections to our environment and our communities,” says Yana.

“I believe the majority of American Jews have roots in Eastern Europe or the FSU,” she says. “The challenge is to reconnect them with this part of their heritage, their history. There's a large part of our heritage that we are mostly not actively recognizing and not nurturing.”

Blinkered perspectives of the FSU and Russia as only places from which people fled antisemitism and hardship bar Russian American Jews from developing an interest in the rich cultures of the region and the strength and resilience of the people there.

“Let’s do more to investigate and learn about the incredible culture we have and the strength and resilience of our people,” urges Yana. “Let’s reconnect with our Russian Jewish heritage, give it positive reinforcement, and place it where it rightfully belongs in the larger landscape of World Jewry.”

Yana’s interest in language and culture is not limited to Russian. While in high school, she participated in an exchange program in Spain, and while in college, she went to Argentina for a study-abroad program. Last year alone, she traveled to Colombia five times.

“Relationship-building and getting to know other people in other cultures is part of who I am, part of my identity, and why I love my job.”

When Yana thinks about World Jewry, she takes a broad view. “There’s not just the Former Soviet Union countries to consider. There are Jews in South America, in Cuba, in Morocco, for example. It’s true, we’re not all the same. But this is what makes World Jewry so beautiful and fascinating. We are all Jewish. We will always have that connection. It resonates and bonds us together as a People.”  

For Yana, embracing diversity in global Jewry starts with embracing diversity within our own individual identities and fitting them together holistically.

“I'm a woman, I'm a New Yorker, which is also a huge part,” she says, laughing. “I love to dance. I've traveled a lot through Latin America. I speak Spanish and I love and resonate so much with the Latin American culture.”

A newcomer to the world of boxing, she thinks boxing will also become part of her identity. The benefits, as she’s already learned, extend far beyond the ring.

Yana Tolmacheva boxing

Yana started boxing when her personal training introduced it into her workout. She's learned it takes self-confidence to get into a ring with an opponent, a quality she's also applying to other areas of her life.




In Her Own Words:
  An Interview with Yana Tolmacheva

Q: What’s your background, Yana?

YANA: I was born in Moscow and emigrated to America in 1992. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. People always tell me I have an accent. Maybe it’s mixed? Russian and New York? [LAUGHS] What matters most is that people understand me!

Q: How did you manage to hang on to your Russian accent? You’ve been here a long time.
 
YANA: We were not allowed to speak English at home. We only speak Russian, even now. I think my accent isn’t typically “Russian” but a reflection of growing up Russian in New York City.

Q: As a child, did you resent having to speak Russian at home?

YANA: Maybe when I was young, it was a little bit annoying sometimes to get in trouble when speaking English, but my parents were never very strict and didn’t force us in an uncomfortable way. I am absolutely grateful that my parents insisted we speak only Russian because it is the reason I can speak, read, and write Russian today, (not having attended Russian school or anything), and am able to connect with the Russian speaking community across the world. To this day, I only speak in Russian with everyone in my family and I'm very happy about it.
 
And it’s not just language that we’ve maintained. We’ve also carried on with the mentality and culture that otherwise would have no outlet growing up here. When we have it at home, it can remain solid. I really appreciate that I still hold on to this part of my identity.
 
Q: Language is a bridge to deeper understanding of culture and traditions, isn't it? 

YANA: I think language and culture are very closely intertwined. Both are a reflection of each other and foster meaningful connections to our environment and our communities.

So the language we speak affects how we identity ourselves. It isn't just language as the structure and platform of my communicating. It's my mentality, my culture, and my perspective, and other things that I may not even be aware of that flow through and are expressed by my language. 

Q: Is it safe to assume you will teach your children to speak Russian?

YANA: I plan to. I don't have children yet but I remember thinking, even when I was much younger, that if I didn’t learn to speak Russian well enough or read or write it well, then I wouldn’t be able to pass it down to my kids. So yes, one hundred percent, I want my children to speak Russian.
 
Q: Are there Russian language classes or programs where you can send children?

YANA: Here in New York City, there are sadiks, daycare or what might be called nursery school or pre-kindergarten. There are many Russian ones, so you can start with that and then obviously do the private tutoring. There are also Russian after-school programs at any Jewish Community Center, at least in Brooklyn and New York City.

Q: Do you know what the growth trend is for these programs?
 
YANA: I think there will be fewer of these programs in Russian in the future, unless someone makes it a higher priority now, unless there’s a demand and people step in to support these types of programs. There are a multitude of programs for Russian-speaking Jews (for various ages). Genesis Philanthropy Group, who actually partnered with Moishe House to start RSJ programming, supports a multitude of RSJ programming across the world.

Today, a lot of programs for Russian-speaking Jews emphasize the Jewish part of Russian-speaking Jews’ identity rather than the whole Russian-speaking Jewish identity.

We deal with these questions a lot at Moishe House, of how to maintain and develop all parts of our identity, and do we want to keep them together, or do we not. We ask ourselves what will our RSJ community look like one, two generations down the road. It's very interesting, I think it's a question mark right now.

Q: What about you? What’s your identity?  

YANA: For me personally, I cannot separate the two aspects of my RSJ identity. But if I separate it, I want to keep both. I'm a little bit different than a lot of other Russian-speaking Jews, though. The reason is that a lot of people who came over, whether they were born there or here, are now very disconnected from wherever they immigrated from in the Former Soviet Union. They’ve not maintained their connections with family and friends, they rarely or never speak Russian. But for myself, as soon as immigrated here, two years later, my family took everybody back to visit in Russia. We have lots of family who are still there. I go back all the time now.
 
Among my Russian-speaking Jewish friends who emigrated at a very early age like I did or were born here, none of my friends can communicate comfortably in Russian. Many don't want to go back. They come here and assimilate quickly into American culture, into American Jewish culture.

But in my family we have retained a very close relationship with Russia, with our family, and with our culture. I think my parents and my grandmother did a wonderful job raising us, of holding onto our heritage and culture, and giving me a foundation that I can be connected to.

Q: Tell me about the Moishe House learning retreat which you lead for Russian-speaking Jews.

YANA: Moishe House leads monthly leadership development and learning retreats on various topics. These are part of our training and community building program for the entire young adult community. They are offered domestically and internationally. For the very first time, this December, we hosted a retreat exclusively for the Russian-speaking Jewish community in North America held in Camp Ramah that brought together 25 participants and I look forward to our second retreat April 8 at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.
 
Last May, as part of our international learning retreats programming, we held our first Jewish Education Retreat entirely in Russian, in Chisinau. It was an incredible experience to engage in Jewish learning and community building with over 25 participants from countries including Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Austria and Latvia. This was just three weeks after I joined the Moishe House team!

We have other international retreats too, such as a Shavuot Retreat in May that is held in Brussels. Our RSJ residents and community members are always invited to these, but they're in English. For those not fluent in English, language is a barrier and they wouldn't be eligible. So we’ve made it a point to offer these retreats in Russian too, so that they can be accessible to everyone.

That's what happens internationally. In the Former Soviet Union, we have 12 Moishe Houses. In North America where we have a large RSJ community, we have three Moishe Houses. It’s very important for us to have this community-building, three-day immersive experience. December was our first retreat for RSJs here and it was extremely successful.

On a personal and professional level, it was an amazing experience. It was a unique opportunity for the RSJ community, people in their 20s, to connect and participate in Jewish experiences in a way that makes them feel comfortable.
 
It’s a time in which young RSJs who’ve been raised here can explore their personal identities. They're able to connect to their own community and share stories.
 
Q: How many Moishe Houses are there around the world?

YANA: There are currently 85 Moishe Houses around the world in 20 countries. And we're continuing to expand.

The Moishe House is a fairly new organization. We are celebrating a decade this year. Our peer-led and home-based model means that the ideas and energy to build a thriving Jewish community come from our residents. These are all their ideas and their programs. They lead the way.

We don't dictate. We support and empower young adults to realize their visions for bettering each Jewish community. Because it’s home-based, people are hosting programs through their homes, inviting friends over, having Shabbat dinner. Or they are organizing their friends to attend a great lecture or the theater or participate in a volunteer program. The learning retreats help the leaders in their communities fill in the gaps of their knowledge and provide them with resources so they can better lead, teach, and guide their burgeoning communities.   
 
It is an immersive, transformative experience. We now have close to 100,000 unique participants a year on the global level who are engaged with it. The bottom line is we want our Jewish communities not only to survive, but thrive.

Who's going to shape our communities in the future? Young people will create it.

What incentives do they have to do this? We must engage them now, inspire them, connect them to their Jewish identities, and bring them closer to leading an active Jewish life. That's our goal.

While we focus on the individual's experience, this model reaches many. It has the power to affect many individuals in different communities who are then networked throughout. This is how we support and nurture World Jewry.

Q: Does Moishe House partner with other Jewish organizations?
 
YANA: For sure. Even at the local level of house programming, we encourage Moishe Houses to periodically host programs in partnership with another organization. The whole point is to create an open atmosphere and bridge communities together. So perhaps residents will opt for programs in partnership with Birthright, the Federation, JOFEE, or American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Repair the World, with the local Jewish Community Center (JCC), and so forth, with whatever organization or program or project they choose to participate in or with.

We only started doing our RSJ programming in 2009 in partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group, (GPG) in We work closely with them to strengthen our programming and continue expansion. And we strive to build and maintain relationships with the local community as well.

Q: In your opinion, does the RSJ community feel disconnected from the rest of the American Jewish community? To World Jewry?

YANA: In Yana’s opinion? Yes. The RSJ community here in the U.S. isn’t quite connected to the American Jewish community, or maybe I should say, it isn’t integrated.

I don’t mean that they necessarily should be. In view of the broader Jewish communal landscape, I think the RSJ community still needs targeted programming. Because of our different cultural background and experiences, we can't be expected to blend into the typical American Judaism. American Judaism isn’t necessarily going to feel relevant or meaningful to us as it is for American Jews.

Q: Can you provide some examples of these differences?

YANA: I think about this a lot. First, as RSJs, we have a unique experience and history of antisemitism. Our immediate families have direct experiences with antisemitism in Russia and it was more recently experienced by our families compared to the families of our American Jewish peers whose families fled Europe decades ago.
 
Our parents grew up with antisemitism. Our grandparents grew up with it. They had experiences with the Holocaust, the concentration camps, the pogroms and Russians killing their own, and so forth.

I think we have experiences that are very different from American Jews, who trace it back a few generations. And for us, it’s all very recent in our memory. During the regime in the Soviet Union, during Communism, all religious life was entirely suppressed. So we grew up with that as our foundation.

By comparison, here in North America, my generation of American Jews grew up with so many options in Jewish life. Maybe they celebrated a little at home, went to synagogue, had a Seder every year, went to Hebrew School or Day School where maybe they rolled their eyes at their Hebrew teachers…

We don’t share this experience. Ours was an absence of these things. Ours was a sort of pride that wasn’t based on Jewish acts, per se.

Because of Communism, Russians are also less willing to associate with and more uncomfortable with institutions and institutional life. You know, we’re happier to sit in our kitchens and talk. We’re not too willing to go to synagogue or go to the community center or Federation because of our biases and discomforts with institutions.

Prayer is different for us. Religious acts are different. Then there are our cultural differences which are not so much Jewish but Russian. We tend to be more direct and to the point and less concerned about being politically correct in our conversations.

And I think we have a generation gap. My generation is the one who is trying to reconnect with our Russian Jewish identity while our American peers don’t have to do that. Our parents could be considered a lost generation because they grew up in the Soviet Union. Often we have to teach our parents about their Jewish heritage and about Judaism because all this was suppressed and kept from them.

Within the RSJ community, we feel most comfortable because we have this shared history. And we don’t need to explain ourselves all the time.  

I think we can often relate better to other immigrant groups in the ways we were raised, the challenges we had to overcome, than we can relate to our peers who are American Jews. I think we all have very strong immigrant mentalities.

Q: Thank you for those examples. That helps a lot. In your view, how strong is World Jewry? Do you perceive any weaknesses? What are its challenges?

YANA: I'm very passionate about Global Jewry, the global community, the Jewish People. I think we do face challenges in the Jewish communal world. Referencing the experiences I have just shared and the support I see that’s still needed in RSJ communities, I think we are faced with a powerful bilateral relationship between America and Israel. Having said that, however, I am extremely passionate about Israel and I would say Israel is at the core of my Jewish identity as it is with my RSJ peers in North America. We have a very strong pride in Israel and are very pro-Israel, more than, I think, any other group, in Israel and outside of Israel.

But I think we are doing ourselves a disservice by focusing so much on the relationship between North America and Israel. I think we have a huge Jewish population in the Former Soviet Union and of course other Jewish communities around the world, such as in Africa, South America, Latin America, and so forth, and I think generally we don’t focus enough on the global scale or on everyone who is in this Jewish community.

Historically, Jews have lived everywhere before there was the State of Israel. That's how the Jewish community lived. It was always scattered. And that's how we've always survived. These are functioning ecosystems that we have.

I think that in the context of all the efforts within the Jewish community to improve Jewish life, much more can be done in the Former Soviet Union. I believe the majority of American Jews are from somewhere in Eastern Europe or the Former Soviet Union.

The challenge is to reconnect them to this part of their heritage, their history. This forms the foundation of who we are and where our families and ancestors are from. There's a large part of our heritage that we are mostly not actively recognizing and not nurturing.

So that’s a challenge, I think. And another is how we think about diversity.

I’m someone who’s both inside and outside the Jewish community. I’ve always been passionate about cultural diversity and all that the world’s peoples have to share. I’m less concerned about our “surviving” as a Jewish community and more interested in how we can thrive, how we can develop as a dynamic, diverse, and richly beautiful global Jewish community.

I think ensuring Jewish continuity means embracing diversity. Young people who are traveling and studying overseas have a wonderful opportunity to help open the tent and creatively weave these lost or nearly forgotten heritages into the beautiful landscape of World Jewry.   

Let’s look beyond the stereotypes of Russian Jews in America as “those poor uneducated immigrants” who still need support. Let’s look beyond the Former Soviet Union as a land of antisemitism where our families fled from. Instead, let’s do more to investigate and learn about the incredible culture we have and the strength and resilience of our people. Let’s reconnect with our Russian Jewish heritage, give it positive reinforcement, and place it where it rightfully belongs in the larger landscape of World Jewry.

Of course there’s not just the Former Soviet Union countries. There are Jews in South America, in Cuba, in Morocco, for example. It’s true, we’re not all the same. But this is what makes World Jewry so beautiful and fascinating. We are all Jewish. We will always have that connection. It resonates and bonds us together as a People.  

Q: In reference to the findings of the 2013 Pew report on Jewish Americans, do you think the growing ambivalence about Jewish identity among American Jews poses challenges to World Jewry?
 
YANA: I'm not even sure I have an answer for that. I think the “challenge” facing World Jewry today is the misconception that we have about the Diaspora. I've never been a fan of this word because it assumes that there is just one center, as opposed to a view of Global Jewry where we’re not devaluing any area because it’s not the “center.”

I think sometimes that our views here in North America are too patriarchal and patronizing. Too often we impose our views on other communities rather than try to learn from them. There is a power imbalance, perhaps.

As for Jewish identity, I think we would do better to focus more holistically on the topic. Let’s look at me, for example. Being Jewish is a great part of who I am but it's a part of who I am. It's not all that I am. So if we want to engage in authentic, holistic identity building, we need to engage all parts of the identity and not just focus on the Jewish piece. Generally, I don’t think our programs target the whole person.

I think this is why we have a growing ambivalence towards our Jewish identity, especially among young adults. I don’t think we are doing a good job connecting our Jewishness and our Judaism to the other parts of our identity in ways that are holistically intertwined.

When we encounter and engage with the diversity in World Jewry, when we embrace it as the rich, full thing that it is, we also address and embrace the diversity of who we are as individuals. I think there is an amazing opportunity in World Jewry to help build up our personal Jewish identities.

Q: I understand that part of your identity is as a boxer.

YANA: [LAUGH] It's my new hobby as of just a few months ago. I started boxing because my personal trainer incorporated boxing into our sessions and I really enjoyed it.

It's the kind of sport that takes a lot of discipline and a lot of confidence. What you learn from boxing, I think, really changes your outlook and mentality and can positively transform other parts of your life.

For example, I noticed after a couple months of boxing that you can't have an ounce of self-doubt when you're going into the ring with somebody. There is no room for doubt. You have to be confident. I am learning to apply this new self-confidence into other areas of my life.   

Yes, I think boxing will grow to become part of my identity. But of course there’s more. I'm a woman, I'm a New Yorker, which is also a huge part! I love to dance. I've traveled a lot through Latin America. I speak Spanish and I love and resonate so much with the Latin American culture.

Q: Wow. You also speak Spanish?

YANA: Yes, I studied abroad in Argentina. I've been to Colombia five times in the last year. I was in an exchange program to Spain when I was in high school. I could go on. I’ve always been enthralled and engaged in other cultures in authentic ways.

Relationship-building and getting to know other people in other cultures is part of who I am, part of my identity, and why I love my job.

You know, part of why I think the Jewish people have survived and thrived is because of our engagement with non-Jews. We can go back to forever-ago and see that our survival has happened because of our interaction and relationships with other people. We don’t live in a bubble. We can stay true to our core. Jewish continuity doesn’t limit us to just interactions within the Jewish community. It’s always been this way.

It’s one reason why I like Moishe House. I don’t fit in among many Jewish circles because I wasn’t raised the same way as many of my Jewish peers. I didn't grow up in it. I have this huge personality, for better or for worse. And so while I work in the Jewish community trying to build and expand Jewish life, I can authentically be myself at the same time and do all the things I enjoy. It’s me, Yana, who benefits, while seeking to enable the same type of holistic growth in the young adult RSJ communities in which I work.  

Q: So you feel fulfilled in your work and life?

YANA: Yeah, very much! That’s not to say I don’t feel stressed sometimes! [LAUGH] But the fact that I can be honest about who I am in every sense of the way is totally unique and appreciated

Q: How did you get to Moishe House?

YANA: My journey to Moishe House probably starts with the Hornstein Program. David Cygielman, CEO of Moishe House, was our keynote speaker at my graduation ceremony.

When I traveled with Hornstein and Brandeis Genesis Institute to Ukraine, one of my most positive, memorable experiences was our visit to the Odessa Moishe House. I got to know the people there and it was part of why I wanted to work with them. One of the Moishe House Odessa alumni actually served as a guest educator at last year’s RSJ Resident Training Conference. And Julia Smirnova, who was in the year ahead of me at Hornstein and was the reason I even found out about the program in the first place, is someone with whom I still work with to this day, a current resident of the RSJ Moishe House in NYC who planned the first Moishe House RSJ retreat with me, and is joining me on the second one.

It’s very cool. I’m somebody who didn't grow up with a strong Jewish identify, yet all of these pieces came together and brought me here. It's incredible and special and amazing and I love that I get to do something that makes me genuinely excited. 

 

 



This interview with Yana was published in the Hornstein Program's Impact Newsletter, March 2016. If you would like to quote any part of this conversation, please attribute content to the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and link to this page. All rights reserved.