On integrating diversity into Jewish identity and 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 anti-Semitism 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.
“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 Tolmacheva, MA/MBA’13