Since the second week of January, Hillel Ottawa has been connecting with a unique group of individuals -- Russian-speaking Jewish students.
A grant from Genesis Philanthropy Group -- an international philanthropy organization that focuses on Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide – has provided special funding to hire an intern, Artur Botsvin, who is now meeting with Russian-speaking Jewish (RSJ) students. RSJ students go on coffee meetups and participate in regular programming.
"RSJ with Hillel fosters a space where the uniqueness of the Russian and Jewish experiences can intertwine and flourish - for both those of RSJ heritage and not - enabling the building up of our community and the passing down of our unique heritage: that of a diaspora in a diaspora,” said Botsvin about his experience. As a University of Ottawa student born in Toronto to an immigrant family from Soviet Ukraine, Botsvin can understand how important these connections are.
Einat Livni, student life coordinator at Hillel Ottawa, who was born in Israel to immigrant parents from Belarus and Ukraine, agrees and explains that so far, the program has been a huge success.
“We’ve now connected on more than 30 coffee dates, we’ve had two RSJ events including a virtual movie night,” said Livni. “We’re seeing 35 to 40 students coming out to these programs. The response has been amazing.”
Hillel Ottawa aims to enrich the lives of all our Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world so including the RSJ events was a natural fit particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered regular student interactions and involvement.
“Despite the difficulty faced in this recent year, the program has persisted and has attracted a wide range of students,” said Botsvin.
According to Livni, the events allow students to build a “home away from home,” focusing on cultural aspects like family relations, heritage and even food that is specific to Russian speaking Jewish circles. There are even students participating this year that are not from the University of Ottawa or from Carleton University, but are Russian students elsewhere in Ottawa.
“We’ve encouraged them to join,” said Livni. “Why not connect with them?”
Similar Russian-speaking programs exist in Montreal and Vancouver, but this program is a local first.
“It really helps this niche group of students,” said Livni.
“There’s a really unique community here. Having been part of the student community in the past, I know how important this [kind of program] is and how much impact it had for me when I was in school.”
Beyond student life, the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Ottawa has also seen increased engagement, along with an increase in immigration. Engaging Russian-speaking Jews is not new in Ottawa, although it is now expanding. Chabad of Kanata has been engaging Russian-speaking Jews for more than a decade in several ways including a Sunday school and holiday programming.
Rabbi Michoel Gershzon said there are about 1,000 families in the Ottawa Russian Jewish community, most of whom live in the Kanata area. He explains that many people contact Chabad of Kanata before they even move to the area. Nonetheless, despite best efforts, there’s a gap between this Kanata community and the Ottawa Jewish community as a whole.
“Russian Jews [are] a very specific group ... they’re very proud of their Jewishness, but not necessarily on the same terms as people who grew up in North America.”
Gershzon said in 2005, the “Acheinu Board” was established to address the growing needs of a Russian-speaking Jewish population, which eventually led to the development of the Chabad of Kanata by bringing Rabbi Gershzon to Ottawa.
Rabbi Gershzon said what the RSJ students are up to is fantastic and it’s very important to have a group like this gathered.
“It’s so important, because sometimes in school (university) their identities are dissolved, with both non-Jewish and non-Russian friends.”
This is why the efforts of Ella Dagan at the Soloway JCC (SJCC) are also critical. Russian, and other newcomers to the city are often first engaged through the SJCC. Dagan, who is the Vered Israel cultural and educational program manager at the SJCC, helps with translations and in making community connections for those new to Ottawa and to Canada.
“Most of them become personal friends,” explained Dagan. “They didn’t necessarily feel left out before, but now I can help them and there’s much more engagement and commitment to the SJCC programs and community.”
So, what’s next for the Russian-speaking Jewish community? The students are about to host a comedian night, and they also have plans for a cooking class. To get involved, visit http://hillelottawa.ca/.