Feature Stories

Jookender Creates Connections for Russian Speaking Jews

By Bruce Mendelsohn

Ask most Russian-American Jews to name their tribe and they’ll likely look at you quizzically. Ask some in Massachusetts and they may answer, “The Tribe.”

When Sasha Grebenyuk hears that response, she knows the organization she leads—Jookender Community Initiatives—has measurably, meaningfully, and memorably increased Jewish identity and engagement among a traditionally insular and hard-to-reach segment of American Jewry.

Jookender—a new 501(c)(3) organization based in Framingham, Massachusetts—introduces secular Russian-Jewish families to Jewish heritage and culture and offers programs to rekindle their feelings of Jewish identity.

A Russian Jew who grew up in the grasp of Communism and moved to America in 1994, Sasha is among a handful of community leaders with the contacts, credentials, and credibility to engage Jews from the former Soviet Union. Operating Jookender on a shoestring budget, Sasha and her small team of volunteers provide programs and services that achieve outcomes far exceeding the nonprofit’s income.

Numbering about 80,000 of Massachusetts’ approximately 293,000 Jews (Jewish Virtual Library), “most RSJs (ed. note: Russian Speaking Jews) arrived here after 1985 with very little formal Jewish education,” Sasha explains. “When these current parents were growing up in Russia, they weren’t exposed to Judaism and our traditions. They had neither personal experience nor practical knowledge. They didn’t know what they didn’t know.”

Julia Atkin’s experience exemplifies Mrs. Grebenyuk’s observation. Ms. Atkin, who grew up in Communist Ukraine, feels deeply connected to Judaism but doesn’t describe herself or her family as ‘religious’. She says Jookender’s programs—including The Tribe, in which she and her family recently participated—create a warm, welcoming environment in which she and people like her can rekindle their Jewish kavanah (intention).

“I have blurry memories of my grandparents lighting candles and going to shul but as a child, I had no connection to Judaism. In my teenage years, when Communism started to erode, I got reintroduced to and reconnected with Jewish rituals and traditions. That inspired me to spend a year in Israel studying in a religious program. When we moved to the U.S. in 1999, my husband (a Russian Jew) and I wanted to expose our children to Jewish rituals, traditions, and values. We were referred to Jookender, whose programs have increased our knowledge of and appreciation for Judaism and Israel.

Kira Shandalov, a senior at Reading High School who is also enrolled as a Freshman at Middlesex Community College, has been involved with Sasha and the Jookender team for two years. A native Israeli, Ms. Shandalov moved to the U.S. in 2015. Fluent in Russian, Hebrew, and English, Ms. Shandalov is a popular teacher in The Tribe and a regular participant in Jookender’s programs. “I worked with about 30 kids; they were very enthusiastic. The Tribe is a great program for kids, especially around the holidays.”

Like many Russians and Israelis, Ms. Shandalov eschews the ‘religious’ label. “I have some religious knowledge from my upbringing. In Israel, you live it. But in America, it’s not as omnipresent. That’s why I love being involved in The Tribe: I feel connected to my roots and to this community.”

A 2015 study of the RSJ community provides hard numbers supporting these personal observations and experiences.

Commissioned by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP, Boston’s Jewish Federation), the study reported that 10% of Jewish households in the Greater Boston area included a Russian-speaking Jew or someone who was born or raised in Russia or the former Soviet Union. Nineteen percent of these Russian speakers reported being interested in Religious Services and only 21% were involved with synagogues. While the study’s results suggested the contemporaneous system wasn’t adequately serving Boston’s RSJ’s educational needs, it highlighted the need for grassroots organizations like Jookender to fill in those gaps.

What is The Tribe?

Jookender was one of two organizations (the other was the Worcester Jewish Community Center) to pilot The Tribe’s first year. Funded by the Milstein, Lesser, and Germunder Private Foundations through the Jewish Federations of North America, The Tribe is a pluralistic program designed to educate, engage, and energize Jewish families. Conceived and developed by Jewish communal service veteran Arinne Braverman, The Tribe engaged about 100 families in Boston and Central Massachusetts. From October 2017 through June 2018, tribes of eight to 10 families met monthly in members’ homes or community centers.

As Jews increasingly migrate from strict religious affiliations to a more pluralistic approach, Ms. Braverman says The Tribe offers an inclusive roadmap. Intentionally pluralistic, Ms. Braverman calls The Tribe “a values-based program that welcomes Jews and non-Jews. It’s structured to stimulate interest among children and engage spouses of Interfaith families. Tribe members journey together to gain a general understanding of Jewish values, but the program neither dictates which values they should teach nor where or when they teach them.”

Describing The Tribe’s curriculum as “approachable, flexible, and fun”, Ms. Braverman explains the pedagogy gives parents more knowledge about Jewish history, culture, and traditions and inspires their children to learn more about Jewish ethics like social justice and community service.

“The Tribe was created to highlight Jewish values and to be accessible to families who did not previously connect with Judaism through religious ritual,” she says. “We selected Jookender because we thought niche populations would be best served by the small group model and we wanted to prioritize engaging currently underserved and marginally affiliated Jews,” she adds.

To participate in The Tribe pilot, Sasha and the Jookender team invited almost 300 people: 77 families with children from kindergarten to 3rd grade. She created nine tribes, each with nine to 12 families and a leader. Although some of the families knew each other before being invited to join The Tribe, most met during the program.

While most families used The Tribe’s curriculum, Sasha explains, some created their own lessons based on the provided pedagogy. Most popular among all the tribes were holiday traditions. Sharing the story of a family who knew nothing about Jewish holiday cuisine so they made dishes to share with tribe members, Sasha says such lessons resonated because they brought tribe members together—especially around food.

“The Tribe inspires curiosity and a yearning for learning, especially for Jews who may not have been exposed to the richness of our heritage and traditions. It offers a step-by-step framework within which families can experience those things together,” Ms. Bravernam says. “Inclusive and intergenerational, The Tribe is an engaging point of entry or re-entry into Jewish life.”

Stories and Statistics Show Success

Where many point to declining Jewish identity and engagement as existential threats to American Jewry’s future, the success of both pilots shows that creative, inclusive, and pluralistic programming can produce positive outcomes. In addition to post-participant surveys that reveal measurable program outreach and engagement results, participants’ personal stories describe the life-altering impact of reconnecting with long-forgotten (or never learned) Jewish rituals, ethics, and traditions. Sasha says, “The Tribe’s family orientation actually strengthens religious affiliation by exposing Jewish liturgy, rituals, and traditions to previously disengaged families.”

In terms of measurable impact, Ms. Braverman highlights Jookender’s 260% increase in connection to the Jewish community. “I was surprised by the results of Jookender’s participation. Sasha had a 50-family waitlist of families eager to participate in the program’s first year.”

Ms. Atkin shares the joy of seeing her children discover Judaism like she did: “The Tribe and Jookender’s other programs give my kids the childhood I dreamed for them—to learn, embrace, and practice Judaism with people who are like them, in an environment free of fear.” Sasha cites an unanticipated community benefit of The Tribe’s structure and programming: “Some tribes grew very close socially in addition to learning from the curriculum.”

Program satisfaction isn’t limited to parents. Kira Shandalov says the kids she taught were curious and hungry to learn more. “At all ages, I’ve discovered a deep desire among this community to know more about Jewish heritage, ritual, and tradition.” The Tribe kids are engaged not just by fun and games, but also by teen madrichot (counselors/teachers) whom Sasha and the Jookender team actively recruit and train. Of Ms. Shandalov, Mrs. Atkin says: “Kira was amazing. Her energy and passion really connect with the kids. They look at her and see a model of what they could be.”

Sasha highlights Jookender’s training of teen volunteers and mentors like Kira. “The training we give our teen volunteers has a ripple effect,” she explains. “First we make sure these young men and women acquire and retain Jewish historic and cultural knowledge. Second, we equip them to go to tribes and teach. Third, teen teachers make it more affordable for families with young kids to participate in Jookender’s programs.”

Count Worcester Jewish Community Center Executive Director Emily Rosenbaum as a fan of The Tribe. With her 10-year-old daughter, Ms. Rosenbaum was a member of the Northern Worcester County Tribe. From a professional and personal perspective, Ms. Rosenbaum says that The Tribe makes it easier for unaffiliated Jews to access comfortable and convenient Jewish fellowship: “The pedagogy is thoughtfully and sensitively constructed to connect Jewish education with practical Jewish values. It shares vital lessons about valuing, maintaining, and manifesting Judaism in our daily lives.”

She believes The Tribe’s non-intimidating, haimish engagement style and flexible, approachable curriculum is appealing because it “caters to people in their comfort zones, involves families, builds community connections, and ultimately enhances Jewish learning.”

Following Pilot Program Success, an Uncertain Future

Pointing to overwhelmingly positive objective and subjective feedback, Sasha and the Jookender team are actively seeking funds to grow The Tribe’s reach and impact. Normally calm and unassuming, Sasha lights up when sharing The Tribe’s impact in the community her team serves: “I’m thrilled The Tribe appears to strengthen connections to our faith, especially among the RSJ community. It fulfills our cravings to be more connected with our faith and fellow Jews.”

Although The Tribe pilot was fully funded, Sasha says the budget-conscious nonprofit lacks the resources to conduct as robust a program as in the first year. Reluctantly conceding that philanthropic support to expand Jookender’s other programming remains a question mark, Sasha and the Jookender team are optimistic donors will realize the importance, value, and impact of Jookender’s programming in the RSJ community, and respond accordingly.

With so many Jewish education and outreach programs in Massachusetts, Jookender’s outsized impacts have gone largely unnoticed. “We prefer to have our results speak for our organization instead of slick marketing materials,” says Sasha. “But more support could help us achieve much, much more.” Specifically, she mentions growing the number of tribes and expanding the number of people who can participate in Jookender’s popular Teens4Teens program and Family Camps.

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