“All for one and one for all,” proclaimed Feliks Frenkel, one of three honorees last night at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, at the 10th anniversary celebration of COJECO (Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations), a beneficiary of UJA Federation of New York, that has established itself as the central coordinating body in the Russian Jewish community of New York. The elusive demographic—to the Jewish community at large, anyway—has maintained an identity that does not quite fit in the box that general Jewish interest groups have targeted, which has meant less Jewish participation. And with numbers like 1 in 4 of Jewish New Yorkers fitting in the demographic, it is no wonder that Jewish organizations like UJA are pining for active ties.
Executive Director Roman Shmulenson commented, “The number came as a surprise to many. Yet, for a whole range of reasons, Russian-speaking Jews remained either unaffiliated or only marginally affiliated with the existing communal institutions. There were key people in the American and the Russian Jewish communities who realized that in order for the integration to be successful, certain changes had to take place. There was a need for a unified strong voice and coordination for many grassroots efforts existing in the community but not really connecting with the mainstream.”
Three of these key players were the honorees, who have bridged the gap a bit further between the communities. Emphasis was placed on empowering the individual through Jewish values to allow for opportunities to fully integrate as individuals and as a community. UJA Vice President and CEO John Ruskay quoted the famous refusenik Natan Sharansky: “Identity is now the driver for everything we care about. If one is not positively identified, why care about the Jewish poor, renewing Jewish life in the Former Soviet Union, or securing the Jewish state?”
The honorees have focused their efforts on transmitting appealing Jewish values to a formerly outsider demographic, via a Dolly Parton-esque book gifting program (Harold Grinspoon’s PJ Library), Soviet persistence in community organization after immigration (COJECO’s first president and Board Chairman Feliks Frenkel’s efforts in the arts and community), and from within the political machine (COJECO’s first executive director Hon. Alec Brook-Krasny, and the first member of the area’s Russian community to be elected to the New York State Assembly).
COJECO’s current president David Kislin put the decade in perspective: “This is only the beginning of a much larger history that we’ll be talking about for years to come.” The Russian Jewish community seems to be an untapped natural resource in New York with much gain to be had in the further excavation of its creative and cultural inspiration. Most important is COJECO’s vision that such integration is possible through the arts. Its Blueprint Fellowship program has been a beacon of the arts, allocating support for individual creative projects like Yiddish theaters, children’s programs, documentaries and exhibitions that illuminate a thirst to know what this Russian-speaking Jewish identity exactly is, revealing potential beyond the old country, however invisible and tragic that past might have been. Looking toward a vibrant future, as former Blueprint Fellow Mira Stroika, an accordian-clad musician belted at the conclusion of the evening à la Edith Piaf, “Non, je ne regrette rien.”
(Photographed: above, Hon. Alec Brook-Krasny; below, Mira Stroika)
Margarita Korol is one of this year’s Blueprint Fellows, producing an illustrated poetry exhibit honoring her refusenik mother.