Apr 2009

Beyond Bracelets

Rabbi Jay Moses, an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, is the Director of the Wexner Heritage Program.  He can be reached at jmoses@wexner.net

Many of today’s Jewish leaders—including some of us on the staff of the Wexner Foundation—came of age in an era where the primary task of Jewish leadership in North America was clear: a couple million of our brothers and sisters were living under an oppressive regime in the USSR and were denied the freedom to live a Jewish life or even to emigrate. The task of Jewish leaders was to go to Pharaoh and say “let my people go.”

We demonstrated at embassies. We smuggled prayer books into Moscow. And we wore bracelets engraved with the names of refuseniks. Eventually, the gates opened and our task shifted to resettling hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking Jews in Israel and throughout North America. We saw to it that they had housing, education, and employment.

And then, in too many cases, we simply moved on to other pressing issues in Jewish life. When it came to developing an integrated Jewish identity in their new home after generations of Soviet propaganda, they were largely on their own. Some made their way into our communal institutions, and many did not.

The Wexner Foundation, having spent the intervening decades focused on our mission developing Jewish leadership, is now poised to make a contribution to rectifying that oversight. The generation of Russian-speaking Jews who arrived here as children or teenagers will make or break the Jewish future for their unique cohort of “born in the USSR, made in America” peers. With over a million Jewish souls in the balance, the stakes are high.

With the generous support of the Genesis Philanthropy group, and the time-tested quality of the Wexner leadership programs, we are ready to move beyond bracelets. We are ready to empower a new generation with the tools to lead, tools that honor both the Russian heritage they brought with them and the Jewish heritage we all share in North America.