The WhatsApp group for the Russian-speaking Jewish (RSJ) Wexner cohort of New York 16 has been a lively forum for political debate and discussion since its inception last summer during the New Member Institute (NMI) in Snowmass, CO. Frankly, it’s been hard to discern whether we terribly like each other and want to talk all the time or whether the unprecedented political events of the last eight months have gotten many of us engaged in a way that we hadn’t been before. It’s also important to note that as Jews from the former Soviet Union, we each have our own baggage, memories, ideologies and a particular distaste for politics. But even that has not deterred us.
With such discussions as our backdrop, the abstention at the UN by the outgoing Obama administration and the uncertainty around policy towards Israel by President Trump and his team have put some members of our cohort on a quest for an outlet to defend Israel politically — something that not many RSJs are currently doing. Israel has always hit home for us. In fact, more than 80% of RSJs have close relatives living in Israel; and, whereas only 20% of American Jews have visited Israel, that number is greater than 80% among RSJs.
Our learning has encouraged us to take these personal connections a step further. Many of us have recognized that we are willing to put other political differences aside to ensure that Israel can defend herself and thrive in the midst of tremendous sociopolitical challenges. A homework reading of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s essay from 1987, “The Third Era of Jewish History: Power and Politics,” put it best: “As manifested in Soviet Jewry demonstrations, Jews already learned that there is group safety and dignity in the public promotion of their interests.” For many RSJs, however, even those in our cohort who want to act, the million-dollar question has always been, how? Aside from being outspoken on social media, most RSJs don’t have the tools to navigate the never ending alphabet soup of Jewish organizational acronyms and aren’t meaningfully involved.
As merely one pathway of political action for the RSJ community, two RSJ Wexner cohort members teamed up to organize an information session on the work of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in southern Brooklyn. The event, hosted in the home of another WHP member, was well attended by others in our cohort as well as their friends from the community — almost all of whom were hearing about the possibility of political work on behalf of Israel for the first time. As a result of this event, several families joined AIPAC and are continuing to spread the word to their friends. In addition, many families inquired about what AIPAC can offer their high school teens. While the AIPAC high school engagement model traditionally operates through Jewish day schools, the organizers of the information session quickly recognized that most RSJ teens don’t attend those. As such, members of the current RSJ Wexner cohort are working on an initiative to provide an alternative platform for political advocacy for high school teens in southern Brooklyn.
It goes without saying that AIPAC is but one avenue to advocate for Israel politically on a spectrum of many others, especially in a place like NYC. What we want to point to more generally is what is possible when we inspire each other, collaborate and leverage our collective resources. #ThxWex for bringing us together and for allowing us to engage in conversations and work that is challenging, thoughtful and necessary.