Who is the New York RSJ (Russian-speaking Jewish) 2016 [WHP] cohort? We are a diverse group: some of us were brought here as children, some as young adults, some fully formed. We are from Russia’s big cities, from towns in Ukraine, the Baltics, the Caucasus, and even Siberia. We are all Jews from the former Soviet Union, with a shared experience of liberation, emigration, and eventual resettlement in America, thanks to the efforts of so many in the American Jewish community.

For the last two years, our cohort has been on a journey of self-discovery to understand the arc of our family histories from the Russian Empire, to the Soviet Union, to building new lives as free Jews living in America, and creating and raising our own Jewish families. In the process we have built a powerful community of RSJ leaders, with a passion to empower and enable our people to reclaim their Jewish identity and engage in Jewish communal life.

With deep and sincere gratitude, and on behalf of the entire RSJ cohort, we want to express the most heartfelt thank you to all of the Wexner staff and faculty who have worked tirelessly over the course of the last two years to give us such a tremendous and meaningful experience. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed and our community is already answering your call to action. We learned together, we argued and disagreed, we celebrated each other’s achievements, and we became a real mishpacha with many new dynamic projects surely ahead.

But we could not end our graduation without looking back at the formative narratives that shaped our community. One of our first classes was with the remarkable Dr. Erica Brown, who taught us to explore our master narrative and use that to understand how we define ourselves. The discussion centered on the “Exodus narrative” versus the “Holocaust narrative,” and this struck a chord with our class, many of whom experienced their own personal exodus escaping from a modern “mitzrayim.”  The Exodus narrative, as told and retold every year in the Haggadah, became a mirror of our history. We saw our families and ourselves in the four children sitting around the table: engaging, disengaging, asking, and forgetting our culture and heritage.

Our grandparents and great grandparents, living mostly in shtetls, observed the Jewish traditions of our forefathers and mothers. Like the wise child, they held fast to the beliefs and customs they had inherited. A generation later, the Soviet Union attempted to eviscerate this knowledge. It oppressed our parents and grandparents, demanding they be “good Soviets.” In surviving this era, they were forced to become the wicked child and turn away from the heritage and practice that could get them arrested or worse. Then came their children, born into Soviet society, knowing that they are Jews because of the fifth line on their passport but never how to actually be Jewish. Like the simple child, their Judaism was a fact of their existence but they knew nothing beyond that.

What was supposed to come next? Children who did not know how to ask—who didn’t even know that a question was emblazoned on their hearts and lying dormant on their tongues, burning to be answered. But that is not who we are and not our narrative. Our story changed and we have been asking questions ever since. We asked and asked and with the answers we pieced back together the broken fragments of our stolen history. The answers brought back candles to our home, Jewish songs to our lips, chuppahs to our weddings, and Hebrew names for our babies. But we didn’t stop, we asked more and more until we were asked a question in return. Wexner asked us to lead and we wholeheartedly accepted the challenge. And we learned that the asking was the crucial part, we learned and we questioned for two years, and we won’t be stopping any time soon.

We put together this video, with the vision and leadership of Stella Binkevich (NY RSJ 16) and Yelena Kutikova (NY RSJ 16), to share this narrative and the journey that we have engaged in with our families. We hope it adds another piece to the mosaic that is the RSJ narrative and the broader Jewish story.

Get To Know The Authors

Stella Binkevich was born in Donetsk, Ukraine. She immigrated to NYC when she was 7. She attended Stuyvesant High School and the University of Michigan. Her first job out of school was at Goldman Sachs, where she analyzed counterparty credit risk. She left Goldman Sachs for a tech-start up called Liazon which ended up being purchased by Towers Watson in 2012. Stella currently works for Liazon within Towers Watson as a Senior Manager. Outside of work, Stella has an extensive history of involvement in AIPAC. She grew up in the AIPAC campus movement, became a club member in NYC, made it onto the NY Young Leadership Council, and started a bi-partisan pro-Israel political giving group. She is also a part of the RSJ Natan giving circle and a few boards/committees at UJA.

Lenny Gusel immigrated with his family at the age of 9 from Moscow,
Russia to Washington Heights, New York City. In 2002, while living in
San Francisco, Lenny founded the 79ers, later to be known as
RJeneration. He has been an active leader in the RSJ community since and
continues to serve on the board of RJeneration, as well as being a
founding board member of Mishpucha and an active member of AIPAC.
Professionally, Lenny is an online security specialist and Head of
Cybercrime Solutions for the retail bank of JPMorganChase. Lenny lives
in Brooklyn with his wife Anna and three children, Sam, Aviel and Josh.

Lena Katsnelson was born in Minsk, Belarus and emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1988.  She is the Director of the Lawyers Division and Russian Division at UJA-Federation of NY. Prior to joining UJA, she practiced commercial and securities litigation for nearly five years, most recently at Gusrae Kaplan Nusbaum PLLC.  She holds a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience from Brandeis University and a JD from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.  She lives in Brooklyn, with her husband and two children.

Boris Khodorkovsky MD was born in Rostock, East Germany, and grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, prior to immigrating to New York in 1991. He has served as Associate Chair, Department of Emergency Medicine at Staten Island University Hospital since 2012. Concurrently, Dr. Khodorkovsky serves as a Co-Chair of the Northwell Healthcare system Sepsis collaborative and is an active member of the New York State Chapter of American College of Emergency Physicians. A board certified Emergency Medicine physician he completed his undergraduate education at Yeshiva University and received his Medicine Doctorate degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. His passion lies with ensuring that next generation of the Russian-speaking Jews have strong Jewish foundation. Since 2009, he is actively involved with Mazel Day school, located in a heavily represented Russian Jewish community of South Brooklyn. Boris lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their two children.

Mr Leonid Vayner was born in Kiev, USSR, and moved to United States in 1989. Leonid holds an MBA in Strategic Management from Pace University, BS in Computer Science from Polytechnic University, multiple industry certifications, and four patents. Mr Vayner is the founding Board Member of iMishpacha Inc, a grassroots group of Russian-speaking Jewish (RSJ) families with children and teens. He serves on Kings Bay YM-YWHA Board of Directors & volunteers with several non-profits focused on promoting STEM-based education. For his service to the community he has been recognized by UJA-Federation of New York with “Community Changemaker Award” in 2016, “Giving Back Award” by Morgan Stanley in 2017, and NYC Mayoral Service Recognition Award in 2018. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.