Last week, the Jewish Agency for Israel, in cooperation with the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, the Jewish student organization Hillel and the Shaarei Emunah Center, launched an educational program called the Israel School of Leadership Development.
This initiative, supported by the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York and under the auspices of the Consulate General of Israel, targets the 75,000 Russian-speaking Jews younger than 25 who live in the tristate area.
The idea for the program "appeared several years ago, because it became obvious that the Russian-speaking community was back on its feet and we don't want to be clients in American life, in American society, anymore - we want to be partners," said Roman Shmulenson, assistant executive director of the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations.
Students who wish to participate in the program undergo a screening process that includes an interview and a simple written test that shows their knowledge of Israeli history, current events and Hebrew.
The 50 Russian-speaking Jewish students who were recruited from colleges around the city to take part in the program this year will attend a dozen two-hour study sessions that will take place once a week.
In the course of the year, there will be two weekend getaways and, during the summer, the best students will get a chance to take part in practical training seminars in Moscow and Israel.
Upon completion of the program, the young leaders will have the opportunity to become counselors in Jewish summer camps, teach Hebrew in private Jewish kindergartens or work as instructors in community centers.
Anatoly Vernikov, 21, said of the program, "It gives me purely practical skills, knowledge, communication experience with people and kids, [and] participation in the Jewish community life."
The main goal of this program is to bring the next generation of Russian-speaking Jews back into the fold of the Jewish community by introducing them to their heritage and traditional values that got lost in the shuffle of immigration.
"It's possible to learn to love the Jewish people, but that love comes from knowledge, from studying what is it that makes them Jewish," said Rabbi Mordechai Tokarski, executive director of the Shaarei Emunah Center.
Another problem this initiative attempts to tackle is the loss of national and cultural identity.
"It's very important to our efforts to keep the Jewish identity, to keep the contact and the relationship with Israel," said Meir Nitzan, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel delegation in North America.
The leaders of the council and the affiliated organizations that launched and financed the leadership program hope that it breathes new life into the Russian-Jewish community of New York and inspires future generations to be more civic-minded and pro-active.
"The Russian Jews will be in the forefront of everything happening here, and you're gonna be the leaders of this process," said Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations Executive Director Alec Brook-Krasny, addressing a crowd of eager young people who now have something better to do than stare at a TV screen.
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