There is a lot of flirting going on during dinner hour at the Russian American Jewish Experience (RAJE), and this is just how the rabbis want it.
There are approximately 250,000 Russian Jews living in the five boroughs of New York City. Many came to the U.S. beginning in the 1990s as refugees fleeing anti-Semitism and persecution. Although they strongly identify as Jewish, few connect that to any regular religious practice.
“In the Soviet Union, Russian Jews were cut off from any Jewish religion or practice for at least three generations,” explains Sam Kliger of the American Jewish Committee. “Young people now who are twenty or thirty years old and their parents are fifty, how can those parents teach their children about religion if they were cut off?”
RAJE seeks to remedy that. Every Sunday for 10 weeks, RAJE students overrun the beautiful but decrepit Jewish Center in Brighton Beach for lectures by rabbis, talks with Jewish leaders, and hanging out—all sprinkled with a healthy dose of jokes about babushkas and borscht. For those who complete the semester, RAJE offers a free trip to Israel and Europe. RAJE organizers like Ilya Bratman, also an early participant, hope that, “One, they will become more observant Jews. And two, they will marry other Jews, and therefore continue the community.”
The program’s success can be measured by the many who return for second and third semesters, by the 400 applicants turned away last semester, and also by the hundreds who have met and married through RAJE. Couples such as Ilya Bratman and his Russian Jewish wife, Sonya.