When I arrived on campus at Rutgers University in 2009, my Jewish identity was the furthest thing from my mind. The thrill of selecting my own coursework, meeting new friends, and seeing just how much I could consume at the university dining halls seemed more pressing. It wasn’t until my interview for Taglit-Birthright’s sponsored trip to Israel, when I was asked, “What type of Jew do you consider yourself?” that the question of my Judaism became salient; I found myself responding, “Russian-Jew more than anything else.”

It was from this answer that my Jewish journey at Rutgers began. By the end of the fall semester of my sophomore year, with the help of a fellow student, Jane Vorkunova, and the support of the Rutgers Hillel community, I founded the university’s Rutgers Hillel Russian-Jewish Club.

The need for such an organization seemed to me to be rooted in the bipolarity of the Russian-Jewish identity.  On the one hand, we are Russians. We listen to the same music, eat the same pelmeni (Russian dumplings), and watch the same television programs with our families. However, in Russian, to claim your identity as a “Russian-Jew” is an oxymoron. The term “Pусский” (pronounced “Russkie”) automatically connotes ties with the Russian Orthodox Church—thus, a Russian-Jew could never truly be Russian. Family members living in the 1918 Soviet Union were ethnically designated “Jews” as a “национальност” (pronounced “natsionalnost”) or an ethnicity. Discovering my parents’ USSR passports and seeing their nationality listed as “Jew,” it was odd to see what I’d strictly considered to be my religion and a part of my culture defined as an ethnic identity.  

And in 2009, the idea of being deemed simply a “Jew” didn’t feel right. I was not the prototypical Jew who I imagined comfortably walking through the doors of Hillel. I felt I could not make the same claims to Jewishness my fellow students could. I did not attend Hebrew School, learn the Torah, or observe Shabbat growing up. We weren’t Jewish by practice, but by culture. We may have been eating latkes on Chanukah, but we weren’t concerned with the scriptural reasons for doing so.

While our Jewishness is inseparable from our Russianness, the Russian often takes precedence over Jewish identification. We celebrate the holidays while enjoying non-kosher smoked kielbasa and place “Christmas” trees in our homes for New Year’s. This strange amalgamation of cultures results in the same feeling I experienced as a freshmen, a sensation of not knowing where to place myself. The Russian-Jewish club, I imagined, would provide an environment that would foster the complex, and sometimes contradictory, Judaism of Russian-Jewish students. I wanted to create a meeting place for students like myself to explore the Jewish side of our heritage, while still maintaining our ties to Russian traditions. My intention was that students might feel a closer connection to Judaism by realizing the unique space they occupy on the Jewish spectrum.

Geographically speaking, not all of our families came from Russia. In fact, members hail from locations as divergent as Belorussia, Ukraine, Latvia, Uzbekistan, Moldova, and even parts of the Caucasus. Because of the varied geopolitical backgrounds of the students involved, the organization strives to provide a space in which we are all able to explore what it means to be Jewish as children of Soviet refugees, in all of its complexity. In doing so, we’ve discovered a shared question, raised consistently as we’ve considered our Jewish identities: does our neglect of many traditional Jewish practices make us “bad Jews”? This has been a question I, myself, have constantly entertained.

This concern was given structure when the Russian-Jewish Club attended a performance of Joshua Harmon’s world-premiere comedy Bad Jews. The off-Broadway production focuses on the question of what it means to be a Jew after the death of the grandfather of three cousins, Daphna, Jonah, and Liam. Each represents a distinct engagement with Jewish identity: Daphna as the outspoken Jew who adheres strictly to the traditions of her heritage, Jonah as the silent Jew who chooses passive identification and Liam as the assimilationist who disavows his Jewish identity as something he transcends.

The drama of the piece revolves around which cousin will gain possession of the grandfather’s treasured “chai” necklace, an heirloom hidden throughout his internment in a concentration camp. The necklace was used as the grandfather’s engagement ring when he came to America, the only thing of value he could offer his bride to be. The play’s controversy comes to a head when Liam wishes to re-enact the same gesture by proposing to his “shiksa” girlfriend. The question Bad Jews raises becomes, which meaning of Judaism proves most valid?

The answer could be gauged, in part, by the attending members’ identifications with the characters. While some students sympathized with Jonah because of his passive approach to Jewish life, I was surprised how many of them rallied behind Daphna, who, arguably, could be considered the “villain” of the play. For Amy Suhotliv, a Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior and first generation child of Ukrainian-Jewish émigrés, the answer was clear: “Of all the characters in the play, I identified with Daphna the most, as she grew up as a secular Jew…. Like her, I feel that even if I don’t agree with every part of Judaism, I care about learning about it and feel that in the end its values and traditions are what binds us together.”

For Leah Shamilov, a Rutgers Business School sophomore and first generation child of Caucasian Jews (those Jews hailing from the Caucasus), the sentiment was similar. For her, Russian-Jews are bound together by the collective memories of anti-Semitism encountered by elder generations, and by their efforts to spare their families these same experiences, regardless of what geographic areas they arrived from when fleeing the USSR: “As first generation Russian-Jews, we feel the pain more strongly [than American Jews]. A lot of Jews in Russia experienced anti-Semitism…. Because they [our families] experienced it, they want to make sure we never feel that way again.”

Leah’s words resonate with me when I reflect on my mission as the president and founder of the Rutgers Hillel Russian-Jewish Club. While we may not be the most strictly adherent followers of Judaism, perhaps considered “bad Jews” by some, Russian-Jews are definitively Jewish. In claiming our Jewishness, as Daphna so eloquently points out in a climactic monologue, we thus claim the responsibility to continue preserving a heritage that many of our families sacrificed everything for —for their own lives, and for ours.