If you had been at the JW3 centre in London on Monday night, you’d have noticed an unusual amount of Russian being spoken in the bar and corridors.
A discussion between the head of the Jewish Agency and former refusenik Natan Sharansky, who turned 70 earlier this week, and the Ukraine-born international businessman and philanthropist Mikhail Fridman drew a packed audience.
Two of the world’s most prominent Russian-speaking Jews exchanged views on contemporary Jewish identity and Israel-diaspora relations and offered diplomatically couched appraisals of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in an event designed to attract expatriate Russian Jews.
No one knows their number in the UK but an estimated 100 or so were part of a full house who listened to a conversation in English chaired by the outgoing BBC’s director of news and current affairs, James Harding.
“I felt very proud as a Russian-speaking Jew,” said Dina Berdnikov who introduced the proceedings.
It was the inaugural Limmud FSU Europe in Windsor, which Ms Berdnikov helped to organise, that first put Jews from the former Soviet Union on the radar of Anglo-Jewry nearly a year ago.
The JW3 meeting was the first at a mainstream Anglo-Jewish institution to reach out to the emigres and was sponsored by the Genesis Philanthropic Group, co-founded by Mr Fridman to help Russian-speaking Jews develop their Jewish identity.
As he explained, they form a “very specific Jewish” group who mostly grew up without the kind of religious education available to other diaspora communities and associate Jewishness more with culture than religion.
Genesis, he said, supports programmes which “allow people came from a secular family without having any tradition, any knowledge about Judaism, any knowledge about Holy Days, to join Jewish society”.
Ms Berdnikov, 35, is typical. Raised in St Petersburg, schooled in Israel, she graduated in finance and communication and theatre arts from Minnesota University. Six years ago she moved with her husband Ilya, also a Russian Jew, from New York to London and they now have three children.
She has launched a company called Arbuzz to organise events for Russians in London and has collaborated with Genesis on Jewish-themed programmes.
After a Chanukah party at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood Synagogue last month, a Purim party is being planned for JW3 in March. “We are non-religious,” she said, “but we want to preserve the Jewish culture and tradition as we see it. It is important to know the history of Chanukah and how we celebrate it but that doesn’t mean we go to synagogue every week.”
Genesis is also investing more broadly in British Jewry. A grant to P J Library — which distributes Jewish children’s books in four languages including Russian — will enable its UK branch to engage “hard-to-reach” families.
The single Moishe House for young Jews in Britain will grow to four with Genesis backing, including one intended to be Russian-speaking.
Ilia Salita, Genesis chief executive, said its experience with Russian-speaking Jews led it to believe “that many lessons we learned can be adapted to a wider global effort to strengthen Jewish communities.”