Natalie Shnaiderman, of the Jewish Agency for Israel, speaks about the organization’s work in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
When Natalie Shnaiderman was just seven years old in Moscow, Russia, her first-grade teacher asked each student, “What is your nationality?”
“There were no Jews in the class, or at least nobody actually said it, because not all of the kids knew — most of the Jewish kids were not told that they were Jews,” Shnaiderman said. “I was fortunate to know the family history, to hear Yiddish… at least I know who I am. I told [the teacher], ‘I am Jewish.’ And my teacher laughed.”
Shaiderman said she came to realize, many years later, that her teacher’s response was “probably not so negative,” the teacher was just surprised to hear “that a small girl was not embarrassed to say she was Jewish.”
But that experience had a profound impact on Shnaiderman at the time and she stopped saying anything about her Jewish identity. She said most Jews in the former Soviet Union only knew of their nationality because of the anti-Semitism they experienced.
“When you don’t have any education, any knowledge about your history or heritage, you can’t be proud of it,” Shnaiderman said. “Many of us thought that it was very unfortunate to be Jewish because of the reaction of the outside world.”
Shnaiderman shared her story during a recent visit to the Twin Cities, as a guest of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. She is now the Jewish Agency for Israel’s director of development and activities for Russian-speaking Jews in North America and Australia.
Shnaiderman and her family made aliya in 1991, and settled in a community of refuseniks, those from the former Soviet Union who were denied permission to emigrate. She eventually ended up in Jerusalem and earned a degree in English linguistics and French literature from Hebrew University. (She also earned an M.A. in democracy studies from Open University.)
She began working with the Jewish Agency in 1997 as a summer camp counselor in the former Soviet Union, in Ukraine and Azerbaijan.
She said the experience was life-changing.
“I went through the Jewish Agency training for counselors. It was a very serious group facilitation program and [focused on] a lot of Jewish identity, Jewish history. I was already Israeli, but I didn’t know much,” Shnaiderman said. “I didn’t know anything about Jewish community, about Jews living [outside of] Europe and the United States. I didn’t know that there are Jews in Azerbaijan or in Ethiopia, I just didn’t think about it. But I learned what the Jewish Agency does in terms of Jewish peoplehood and that Jewish communities care about one another, and that it’s supported by the Jewish Federations of North America.”
She said it was “great news” to hear that “Jews in America care about Jews in the former Soviet Union and my aliya was actually supported and funded by Jews in America.”
The Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s core allocation to its overseas partners is distributed to the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and World ORT. It also makes directed grants to programs and projects that align with the community’s priorities.
One of those programs is Jewish summer camping. The Minneapolis Jewish Federation awards close to $100,000 in needs-based camp scholarships so kids can attend Jewish day and overnight camps, according to Mort Naiman, the Federation’s director of the Jewish Community Foundation and senior philanthropy officer. And through its overseas partners, the Federation has designated the Jewish Agency for Israel Minsk Summer Camp in Belarus as a program that it supports.
“The Minneapolis Jewish Federation has been investing for more than 10 years in this particular community and the community has changed its face due to the camp,” Shnaiderman said. “Someone has to make this effort to introduce them to some Jewish history and their identity, and it happens to be summer camp.”
Jewish students can participate in a camp program for seven to 10 days during summer vacation. The education is informal, but it allows children to learn about their heritage and about Israel, and interact with other Jews.
It costs about $122 per day to send one child to summer camp. Shnaiderman said the program is so popular that there is often a waiting list of 50 to 60 kids.
The counselors are Israeli or are former campers who have chosen to come back and serve in that role. Other campers go on to serve in other leadership roles; the director of the Hillel in Minsk, for example, is a former camper.
“We invest in people who lead, afterwards, the Jewish organizations. I think this is the most important outcome,” Shnaiderman said. “I don’t think I would have joined the Jewish Agency if I hadn’t gone to that camp… Once I found myself in this summer camp, everything changed. And it became more than work, it’s part of my life. I teach my kids, who were born in Israel, that this is what we do about Jewish peoplehood.”
This support of Jewish identity programs for Jews around the world is somewhat of a shift for the Jewish Agency, which previously focused on rescuing Jews in dangerous situations and bringing them to Israel. Shnaiderman pointed out, however, that some Jews still need to be rescued and spoke about the Jewish Agency’s efforts to help those living in the conflict zone in southern and eastern Ukraine.
The Jewish Agency has evacuated some 5,000 Jews from Ukraine since the conflict began two years ago, and has housed and cared for 700 refugees in its Mayak center (Russian for “lighthouse”). The organization also provides immigration and absorption services for those who choose to make aliya on their own.
(JTA reported that aliya from the Ukraine tripled for the first quarter of 2015 as compared to the same period in 2014.)
The Jewish Agency is also providing additional training to its summer camp staff so they can deal with the added trauma and stress that campers from the Ukraine may be experiencing.
“For Jews in Ukraine or in Belarus — because all are affected by this crisis — the Minneapolis Federation has been investing in Jewish Agency programs for years and is a real partner,” Shnaiderman said. “Summer camps in Belarus, specifically, are generating this new generation who are leading the communities. I think that is so valuable in terms of the future of Jewish community. It’s really, really important work.”
(American Jewish World, 5.22.15)