The VOICES of Minnesota’s Soviet Jews: the Inspiration and the Film

This is a guest post by Lyudmyla Petrenko, Community Organizer and Programmer for VOICE: Community Building Initiative, a joint initiative of Jewish Community Action, Minneapolis Jewish Federation, & Sabes Jewish Community Center.
What is it like to leave your country, culture, language, and, most importantly, your family, and move across the Atlantic to start a new life? Many people across the world watch Hollywood movies and dream of visiting and even moving to America permanently.
I wanted to get a good education.
I was born in the beautiful city of Kiev (Ukraine). I left my home country when I was 16 for college in Minnesota, leaving behind my whole family. I had to deal not only with homesickness and the language barrier, but also culture shock. I enjoyed my studies and the new country full of opportunities, but I missed my native language and culture. Most of my friends and roommates were Americans, which allowed me to improve my English and integrate into the new society.
After graduating with my MA degree, I started looking for a job. I looked through so many job postings, but none seemed attractive. One day I stumbled upon a position titled “Russian-speaking Community Organizer/Programmer.” I had never heard of community organizing before, so I did some research. After reading many articles and some information about the work of Jewish Community Action and Sabes Jewish Community Center, I realized that I wanted that job.
I wanted to work with Russian-speaking people, help them assimilate into American society, involve them in the Jewish community, and assist in them in learning about and reconnecting with their Jewish roots.
My first encounter with the group was when I brought three of the Russian-speaking members to the Jewish Community Action Annual Meeting in May 2009. I learned a lot about the population on that car drive. I felt that they needed me, they needed that connection to the organized Jewish life. Faina, Vera,and Elza told me about their immigration experiences.
Between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, there was an influx of Soviet Jewish immigrants to the U.S.  Many settled in the Twin Cities.
Most moved here as refugees escaping the collapse of the Soviet Union, local conflicts, and insecurity, along with uncertainty for the future of their children. Life in the Soviet Union was strongly influenced by government’s desire to hammer together a new ethnos—the Soviet people. The Soviet Jewish community embraced this, following the pan-European trend toward secularization, as well as toward marrying outside of the Jewish community.
The majority of these men and women grew up in a secular, atheist society with a state-sponsored ban on religious activities.
Their Jewish identity started to dissolve as they assimilated.
One of my objectives as a leader of VOICE: Community Building Initiative (a joint initiative of Jewish Community ActionMinneapolis Jewish Federation, and the Sabes Jewish Community Center) is to reintroduce these members of the community to their Jewish heritage, educate them, and encourage them to learn more. It is not easy, but VOICE participants are genuinely curious and interested in Jewish holidays and Jewish organized life—they are reminded of their pre-war childhoods amongst grandparents who were the last generation to observe Judaism.
When Igor Dadashev, who reunited with his family in Minnesota after living in Magadan, Russia for 20 years, was introduced to VOICE by his brother Kamil, I realized that these two men possess the skills to bring the stories of the local Soviet Jews known beyond their own narrow circles.
Igor Dadashev is an established TV journalist, writer, poet, and musician, who has produced documentaries about northeastern Russia’s indigenous peoples, Stalin’s prison camps and their political prisoners, and modern-day Russian orphanages. During an informal brainstorming sessions I asked, “why don’t we document stories of the Soviet Jews?” Igor’s excitement was palpable.
Nearly a year later, we have 25 hours of raw video footage.
What has resulted is the 60-minute “The American VOICE of the Soviet Jews.” This documentary is an alternative look at World War II, focusing on the contributions made by Soviet Jewish soldiers to the victory over Nazi Germany, as well as their lives after the war. Viewing the film, you understand what these remarkable people lived through and why made life-changing decisions to leave everything behind and move to the United States.

“The American VOICE of the Soviet Jews” premieres 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at the Minnesota History Center. It will be preceded at 6:00 p.m. by a gallery tour of “The Greatest Generation’ and followed by a panel discussion. Free and open to the public.

Co-sponsors: JCA, St. Paul JCC, Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, Mpls Jewish Federation, MN Historical Society, & the Sabes JCC.

[Editor’s Note: Here’s the Youtube Trailer for the Film.]