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Why there is a kernel of Russianness in me that just won’t go away

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Why there is a kernel of Russianness in me photo

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Operation Exodus, a massive effort by the North American Jewish community to rescue and resettle more than 1 million Soviet Jews. Chicago welcomed more than 30,000 Russian-speakers.

You might wonder why a person named Jane Charney—such an American name—would be telling you about all the wonderful opportunities that Federation provides for the next generation of Russian-American Jews in Chicago.

In fact, I wasn’t always Jane Charney. When my family moved to the United States from Moscow nearly 14 years ago, we quickly adjusted our names to more English-friendly ones. Let’s face it, Yevgeniya Leonidovna Charnaya is a bit of a tongue-twister.
Although my family came to America after the major wave of immigration of the early 1990s, we experienced the impact of Operation Exodus firsthand. The community opened its arms to us and made us feel welcome. My sister and I enrolled in Jewish Sunday School. Our synagogue paired us with a Russian-speaking family that had lived in the States since 1989.

Once I got to Indiana University, I actively participated in Hillel, where I chaired the communications group and helped create IU’s first-ever Israel-palooza—a celebration of all things Israel in the middle of campus. From Friday night services to late-night study sessions to Israel advocacy, Hillel inspired a deeper connection to Jewish life in me.

After college, that connection translated into working in the Jewish Federation world. That’s one of the ways I can give back to a community that already has given me so much.

As American as I feel at times, there’s a kernel of Russianness in me that just won’t go away. I’ve turned it into an advantage: Over the past several years, I’ve put together workshops on identity and Russianness. I also led a trip for Russian-speakers to discover Jewish heritage in Spain.

Whether it’s been five or 15 years since immigrating to the States, many of my fellow Russian-speaking Jews also cherish some aspect of our Russianness—the language or the culture or the sheer wealth of jokes that simply do not translate well into English. At the same time, we live in the United States, we speak English with our friends, and our attitudes borrow from both our American education and our Russian-Jewish souls.

My peers want to find more ways to feel Jewish, to live Jewishly and to create Jewish connections. That’s where community institutions like Russian Hillel and the Federation’s Russian Jewish Leadership Forum come in.

I was part of a core group of nine Russian-speaking Jewish young professionals who formed RJLF about a year and a half ago. We recognized the need for a post-college bridge to the Jewish community that had a specifically Russian taste. Since then, together with JUF staff the nine of us have been creating events that bring together 20- and 30-something Russian-speaking Jews from around Chicago.

We’ve sponsored holiday celebrations with the Russian Senior Center at the Dina and Eli Field EZRA Multi Purpose Center, served meals at the Uptown Cafe, and packed food boxes with Maot Chitim at Passover time.  A group of RJLF leaders met with former Prison of Zion and current Israeli Minister of Public Affairs and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein. We’ve hosted receptions at the Standard Club, listened to Russian classical music at Ravinia, and gathered for professional networking events.

This year, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Operation Exodus, my husband and I created and hosted an Exodus Seder for other RJLF participants. Our peers told their own personal stories of exodus. And another Russian Jewish communal worker, a JVS colleague, who had lived in refusal for 12 years, shared his story with the group.

In addition, as a group we have participated in larger community events, like Israel Solidarity Day, campaign phonathons and the Young Leadership Division’s Big Event.

Much like native-born Americans, RJLF participants represent all levels of religious observance and political affiliation. Some are single, some are married, and some have children.

Some participants are graduates of the Hillels Around Chicago’s Russian Hillel program, which was established seven years ago from a Federation-supported priority grant. Russian Hillel aims to connect Russian-speaking Jewish students to their Jewish identity, to the community and to each other.

RJLF was created in part as an outgrowth of this initiative and at the urging of some Russian Hillel graduates who were interested in remaining involved in the organized Jewish community after college. In fact, some of our participants and leaders come from Russian Hillel. But many others came to us through friends or Facebook. Still others found us out of a desire for a Russian Jewish community after they relocated to Chicago.

The response to RJLF has been significant. So much so that we recently decided to expand the leadership opportunities for our activists and develop an RJLF Leadership Council. It will give more participants the chance to take ownership of the group as we connect to our Jewish identity and our Jewish community in Chicago.

On Sept. 15, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky spoke to a crowd of 1,200 at the Federation’s Annual Meeting. He focused on the power of Jewish identity and the notion of peoplehood, a sense of Jewish connectedness. That’s the message we take with us as we move forward and develop our activities for the next generation of Russian-speaking Jews in Chicago.

A muscovite by birth, Jane Charney immigrated to the United States in 1996.


Why I hate The Biggest Loser

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Why I hate The Biggest Loser photo

Unrealistic expectations kill more diets than Häagen-Dazs.  People watch the show “The Biggest Loser” (TBL) and want to drop some serious pounds yesterday.  I’m all for jump starting your fitness plan but the show is ridiculous.  Most of the contestants gain either part, or all the weight back.  I’m not saying the show doesn’t change people’s lives, because it does. It does an incredible job educating people and the trainers beat the contestants as if they’re preparing a montage for a new Rocky movie.

As you sit on your couch and watch for two hours as obese contestants drop up to 30 lbs in one week, remember its television.  Dropping 30 lbs in one week is not normal or healthy.  Most nutritionists and weight loss experts will tell you that losing 1-2 lbs per week is the healthiest way to drop weight and keep it off. A few basic reasons that slow and steady wins the race:

• If you lose the weight too quickly, there’s a greater chance you’ll gain it back
• Slow and subtle changes are easier to maintain than drastic changes
• For the most part, your skin can adjust and you’ll have less extra skin

More importantly, who can exercise for 6-8 hours a day? Unless you’re a professional athlete or have no job most of us have maybe an hour a day—and if you have children, even that’s a stretch.  And they have personal trainers, every day! And who has money for that? (If you can afford to have a trainer for several hours a day, please call me and we’ll set up a consult ASAP.)

Another thing that really bothers me—these workouts are incredibly intense, at least what they show on TBL. Going from inactive to Mike “the Situation” type workouts is not healthy.  The chance for injury is extremely high with jumping, kettle bells, and running. I’m not saying you need to do chair aerobics, but first master good form, improve your posture, and then we can kick it up TBL style.

Intense working out is only part of the equation. The other crucial side of weight loss is eating a healthy diet.  On TBL they have chefs cooking up meals for each contestant.  Based on tests and doctors, these people are eating the foods that will help them burn calories and digest food best.

Who does that for you?  I’m my wife’s personal chef, but that’s only good for 2-3 meals a week (and she doesn’t like leftovers).  I don’t have time to make us every meal and no one is about to turn down a business dinner at N9ne for my chicken, broccoli and sweet potatoes.  As healthy as you try to eat, these reality show contestants are probably eating healthier. When they go home, the story changes—they have to start thinking about cooking, spices, fats, oils…

The show would be a lot more realistic if the contestants were not away from home. It’s like the Bachelor—who doesn’t find love on a private Island, but they all come home and suddenly the wedding is off.  Reading this, you might think, wow, Ron watches a lot of reality television, which is partially true. The moral of the article? Set realistic goals, and make small changes that are easy to keep.  Send me your easy healthy tips, here are a few of mine:

• Avoid processed meats
• Drink a glass of water before each meal
• Take the steps/the long way/the farthest parking spot
• Pack healthy snacks with you (an apple and some nuts)
• Pop Chips instead of potato chips
• Have vegetables and protein with each meal
• Eat fruit when you are craving something sweet


Finding community

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I went to D.C. to learn Jewishly, and left with a new group of friends 

Finding community photo 1

New friends, about to go on a midnight boat cruise on the Potomac River

At the end of August, I went on a five-day, all expenses paid trip to Reston, Virginia. I stayed at a very nice Hyatt, hung out with over 100 other college students/recent graduates, ate a ton of delicious food, and…

Wait. I know I did something else. What was it?

Oh yeah. I attended classes and lectures and discussions on different aspects of being Jewish.

You see, I was attending the fifth annual Sinai Scholars Retreat, as a part of the National Jewish Retreat. I had taken the Sinai Scholars class during the school year at Northwestern’s Chabad house, where we delved deep into each of the Ten Commandments every week. It was really interesting, and helped to relate the Commandments to my life in a modern way, which I had never really thought was possible before. So when I was accepted to go on the retreat, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Yes, I knew there would be classes about Jewish things…but that’s really all I knew going in. I had no idea what kinds of classes would be offered, what they would be about, what I would be doing in the five days that I would be there. I was blindly boarding an airplane by myself, with no expectations. So I buckled up, put my seat and tray table in their upright positions, and took a deep breath.

And I am so glad I did. The next five days were a whirlwind of amazing people, subjects, and food.

Oh the food. I could write a full post on just the food! There was a 24-hour buffet of delicious snacks and desserts in the lobby, there were pretty much four huge meals everyday, different themed dinners…I was in food heaven! But I digress.

Finding community photo 3

The girls on Shabbat

As for the classes, we were given a program in the beginning of the retreat with our choices of what we could attend. For each time slot, there were about 3-5 different discussions, lectures, workshops, and classes to choose from. The choices ranged from the Iranian Nuclear Threat, to Quantum Physics of the Torah, to one of my personal favorites, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. There were classes on love, humor, history, and even yoga! There were workshops where you could bake challah, make your own shofar, write your Hebrew name on parchment like real scribes do. Sometimes I had trouble choosing just one class to go to. But then, other times, like at nine in the morning, the quantum physics of the Torah was only just defeated by the idea of an extra hour and fifteen minutes of sleep.

That’s right. I am freely admitting that in the face of all this culture and learning, a few times I chose to skip a class and sleep. Not just in the morning, too. I also skipped a class time and napped during the middle of the first full day. I was so tired from my flight the day before, and I was still getting over a nasty little virus that had been plaguing my immune system for a while. So yes, I feel no shame in confessing that I played hooky to get some well-needed shut-eye.

And you know what? I honestly don’t think I “didn’t get the most out of my weekend” like the Rabbis and their wives stressed the first day during orientation when they told us to attend EVERY. SINGLE. CLASS. OFFERED. I could have either sat through a lecture that I would fall asleep in anyways, thereby offending the guest lecturer, or I could really enjoy my weekend to the best of my ability. And that’s exactly what I did. Because even though I didn’t attend EVERY. SINGLE. CLASS. OFFERED…I did find my own Jewish community.

I met a great group of people around my age from colleges all over the country. We became super close, and even took off during Saturday to spend a few hours roaming around (aka trying to find where we parked our car) in downtown D.C. We hung out at night together after dinner, and by the end of the trip we were all promising to visit each others’ respective schools/hometowns.

Finding community photo 2

Our group out and about in DC for the day

This experience really cemented my theory that being around Jewish people, regardless of if what you are doing together is religious in any way, reinforces your own Jewish-ness. Just by forming your own little Jewish community, you are tied that much closer to your religion.

So while I could write an entire post on the classes I attended, and all the new ideas that were presented to me (like I had originally planned for this post), I realized along the way that the most important thing to take away from this retreat is that by surrounding yourself with a solid group of Jewish friends, you are that much closer to your religion. And really, that is what matters most.

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