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Mission to Russia: An Interview with President & CEO Jay Sanderson

Jay Sanderson, President and CEO of Jewish Federation Los Angeles, recently traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg with community leaders. Together they toured the cities, learned about the history and richness of Russian Jewish life, and visited a Jewish summer camp and community center, as well as other impactful Federation programs. This Federation mission to Russia was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Federation’s work in action. 

We sat down with Jay for an interview to hear more about his experience abroad.

Why did you choose Russia as the destination of this Federation mission?

Jay Sanderson (JS): Our Federation is committed to the Jewish journey and the life of every Jew from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv to Moscow. Since so many of us can trace our roots back to Russia, we thought it was important to both look at our work there and connect our own personal dots.  While we were in St. Petersburg, we did a number of home visits to some very vulnerable Jews living there. All of us were extremely proud of the work we were doing with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), our partner, and the impact it was having on the people there.  But we were also struck with the fact that it could have been our parents, it could have been any of us, living in those situations. This mission to Russia gave us a way to relate to our work [on the ground there], and to relate to our own personal Jewish stories. That is why we went there.

What does the Federation do in Russia? 

JS: We work in Russia with our two main overseas partners — the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel. The work we do with the JDC is through Chesed, which allows us to take care of the needs of the most vulnerable members of our community, mostly frail seniors, many of whom are survivors of the Holocaust. Most of the work we do with the Jewish Agency is connected to Jewish renewal and connecting young Jews (from summer camp age to young adults) to their Judaism and to the State of Israel.

Tell us about the Jewish community in Russia.

JS: There are several hundred thousand Jews living in Russia, and many of them are still themselves trying to figure out how they connect to the Jewish people. Many of them are engaged with their Judaism. Many young people are going to Israel on Birthright Israel trips, as well as attending Jewish summer camps. Many have relatives that live in Israel and we in Los Angeles have one of the largest Jewish Russian communities in the world.

How did it feel to see our work in Russia in action? Are you inspired by the revival of the Jewish community in Russia?

JS: I believe the future of the Jewish community is not for Jews to live in just two countries.  I believe there is a need for thriving Jewish communities around the world, even during these tumultuous, unsafe times.  I want to make sure that every Jewish person that lives in Russia feels safe — that Jews there feel they have the freedom to be Jewish and have Jewish lives that are as meaningful as possible. We are 8,000 miles away from St. Petersburg and Moscow, but it is important to see with our own eyes the impact of the work we are doing with our partners.  This trip helped us close the geographical distance/mileage, by allowing us the opportunity to see our work on the ground.

Why should people travel on missions with the Federation?

JS: I think it is sometimes very challenging to see the extraordinary work we are doing here in L.A. In a way, it is easier to see our work in a foreign country. Traveling is very powerful. It allows for the people on the mission to create close relationships with each other and with the Federation.  When we talk about the Federation as a community builder, nothing builds community more than traveling with a group of people in a foreign country for two weeks. We see the work we are doing and get to understand firsthand the impact we are having. On all of our missions, we connect to our work and we build community; we experience a new country and have fun doing it. At the same time, we get a front-row seat to understand the geopolitical challenges that the country faces. On this trip, we were privileged to meet with the U.S. Ambassador to Russia and the Israeli Ambassador to Russia. We got two very different perspectives on what is happening with Russia and the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, as well as Israel and Russia, at an extraordinary point in time.

What were some top highlights of the trip?

JS: Everyone knows that another great passion of mine is food — I think you can learn so much about a country by eating. Some of the food is connected to my childhood and my grandparents, and so much of it is influenced by Russia’s evolution. I was really impressed with the cuisine.

What is something you learned on this mission?

JS: I learned that the challenges we face as Jewish people have no geographic boundaries. Every time I travel, I am reminded of the responsibility we have to Jewish peoplehood and K’lal Yisrael — those Jews living in Israel are my brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. When I am in a country like Russia, I feel more responsible to come back and try to understand how we can make a greater impact there, as well as here. Every time I see a person in need, or a young person who is questioning their Jewish identity, no matter where they are, it always brings me back to this: “What more can we be doing here in Los Angeles?”

What was one of the most memorable or impactful moments of the trip?

JS: I am most proud of experiencing the impact of our work through the eyes of the people I traveled with – looking at their faces at the Jewish summer camp, and seeing how touched they were by the work we are doing in Russia. The feeling was mutual for us all. Everyone seemed a bit parental at the camp, looking at each child as if they could have been their own. These are the types of memories each and every one of us brought back to Los Angeles. Our Federation is making a real impact here and abroad, and that is something we are proud of as a community.

[Note: The Jewish summer camp is a part of Jewish Federation Los Angeles’ partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel.]

If you’re interested in traveling with the Federation, our upcoming King David Society Mission “Israel Unparalleled,” a world-class tour featuring innovative cuisine, collectible wines and beautiful art, is taking place September 18th -26th.For more information about Israel Unparalleled or any of the Federation’s missions, please contact Mitch Hamerman at MHamerman@JewishLA.org or (323) 761-8133.

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