Preserving Russian-Jewish identity with Ella Kagan

Ella Kagan compiled the book “Babushka’s Recipes” with students from Shalom Education Center, a school she founded.
Photo courtesy of Zina Segal

At the time, the presence of the photocopier was peculiar. Ella Kagan was at the Vienna airport after leaving the Soviet Union for good, when she spotted the unattended machine. In the U.S.S.R., a worker was required to get permission from a supervisor to make a copy of any kind. So to see the photocopier just sitting there for anyone to use was bizarre.

For people in the West, a copy machine is just “So what?” Kagan says now from her home in Bethesda. “But for us it was surprising.”

Kagan, 84, came to the United States with her husband in 1987, after being denied the right to emigrate for five years. They joined the ranks of Soviet Jewish refuseniks, whose discrimination included being barred from leaving the country that didn’t want them. In emigrating, Kagan says she left behind family and friends, but she refused to give up her Russian Jewish identity. It was this loyalty to her culture that led to her founding a school in Rockville for Russian-speaking Jews, now called the Shalom Education Center.

Life in the U.S.S.R. was not easy, Kagan says, especially for a Jew. She was born in Moscow, shortly before World War II. She was old enough to remember her family fleeing East to the Ural Mountains to escape the fighting. They returned to Moscow in 1943 to find it in rubble, she says.

“It was always cold,” Kagan remembers. “It was always shortage of food. And I wouldn’t say it was a happy childhood, not at all. But then it was a little bit easier at the end of war. But anyway, it was not really good time for kids, for anybody.”

She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her parents, who were civil engineers. So she enrolled in the Urban Institute in Moscow and went on to earn a Ph.D. in urban planning.

Eventually she met and wed her husband, Pavel. They were together for 49 years until his death in 2015. Kagan says they were “persons of interest” to the authorities, because they were Jewish and because of their dissident political views. One day, the KGB raided their home in Moscow.

Agents searched their belongings and even questioned their 14-year-old daughter, Kagan says. After that, Pavel was repeatedly taken in by the authorities to be questioned, and their friends and relatives were harassed as well. So they wanted to leave.

“We were thinking about emigration at the end of ‘70s,” Kagan says. “And a lot of our friends left at this time, because it was absolutely obvious that it’s a bad time for us. And it is bad time for our children. It was no kind of question. Yes or no? It was yes.”

In 1982, they applied to emigrate, but their application was refused and they were permanently denied the right to re-apply. They became refuseniks and in response, they began to join public demonstrations and hunger strikes.

And after five years, Kagan and her family were allowed to leave. They came to the United States and settled in Boston. A few years later, they moved to Washington, for Pavel’s job. She compares the freedom she found in the United States to air.

“This is like oxygen,” Kagan says. “When you have oxygen, you don’t feel it. But when you don’t have oxygen, you feel the difference.”

In Washington, Kagan became a social worker for Jewish Social Service Agency’s refugee resettlement program. She worked with Russian Jewish immigrants like herself, and saw how their children struggled in school. So in 2003, she started the Russian Jewish Community School, which later was renamed the Shalom Education Center.

“They were crying. They were unhappy,” Kagan says of the children. “So we started this school. And when kids came and they saw that they’re not alone, there are some children the same like they are, it was a relief.”

Kagan’s grandchildren were among the first students at the school. The curriculum is taught in Russian and the school offers Hebrew classes and commemorates Jewish holidays.

Retired for a few years, Kagan still helps out at the school from time to time. In 2019, she collaborated with students to create “Babushka’s Recipes,” a book in Russian and English with recipes and stories from the students’ families.

Kagan says projects like that help prevent the loss of Russian Jewish cultural identity from assimilation.

“It’s important to keep Jewish identity,” Kagan says. “If parents are not ready to go to synagogue, our school is the only way to keep Jewish identity. How we can do it if we do not exist? Where will kids go?”

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