Ilana Voladarsky, founder and executive director of Russian American Jews in Minnesota (RAJMN), was lucky, she said. She grew up in Lviv, Ukraine, in a family that felt proud to be Jewish and didn’t hide their identity. “My grandmother raised me to embrace being Jewish,” she said. “My name came from Israel — I got my name from my aunt who moved to Israel a year before I was born.”
She immigrated to the U.S. at age 15 in 1989 with her parents and younger brother, settling in St. Paul, Minnesota. At 16, she heard about the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, and she wanted to go, but she couldn’t afford it. “That’s when I was connected to donors at the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul to request a scholarship. That’s when I met my mentors, the family that ‘adopted’ me in St. Paul, Rhoda and Donald Mains.”
Ilana’s friendship with the Mainses, which continues to this day, connected her to the St. Paul Jewish community. They invited her to events and to their friends’ homes, helping her integrate. Ilana went to college and took a corporate job, “and then the Young Leadership director from the St. Paul Federation invited me to lunch. She asked me to be on board of directors for Young Leadership. I asked some questions about what they do and how they operate, and then out of nowhere I asked, ‘do you have anything like that for Russian-speaking Jews? She asked if there was a need, and I said absolutely.” Ilana brought the idea to the Federation’s executive director and got a grant from the St Paul Federation for a pilot project.
Eighteen years later, RAJMN is a robust program that serves 3,000 Russian-speaking Jews of all ages in the Twin Cities. They work in partnership with many Jewish organizations in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, serving as a bridge for Russian-speaking Jews to synagogues, camps, JCCs, Hillels and more.
Read more about about this innovative program and how it's helping Russian-speaking Jews in the Twin Cities.