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Proud Community, Proud Americans

Through the "Russian American Person of Year" Awards, this social cohesion is paired with civic engagement as well as consciousness about the need to preserve and pass on language, culture, traditions.
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People who work together, play together, belong to groups together, are more likely to respond quickly and effectively to a crisis. This is an important message contained in the new book "The Resilience Dividend" by Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, a psychologist by training and former head of the University of Pennsylvania. The book's subtitle "Being Strong in a World Where Things go Wrong" points at the significance of a community's "capacity to bounce back from a crisis, learn from it, and achieve revitalization."

The book is a call to maintain, create, and strengthen social cohesion. In her Wall Street Journal review of "The Resilience Dividend," Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Melanie Kirkpatrick points out that, "[i]n a world of disruption there are ways to cope with crisis and even, perhaps, grow stronger as a result." This ties in with the importance of active civil engagement for a strong democracy. And this engagement is based, in the end, on the many, diverse forms of in-person social interactions that enrich our lives.

In the United States we are Americans first but take equal pride in our individual and community heritage. And groups that tie those of common heritage together will inevitably strengthen our society at large. Think of the parades in New York City that highlight and celebrate the contributions of an ethnic groups to our country. With advancing technology and social media, it is the Russian-American community that has found an original, important, and entertaining way to strengthen social cohesion. The newly created "Russian American Person of the Year" program wants to "unify the diverse communities of all Russian-speaking Americans" in the United States.

Indeed, conceived by Alexander Levin, already recognized as bridge-builder between communities, and supported by the World Forum of Russian Speaking Jewry and the American Council for World Jewry, this program invited in 2014 - and will now do so again annually - millions of people in the U.S. Russian-speaking population to nominate and vote for the Russian-American who has made the community proud. At the same time, it will add value to the larger society. Through a web-based voting system nominations and then votes are available in eight categories: Educator of the Year; Emerging Leader of the Year; Philanthropist of the Year; Innovator of the Year; Visual Artist of the Year; Media Award; Performer of the Year; and the Lifetime Achievement Award. A Facebook page and website provide additional information. The Awards will then be bestowed at a Gala the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

An advisory board included accomplished members, such as Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, Award-winning TV host Larry King, Consul General of Israel in New York Ido Aharoni, Guardian Angels Founder Curtis Sliwa, and American Council of World Jewry President Jack Rosen.

The Awards are meant as a symbol of the Russian-American community's trust and respect, as a marker, as formulated in the stipulations, "of not only all that the Russian-speaking American community has accomplished in the past, but of what it will continue to accomplish in the future." A strong community is already an important goal in itself. But with Judith Rodin's findings in mind, it is the country that inevitably will benefit from this creative program.

Russian immigration to the United States took place in waves and statistics indicate that today 44 percent of Russian Americans are living the Northeast of the United States, with significant numbers now also in Florida and California. The undisputed center of the community's life is, however, New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged that fact when he spoke about the "Russian impact on New York City, which is stronger every day, and goes well back into the 1880s" in his first appearance to the Russian-speaking community at the occasion of the beginning of the annual Russian Heritage Month, which is organized annually by the venerable Russian American Foundation.

While Russians assimilated into mainstream American life they faced suspicions during the Cold War of being potential Communist spies. More recently, they faced stereotyping by being linked to organized crime, not unlike Italian Americans. Unfortunately, references to these stereotypes linger in today's mainstream media. Studies found that, politically, Russian Americans have never really formed a strong voting bloc that would encourage American politicians to solicit their support. An exception to the rule would be New York City's Brighton Beach constituency. With the continued lack of a significant ability to influence politics in Russia and the countries that emerged from the former Soviet Union, civic organizations were formed to focus on their community in the United States and its relationship to American society. Cultural programs and people-to-people exchanges, such as the Russian Heritage Month, improve the way the community's culture is perceived and depicted in media and public life.

This is where the original contribution of the "Russian American Person of the Year Award" lies: Not only does it celebrate the achievements of Russian Americans but strives to education - and motivate - both Russian Americans and, indeed, all Americans about outstanding individuals who have contributed to many aspects of life in the United States. The Awards achieve a triple feat: The education about achievements of Russian Americans mentioned above, the bringing together of the diverse communities of all Russian-speaking Americans in the United States, and the strengthening of Russian American and larger American communities through enhanced social cohesion.

Through the "Russian American Person of Year" Awards, this social cohesion is paired with civic engagement as well as consciousness about the need to preserve and pass on language, culture, traditions. This heritage is reason to be proud and worth celebrating. Kira Kazantsev, Miss America 2015 with a laudable platform of protecting women against domestic violence, who was born in the United States to Russian parents and is a supporter of the Awards, would agree.

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