May 27, 2004
The new face of Russian Jewry
When Tatyana Sharfman applied to immigrate to the United States, she was not yet sure that she wanted to leave her native country of Russia. Her aunt, who had left Russia in 1992 and now lives in the San Fernando Valley, was determined to bring over the rest of the family, and so Sharfman began to fill out the necessary documents.
"She kept asking us, 'What are you doing over there?'" Sharfman recalled. "We didn't take it seriously, really, but we filled out some papers just because we had these papers."
Sharfman knew that it was typically a long process to emigrate from Russia, and she did not really expect to be accepted. However, one day the approved documents were returned by the government, and her family faced a life-changing decision: "To come or not to come?"
Life in Russia was good. Well, maybe not exactly good, but livable. Although Sharfman was a single mother living in an apartment with her parents, she worked as a cardiologist in a local hospital in central Russia, and both she and her father had jobs, which enabled the family to live a fairly comfortable lifestyle.
The decision to leave really came down to the future of her son, Aleksandr. Although he was only 8 years old at the time, Sharfman knew that when he turned 18, he would be required to join the army, a fate she did not desire for him.
"If we were just old people, we probably would have remained there," she explained. "But when I thought about the future of my Alek, my son, I [was] so concerned about his future in my country."
So four years ago, Sharfman and her family decided pack their belongings and move to California. She is one of the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. She did not leave during the last great wave of Russian immigrants, which began after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and instituted his policy of glasnost. At that time, tens of thousands of Russian Jews fled their homeland and came to the United States, where they largely settled in densely populated urban areas, such as New York and Los Angeles.
According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the greatest number of Russian Jews immigrated to the United States in 1992, with 45,871 arrivals. After the peak, the number of Russian Jews entering the country declined steadily until 2001 -- the last year documented by HIAS -- when only 2,077 refugees resettled in the United States.
Largely due to the influx of Jewish refugees in the '90s and the new immigrants who continue to come, the city of Los Angeles considers the Russian community the fastest-growing community in the city. Patricia Villasenor, immigration policy adviser for the city's Human Relations Commission, said this information is based on the 2000 census, which actually measures population change from 1990.
"According to the 2000 census, one of the fastest-growing communities in Los Angeles County is the Russian and/or Eastern Bloc ethnicities, in particular Russian Jews," Villasenor reported by e-mail. "Now, this isn't saying it [is] the largest community but the fastest growing, the total population for Los Angeles County is less than 3.8 percent, but it has grown significantly in the last five years, a growth rate of almost 22 percent."
Not everyone is convinced that the figures are accurate.
Despite Villasenor's statement, it is impossible to gauge the exact number of Russian Jews immigrating to the United States, because official U.S. census information only records the number of Russian immigrants to the country. It does not break down groups according to religion.
There are a few guesses, however, and Los Angeles-based demographer Pini Herman of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research estimates that at the peak of the mid-'90s immigration wave, about 8,000 Russian Jews moved to the Los Angeles area annually.
These Jews were fleeing a Russia that offered no freedom of religion. Even the government practiced discrimination as part of its official policy.
However, Sharfman, her parents and son did not flee this earlier Russia. The immigrants who have come since 2000 left a somewhat reformed Russia. At the time they left, there was even a new synagogue built in the town were Sharfman lived.
Sharfman is typical of this fast growing immigrant group, of Russian-born Jews in Los Angeles, especially the San Fernando Valley. These newer arrivals are more savvy, educated, and able to deal with the system. They are not the "poor Russian Jews" from decades past, who needed to be the local Jewish community's first priority, in getting them out of communist Russia and in resettling them here.
But for people like Sharfman, the new realities of the Russian community present a problem: because they are no longer a priority, sometimes they are left to flounder on their own. And the local Jewish community still needs not to forget them.
"The American Jewish community is not as interested anymore in the immigrants as they were when we were coming, and there is not as much help," said Helen Levin, executive director of the West Hollywood Russian Community Center who came to Los Angeles in 1988 after being a rufusenik for nine years. She and her husband, Eugene Levin, publisher of the Russian-language newspaper, Panorama, have thrived in their new country, but she fears adjustment may be harder for the new immigrants.
Although it would seem that life in the United States would be easier for the new immigrants, because there are many established sources of information and already a sizable community of previous Russian immigrants, this is not always the case. "Then, there were calls coming in from employers who [specifically] wanted to hire Russian immigrants," Levin said.
Upon arriving in the United States, Sharfman moved into a small apartment in Van Nuys with her son and parents. In her new country, the 38-year-old doctor was not licensed to practice medicine and has since returned to school in hopes of getting a nursing degree. But first, she had to learn the language.
Sitting at a Starbucks in a strip mall in the San Fernando Valley, the petite brunette, wearing a red shirt under a bright pink vest, blends in with the rest of the morning coffee crowd. It is not until she begins to speak that her broken English, still tinged with Russian inflections, reveals her immigrant status.
Sharfman was never a rufusenik. She did not lose her job when she applied to leave Russia, was not harassed by the government and was not trapped. Sharfman said that her decision to leave Russia had nothing to do with her Jewish heritage.
This is not to say that there is no anti-Semitism in Russia. Sharfman acknowledged that her sense of safety came from the fact that she did not tell anyone that she was Jewish, and she did not practice Judaism. Sharfman also thinks that she blended into the Russian population, so people did not know she was Jewish.
"I am not look like, maybe completely like, Jewish," she said tentatively, as if searching for the right words. "Maybe that is why I didn't feel it so hard, because people, of course, think negatively about Jewish people."
Sharfman said at times co-workers would tell her negative things about Jews, not realizing that she was also Jewish. Although she does not claim anti-Semitism as a factor in her decision to emigrate, Sharfman is grateful for the religious freedom she found in the United States.
Many of the new immigrants do claim anti-Jewish attitudes play a role in their decision to leave Russia. For Michael B., a 29-year-old doctor who prefers to remain anonymous, it was his Jewish roots that caused him to leave his home in central Russia two and a half years ago and move to the Valley with his brother and parents.
"We had some problems there," he said. "Well, to be sincere, I didn't see any future there. I had just graduated from university, and I became a doctor, and I saw that I won't be able to achieve anything else in my life -- to become the head of a department or to have a good salary."
Michael B. attributes this glass ceiling to the fact that he is Jewish. Although his hometown also had recently built its first synagogue and there seemed to be some movement toward religious tolerance, on a professional level, it is still considered detrimental to be Jewish. In Russia, he said, there are only a few prominent figures in every industry.
"If you are not Russian, this is much harder to obtain any higher position," he said. "Especially when you are Jewish."
Michael B.'s grandparents lived in the United States, so when the rest of the family immigrated, they settled in the San Fernando Valley, where they already had family. Although Michael B. did not speak or read much English when he arrived, he began to both learn the language and study for his U.S. medical boards.
As if the task were not arduous enough, Michael B.'s family also had to deal with the added complications of immigrating in the post-Sept. 11 world of strict border policies.
"We had some problems when we came here, because we came right after that incident in New York -- Sept. 11 -- so we couldn't obtain our legal documents for a long time," he remembered. "The INS told us that we came in the wrong time, so we are illegal here because the president ordered to close the borders."
For many new immigrants the problem is no longer getting out of Russia, as it was in the case of the rufuseniks, it is gaining legal entry to the United States.
Michael B. and his family lived in California illegally for six months without many basic necessities, such as driver's licenses. At first, they also were unable to rent an apartment, because they did not have Social Security numbers.
"That was a very difficult time for us," he said.
Despite the hardships, Michael B. studied for his medical boards "day and night" and now is a doctor about to embark on a three-year residency at a Brooklyn hospital.
According to Sima Furman, director of the immigration and resettlement program for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, Sept. 11, 2001, marked a turning point in the migration of refugees to the United States.
"The number has diminished since Sept. 11. That slowed the flow to the United States dramatically," Furman said. "Our numbers are getting smaller and smaller. For this calendar year from January to April, so far we have had only 94 arrivals -- and that is from the former Soviet Union and Iran."
Furman thinks that refugees like Sharfman and Michael B., who are coming to the United States at a relatively late date compared to the vast influx of refugees before, stayed in Russia for personal reasons, such as taking care of an older family member who did not want to leave or perhaps because they did not have enough money to leave. She is not surprised that they are coming over now, however, and cites anti-Semitism as the main reason for leaving.
Even though most people left the Soviet Union because of religious freedom, the new immigrant experience is vastly different from those who came over in the past two decades, said Si Frumkin, a self-described "real old-time Soviet Jew." Frumkin immigrated to the United States in 1949 and created the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.
"The people coming over these days, by and large, they are middle age, they are not very poor and they are well acquainted with the system and how to get along," Frumkin explained. "It is not like 25 years ago. [Now] they are much better informed, they are coming from a society that has become capitalist. In the past, for an immigrant to come here, it was like coming from another planet."
Today, it is like coming from another country, Frumkin said. The new immigrants not only know about government programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, he explained, but they often speak English and even know about the subtleties of Southern California real estate. For example, he said, they know it is less expensive to live in the Valley than in the city--spreading out from their traditional West Hollywood community.
Herman, the Los Angeles-based demographer, said this is predominantly because of the reduced cost of living.
"For a condominium in the West Hollywood, you can have a house in the Valley," Levin said.
While the American Jewish community may not be as focused on the plight of Russian Jews as it was a decade ago, the city of Los Angeles considers Russian Jews to be the fastest-growing community in the county. This fact is surprising in light of the well-documented growth of the Latino population in Los Angeles.
At about 3 million and 32 percent of the population, Latinos are the largest population. But according to Villasenor of the Human Relations Commission, the Latino population is growing at a rate of only 3 percent, while the Russian and/or Eastern Bloc population is growing at a rate of 22 percent.
While Villasenor stands behind this math, Furman of Jewish Family Service does not think this information is accurate, based on her own observations.
"I wonder about that," Furman said of Villasenor's statement. "In terms of newly arrived refugees from the former Soviet Union, the rate of arrivals has diminished over the years, and the number of refugees has dropped. Our experience is contrary."
Demographer Herman, an expert on Los Angeles' ethnic communities, also questions the data. He said that the census does not measure communities based on religion, so there is no way to determine that the 22 percent growth rate from Russia and the Eastern Bloc reflects refugees from the Jewish community.
The fact remains that while their plight is no longer in the spotlight, Russian Jews are still immigrating to the United States, and they still face the same challenges of acculturation as the rufuseniks.
"Even a penny has two sides," Sharfman says, concerning the process of becoming an American.
She worries that her son will forget how to write in Russian, that she does not speak English very well, that she will not be granted U.S. citizenship. And Sharfman worries that she will not be able to return to Russia to see her friends.
But still, she counts herself as lucky that she now lives in a place where each individual is judged based on abilities and not religious heritage.
"[In America] it does not matter if you are Jewish or Mexican, it just matters who you are, who you are inside, what are your skills," she said. "Everything depends from you, nothing from your relation to some nationality. It is very nice."
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JewishJournal.com is produced by TRIBE Media Corp., a non-profit media company whose mission is to inform, connect and enlighten community