While Saddam Hussein’s forces shelled Israel during the Gulf War, 12-year-old Alex Kalmikov arrived at Ben Gurion Airport from Soviet Georgia. “Three days later we had our first gas mask alarm,” he recalled.
In what is considered by many to be the second major Jewish exodus (following the story of Passover), about 2 million Jews left the Soviet Union just before and after its collapse, settling primarily in the United States, Germany and Israel.
Moving earlier was Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet prisoner and refusenik who made aliyah in 1986 and is now chairman of the executive at the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Sharansky said in an interview with JointMedia News Service that for emigrants, leaving the Soviet Union was about the survival of “our Jewishness.” Specifically, the Russian aliyah to Israel brought “additional energy” to the country, he said.
Of course, there were also those who chose to stay in what is now the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Today about 1 million Jews live there, according to Asher Ostrin, director of the FSU department of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
In the days leading up to the March 4, 2012 presidential re-election of Vladimir Putin, some young Russian Jews joined fellow activists of varied social groups and ethnicities in protesting what many deem to be a corrupt election system. Unlike their older predecessors, young Russian Jews have begun to display not only a religious revival, but also unprecedented political engagement.
Twenty years after their Russian exodus, the lives of Jews who live in the U.S., Israel, and Germany—and those who stayed in the FSU—differ markedly. Here are the stories of those who left and those who remain.
The Lautenberg Amendment first invited Soviet Jews to America as refugees. Nearly 750,000 Russian Jews currently live in the U.S, according to research by Sam Kliger, the director of Russian Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Typically, Russian Jews living in the States and other countries emigrated to escape political oppression or anti-Semitism.
Inna Yalovetskaya, 25, from Glendale, Ariz., came to the U.S. in 1992. Even in America, Yalovetskaya was often told by her parents “you do not say who you are no matter who is talking to you.”
For many, economic reasons also factored in. “I didn’t feel that I was needed professionally,” said Galina Goncharov, a computer programmer who came to Chicago, Ill., with her husband and teenage son in 1995 from Chelyabinsk, Russia. Due to their high level of education, by 2004 about 23 percent of immigrants were already earning more than $60,000. “I did have some language problems,” Goncharov said, and she lacked American work experience, but these were challenges she overcame.
While overall Russian Jews integrated smoothly into American society, one source of tension did remain. American Jews expected Russian Jews to become religiously active once they were free. But as Russian Jews tend to define themselves more as an ethnic group, many found it hard to relate to the religiously organized nature of America’s Jewish community. Kliger’s research shows that the majority of Russian Jewish Americans feel that religion is either “not important” or has “no meaning at all.” That, however, is beginning to change.
“Today I see myself more as a Jew than I did when I lived in Russia. In Russia I never knew anything about the Jewish holidays except Passover because Matzo always appeared in our home from some unknown location… Here I know everything,” Goncharov said.
Unlike adults, children of immigrants were often attracted to America’s structured Jewish community. Jewish Sunday schools and community centers made Yalovetskaya’s husband, Alexander Polatsky, 27, become part of Jewish-American culture. Today, “I don’t identify as a Russian in any way other than the fact that I was born in Russia,” he said.
According to Lily Galili, an Israeli journalist who completed a book on the subject, more than one million Russian Jews came to Israel between 1990 and 1996. A 2011 report in the Guardian stated that more than 15 percent of Israel’s total population today is immigrants from the former USSR.
Yosef Yoshpa from Ashdod moved to Israel in 1990 with his wife and two children. It was not “like moving from England to France,” he said. From an economic standpoint, in such a small country the new immigrants had to compete with Arabs and lower-class Sephardic Jews over menial jobs. Soon an image of Russian professors sweeping the streets of Tel Aviv evolved. Thousands of Russian engineers came, but “what can Israel do with an expert on Siberian trains? We hardly have trains,” Galili said.
Russian Jews have always tended to keep to themselves. Today they work in Israeli society, serve in the army, speak Hebrew, but after hours they prefer to stick together within their own unique culture. “I feel Israeli, but Russian-Israeli. It is a somewhat different animal,” said Yoshpa’s son, Benny, 32.
Members of the Russian community in Israel are predominantly secular and not always considered halakhically Jewish by the government. Israel’s Law of Return allowed the immigration of non-Jewish spouses, and those with only one Jewish parent or grandparent. “They’re Jews in Russia but they’re Russians in Israel,” Galili said. There were efforts by the army to convert them but most already see themselves as Jewish, she added.
Yosef Yoshpa’s second son, Michael, 26, felt completely Israeli in the army, where “everyone came together from a different background for the purpose of defending our country,” he said. Alex Kalmikov’s family, which lives in Holon, came to Israel out of Zionist beliefs. Even so, as a Russian, he “was beaten and spit on” in school. For Michael Yoshpa, that’s not unique. “Kids always pick on each other,” he said. But even by the time Kalmikov entered service in an elite army program, one woman still called him a “stinky Russian.”
The June 1, 2001 Palestinian terrorist attack on the Dolphinarium night club in Tel Aviv was a turning point. Twenty mostly Russian teenagers were killed, and Russian immigrants joined Israeli society by sharing in the loss caused by Palestinian terrorism. Since then Russian immigrants have become staunch supporters of the Jewish state. The Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party, founded by current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, generally represents Soviet immigrants in Israel.
By now more than 20 percent of Israel’s high-tech employees come from the USSR, Director-General of Association of Entrepreneurs in Israel Irena Valdberg told Yedioth Ahronot in 2010. Israeli television offers a Russian channel and Russian subtitles often appear even in the Hebrew programming. “They never gave up. These are not people who give up,” Galili said.
JAFI’s Sharansky told JointMedia News Service that Russian aliyah “brought a lot of knowledge and a lot of ambition to Israeli society, opened it to new competition, made it much more dynamic, removed many barriers which existed inside Israeli society, and made Israel much stronger.”
Germany’s Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust, but as of 1991 the country has offered Russian Jews massive social benefits. More than 220,000 Soviet Jews immigrated to Germany in the past two decades, resulting in a major Jewish revival in the country. Around ninety percent of today’s German Jewish population comes from the former USSR.
According to Paul Harris, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama who co-authored a book about Soviet immigrants in the past 20 years, many chose Germany because they felt that Israel was an unstable place. Many couldn’t get into the U.S., and some were elderly people who struggled economically and needed German welfare.
Among Russian-Jewish immigrants in Germany, “the older generations had huge problems…They were just too old to learn the language, to find jobs,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a Berlin-based attorney and a Jewish immigrant from Russia.
Igor Mitchnik, 21, was five months old when his parents moved to Germany from St. Petersburg. Back then his mother’s Russian degree was not accepted and she had to return to school. Mitchnik’s grandfather still works as a taxi driver. “If you talk to taxi drivers in Berlin, you see really intelligent people who had the same fate like my grandfather.”
The children of Russian-Jewish immigrants are now becoming more visible in German society by opening Jewish restaurants, schools and synagogues in cities such as Berlin and Munich, Reuters recently reported. About 20,000 Israelis who live in Berlin also spur this German Jewish revival. An Orthodox Jewish community is also steadily growing.
But a recent parliament-appointed commission study showed that 20 percent of Germans are still anti-Semitic. Mitchnik feels great in Berlin, but in some regions even some ordinary people “don’t really know how to deal with Jews because they are not taught to realize that there are still Jews left in Germany.”
Former Soviet Union (FSU)
The JDC’s Ostrin said many Jews stayed in Russia for economic reasons.
“There is no middle class…If you’re poor you immigrate, and if you’re rich you stay,” Kliger added.
Sergey Stern, 38, from Moscow, said back then his father had a high position that gave access to special supplies. As scientists, his grandparents also had decent pensions. In addition, it was simply too frightening “to drop everything and begin anew,” added his father Vladimir Stern.
Stern and his family recently joined an enormous crowd on the streets of Moscow to protest against the Russian government, which is “full of people who are used to getting what they have only by bribes, stealing or kickbacks. These guys can’t do anything else—they simply don’t know how,” he said. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently regained the presidency in the March 4 election, and there were allegations of vote rigging at a recent parliamentary poll. The protest crowd included everyone from “liberals, nationalists, and communists to girls from glamour magazines, all in one place shouting “Russia without Putin.” The protest also included many Jews.
Sharansky said that Putin’s attitude for Russian Jews has been “very consistent” in making sure that there is no official policy of government anti-Semitism, and that those Jews who want to both develop their own communities and connect with Jews in Israel and elsewhere abroad can “freely do it.” However, that doesn’t mean the state of Israel—with a citizenship that values freedom and democracy—doesn’t have other points of “deep disappointments or disagreements with the policy of Putin” in general, he said.
Interestingly, many children of those who stayed “aren’t ashamed to be Jewish. They want to be identified as a Jew, and wear a Magen David,” Ostrin said, especially in the big cities. Initiatives sponsored by the JDC, Chabad, the Jewish Agency and others are bringing Jews back into the community fold. “I am definitely first Jewish then Russian,” said Anna Kaller, 25, missions and project coordinator for JDC in Moscow.
The Jewish community in Russia today still needs to develop organized leadership, Ostrin said, but it’s evolving. Twenty years ago people were used to getting everything for free, but now people want to get involved in the Jewish community, “not only to get but also to give,” Kaller added.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen to the country, and we don’t know what’s going to happen to local Jews,” said Katya Potapova, 26, deputy head for community development for JDC-St. Petersburg, “but it’s interesting that people chose to stay and still be Jewish.”
—With reporting by Jacob Kamaras and Masha Rifkin
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