How To Better Understand Russian-Speaking Jews Here
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How To Better Understand Russian-Speaking Jews Here

When the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago, the Jewish world received a much hoped-for bonus. Jews from the newly independent republics, especially Russia and Ukraine, secured permission to leave in accelerating numbers. The resulting great exodus saw an increased Jewish presence in Israel, the United States and Germany. 

While estimates vary, perhaps as many as 700,000 Russian speaking Jews relocated to the United States — a huge influx of newcomers, and all in less than 15 years. They went to hundreds of cities and towns, with more than half settling in the New York City region. Their religious identities spanned the spectrum from none to ultra-Orthodox. Today, they and their children, or grandchildren, represent a reservoir from which new Jewish community members might be drawn. The major barrier to involving them is mutual misunderstanding and a significant lack of sensitivity in the mainstream Jewish world, despite impressive efforts by an array of communal organizations.

Many of the new immigrants did not seem to fit the prevailing image of a near mythic and heroic activist that had become embedded in the advocacy campaign. While Anatoly Sharansky or Iosif Begun were demonstrably heroic figures, few immigrants had suffered in the gulag, or had been long-term refuseniks. Some were intermarried or had dubious Jewish lineage, while others were devoid of Jewish knowledge or commitment, beyond a vague sentimental link to the Jewish people. 

American Jews, for the most part, see themselves as part of a religiously identified community. But Jews from the Former Soviet Union — many of whom came with an aversion to synagogues — left American Jews perplexed about how to relate to these new neighbors. 

Striving to succeed, younger Russian-speaking Jews focused their energies on education as the key to success, and a means of achieving upward mobility. For the elderly, unable to make that leap, this represented a personal and professional hardship. But among the younger immigrants, or first-born citizens, More than 90 percent of high school graduates go on to college and enter virtually all professional fields. 

Still, the assimilation of most Russian-speaking Jews into the mainstream of Jewish communal life has been difficult, with cultural, religious and political differences often rising to the surface. In an unexpected political and demographic development, a large percentage exhibited an affinity with the Republican Party, especially in New York City, where Jews have traditionally voted for Democrats in overwhelming numbers. This was a bewildering surprise to other Jewish voters.  

Such support for conservative elected officials among the new citizens has undoubtedly more to do with their experiences in the Soviet Union, and the perceptions that in the near past Republicans had been more critical of Soviet and Russian policies, especially in regard to Arab attacks on Israel. Minimizing the government’s role in daily life has also resonated among this sector of the population. At the same time they have learned to be skeptical about official organizations and are wary of seemingly imposed religious ideologies. Since Jewish leaders, educators, and rabbis assume that American Jews attend synagogues, to some degree, when Russian-speaking Jews do not affiliate it is attributed to a failure to engage them. Although partially correct, in the FSU attending a synagogue was at best appealing for only a handful of people. For younger activists it was a form of political protest in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Jews from the FSU tend not to be involved in significant numbers with domestic Jewish institutions. This may cause them to maintain a distance from what they perceive as an over-organized, somewhat hierarchical American Jewish community rooted in religious forms. 

Perhaps 15 percent of the Russian-speaking community has taken out synagogue membership, as opposed to about half of the rest of the Jewish community. Ironically, when there is a need for a wedding, or other personal and Jewish family event, Orthodox religious figures are generally preferred, reflecting the experiences of older Russian-speaking Jews while in the Soviet Union, where the handful of rabbis had been Orthodox. As a sign of changing attitudes, an increasing number of younger ones seem to be more accepting of Reform and Conservative ceremonies and practices, albeit in small numbers.

For those who came from the FSU their almost total lack of a Jewish religious background means that efforts focusing on fundamental concepts of Jewish religion and ritual would be less likely to take hold, since their concept of Jewish peoplehood is more ethnic than religious. Communal organizations and institutions that overlook language, history, literature and art, or serious philosophical issues, reflect a lack of sensitivity to the needs of the target audience. This includes Russian-speaking Jews with a high educational or professional level who deem this of particular importance.

What should be done? Certainly Americans need to develop more nuanced views about these recent immigrants. The reality of Russian- speaking Jews, and their children, is that they are Americans who are increasingly distant from feeling Russian, but don’t yet identify as American Jews. Writing in Sh’ma magazine, Svetlana Lantsman, then a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, complained that, “In Russia I was too Jewish; in America I am not Jewish enough.”

The challenge is to reverse those sentiments and create a new model, at a time when the indigenous Jewish community continues to shrink. More aware activists, educators, and volunteer leaders, and a sharper focused infusion of funds, are critical components of such an effort. Further, the fostering of sensitivity and partnership programs should be considered. It is an opportunity that dare not be lost.

Jerry Goodman is the founding executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, and founder of the Archive of the American Soviet Jewry Movement at the American Jewish Historical Society.   

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