Survey of Russian-speaking Jews finds untapped passion about Zionism, fighting antisemitism

Experts say Jews from former Soviet Union can offer U.S. Jewish community their experiences of facing antisemitism from the left

Growing up in the Soviet Union, Izabella Tabarovsky knew deeply that she was a Jew, but to her, “it was a nationality, it was never a religion,” she told eJewishPhilanthropy. “When we came to the West, we came to the U.S., we had a very strong Jewish identity, but we didn’t really know what it meant.”

So to her, it makes sense that a recent survey of the Russian-speaking Jewish community revealed a people who are deeply connected to Israel, passionate about fighting antisemitism and value Jewish culture and history, yet placed religious practices as a lower priority, she said.

The Russian-speaking American Jewish community is a group that other Jewish communities could learn a lot from, said Tabarovsky, the Kennan Institute senior adviser on regional partnerships and programming and the co-host of the “Russia File” podcast. Yet they remain relatively untapped: More than half — 57% — of respondents to a recent American Russian-Speaking Jews Alliance survey said that if they had the opportunity to attend more community events they would.

The survey, conducted by the ARSJA in March and April, was prompted by curiosity about how Jews from the former Soviet Unionidentified themselves as war raged through Ukraine, where the majority of them hail from. “There was a lot of conversations, even starting from 2014 [when the conflict in Ukraine began] but certainly after 2022, of ‘What do we call ourselves? Are we still Russian-speaking? Or are we something else?’” Gennady Favel, adviser for the ARSJA, told eJP.

Over 80% of the 507 respondents identified as Russian-speaking Jews, with 87% saying that their parents and grandparents helped shape their identity and 83% saying the language did. Still, others defined themselves as a “Soviet Jew from Ukraine” and “Ukrainian-American Russian-speaking Jew.”

The survey should not be viewed as a representative survey, Shaul Kelner, associate professor of Jewish studies and sociology at Vanderbilt University, and author of A Cold War Exodus: How American Activists Mobilized to Free Soviet Jews, told eJP, so it is difficult to come to firm conclusions from it. Respondents were culled from Russian-speaking Jewish social media groups and ARSJA’s email list, which likely makes them more engaged with the Jewish community than average. They are also not necessarily representative geographically, withmost hailing from New York City, Chicago and northern New Jersey. 

Still, Favel hopes that the survey will prompt questions. “Do we try to get [Russian-speaking Jews] more engaged in things that they are currently not engaged in, or do we just focus on the things that they’re interested in?”

Tabarovsky recommends engaging Russian-speaking Jews with their passions. Since Oct. 7, respondents have been especially galvanized towards Israel and combating antisemitism, with 86% donating to an Israeli cause and 74% attending a rally that was pro-Israel or against antisemitism. 

“For a lot of us, religion remains really hard, because religion is something that we grew up without,” Tabarovsky said. “We came out of a society that was profoundly atheist and religion was made fun of. Religion was something that only old grannies cared about… For a lot of people who came out of there, it was very hard to overcome this prejudice, and what they could connect to was the national aspect.”

In 2021, during the last major Israel-Hamas conflict, while many throughout the world were critical of Israel, “the one group that was out there immediately [waving] Israeli flags were former Soviet Jews,” she said.

Other reasons Russian-speaking Jews may connect deeply with Israel is because they have relatives there. Between 1970 and 2018, Israel absorbed more Jews from the Soviet Union (and then from former Soviet republics) than any country, with America coming in second. The waves of immigration were backed by funding and advocacy from American Jews.

“Russian culture became very important in Israel,” Daniel Etienne Altman, a doctoral scholar in humanities and social sciences at CY Cergy Paris University, told eJP. “Many Russian traditions that were brought by Russian-speaking Jews in Israel are endorsed by Israelis themselves, who are not necessarily Russians.” These include Novy God, a New Year celebration that is increasingly celebrated by non-Russian Israelis. (For some Israelis, however, the festival’s similarities to Christmas keeps it unpalatable.) 

In Israel, there is a “different process of acculturation,” Altman said. “In Israel, you have the Israeli identity, which is not necessarily religious.”

Many Russian-speaking Jews also connect to current Israeli politics that lean conservative. “They remember socialism from their Soviet background, and they tend to be more conservative than liberal,” Altman said.

Other American Jews, especially third- or fourth-generation American Jews, can learn a lot about “unapologetic Zionism” from them, Tabarovsky said. She advocates for financing campus tours by Russian-speaking Jews because the antisemitism brewing throughout America is one that is very familiar to them, especially those who lived in the Soviet Union post-1967, when antisemitism was weaponized through anti-Zionism.

“It’s a community that understands firsthand oppression and persecution from the political left, not from the political right,” Kelner said. “They experienced Soviet anti-Zionism. They didn’t experience Nazi antisemitism, so what they’re seeing in America now looks very familiar to them. Their antenna to detect anti-Jewishness is much more finely tuned than a lot of the native-born American Jews… They pass that skepticism down to their kids.”

Although many Russian-speaking American Jews may not connect with traditional synagogues, many respondents stated that over the past three years they had meaningful participation in Jewish federation events. The No. 1 most frequently cited organization they found meaning with was Chabad.

“Around the world, Chabad has a very tolerant approach,” Altman said. “You don’t have to be strictly observant. You can be very secular. You have your own level of practice. You come as you are. If you want, you can donate. If you don’t want to donate, that’s fine. They just want you to be a part of the community. And I think that this is something that many Russian-speaking Jews appreciate.”

Historically, even though American Jewish organizations helped arrange and fund the ex-Soviet refugees’ journey to America, “in the early ’90s, late ’80s, the approach to Russia’s Jews from the bigger community wasn’t so great,” Favel said. The Orthodox community expected them to follow rules that they didn’t understand. “The more Reform and progressive organizations were interested in us, but we were so low on the socioeconomic scale that they almost would look down on the Russian-speaking Jews. That’s why they lost the [Russian-speaking Jews] for a little while,” he said.

Over the past 10 years, Favel has seen many Jewish organizations serving the greater Jewish community hiring Russian-speaking Jews to create programs specifically for them.But as more Jewish organizations look to Russian-speaking Jews to get involved, it’s important they don’t tokenize them, Tabarovsky said. They need to truly seek their input because the greater American Jewish community has so much to learn from them.

“American Jews are really focused on the Holocaust, but the story of Soviet Jews, it’s so rich and so relevant for this moment,” she said. “American Jews played a massive role in [the bringing ex-Soviet Jews to America] but they failed to pass the story onto their children. They did not incorporate it in their textbooks, in their storytelling.”

The story of Russian-speaking Jews is a tale of a people fighting for their identity and for Zionism. “It’s an incredibly heroic story,” Tabatovsky said, one that is not foreign but part of our larger narrative. “It is very much American. American Jewish.”