The Diaspora That is Not Spoken About

Image © eJP

By Zvika Klein

More than three million Russian-speaking Jews live in the world today of which only one third live in Israel. A look at former Soviet Jews who chose not to immigrate to Israel, but to move to countries such as Germany and the United States, reveals large communities with unique characteristics, a complex Jewish and national identity, and an easy relationship with the other Jewish communities in the countries to which they emigrated.

Each year, a summer camp is held for young people of the German Jewish community in a small picturesque resort town in Italy called Gatteo a Mare. Some ten years ago, I was a staff member in the same wonderful camp, which was shared by Bnei Akiva and the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany (ZWST). During those years I visited several Jewish communities throughout Germany, and encountered groups of Jews that I had not met before. They were teenagers, 90 percent of whom were of Russian origin who had left the former Soviet Union or whose parents had immigrated to Germany. Their identity was very complex. On the one hand, they were proud of their Russian heritage, and on the other, they were immigrants in a new and western country that had welcomed them with open arms, but whose Jewish identity had become very weak during the Soviet period and had now been given a second chance.

I clearly remember the instructor who had intended to teach the lessons he had prepared in Russian, while the management politely explained that the lessons had to be given in German. The instructor, an Israeli emissary of Russian origin, did not speak German, and had to forego giving lessons. The insistence on the German language was due to the fact that the camp budget and most of the organization’s activities were provided by a German government office responsible for the integration of immigrants. Hence the lessons had to be given, not in the language of the immigrants. but only in German. From the participants themselves I heard varied opinions: some said they were not German and that they were living there as if in some form of transit station; others identified strongly with their new country, while others explained that while their situation was good, there was a certain complexity in living in a country where memory of the Holocaust was ever-present, which made it difficult to identify themselves as Germans.

Visas and Social Conditions

We tend to hear very little about the former Soviet Jews living in Germany. Just a few weeks ago, following the attack outside the synagogue in the midst of the Yom Kippur prayers, in the town of Halle, this community became slightly more exposed. People who knew said that it was a very small community, all of whom were immigrants from the USSR – the head of the community was interviewed by the media in English in a heavy Russian accent. Throughout the world today there are some millions of Jews from the former Soviet Union who are usually collectively referred to as “Russian speakers,” even though many actually came from non-Russian speaking countries such as Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Eliezer Noy has been living in Berlin for the last six years. He is responsible for all the activities of the Olami organization in Germany, which, together with the Mosaic United organization, aims at strengthening Jewish and Zionist identity among young Jews around the world. Noy says, “At the end of the Second World War, there were virtually no Jews in Germany. After the Holocaust, the few remaining Jews immigrated to Israel or to the United States. In 1991, there were some 50,000 Jews in the country; the government tried to achieve the pre-war numbers thus granting visas and suitable social conditions to 250,000 Jews from the Soviet Union. In every Jewish community in Germany today, between 70 and 99 percent of the Jews are from the former Soviet Union and speak Russian.”

The Olami and Mosaic United organizations hold activities aimed at strengthening the connection to Judaism, together with Hebrew lessons, Shabbat activities and advice on confronting anti-Semitism in the social media. “All of our activities are widely attended,” says Noy, “For all of the participants, it is important to strengthen their Jewish connection. The first generation that arrived in Germany looked for meaning and identity, and yet felt that they belonged nowhere. They felt neither German, nor Russian, nor Jewish. Now, of course, there is a very strong connection.”

The most important Institution: the Burial Society

Professor Ze’ev Hanin, the Chief Scientist of the Israeli Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, is considered an expert on Russian-speaking Jews in Israel and around the world. In his opinion, based on existing studies, today there are about three million Jews from the USSR worldwide, who can be roughly divided into three regions: the English speaking countries, the former USSR and Europe, and Israel. According to Professor Sergio Della Pergola, widely considered the world’s leading authority on contemporary Jewish demography, in Israel, about one million live in Israel and about 900,000 live in the former Soviet Union.

Della Pergola estimates that some 130,000 Jews live in Germany. Of these, Hanin says between 100,000 and 110,000 are Jews from the FSU. Hanin maintains that the Jewish community was unsuccessful in absorbing the Russian-speaking Jews. “The older community in Germany missed out on them,” he says. “The approach in Germany is very conservative, and was opposed to a Jewish-Russian identity in Germany, whereas their Jewish-Russian identity is an essential part of how they see themselves. They should have been allowed to retain Russian Judaism and connect it to German Judaism, but the approach was to be German-Jewish or nothing.”

“Unfortunately, the most important Jewish communal institutions in German today are the Burial Societies (Hevra Kadisha.) There are more funerals than any other event. Add to this the fact that most German Jews today are descendants of Polish and Czech immigrants or immigrants themselves. They strengthened the community institutions and did not let other immigrants participate in the decision-making process, budgets, resources and assets. All the attempts to create a new leadership elite in the important communities were unsuccessful”.

Hanin says that many of the Jews who immigrated to Germany are no longer connected to the Jewish community and not a few have left the country. “Assimilation and immigration have made the community much smaller than it could have been. Some immigrated to Israel, some to the United States and others simply have no connection with any Jewish activity.”

Hanin maintains that there are certain characteristics common to all Russian-speaking Jews that are relevant not just to Germany but throughout the world. “These Jews regard Judaism as ethnic, not religious. Their approach is, we are Jews because we have a Jewish nationality. The younger generation has all kinds of postmodern aspirations of being both Russian-Jewish and German; being a Jew is an ethnos, a people, and being German is purely for purposes of citizenship. Another phenomenon is that of urbanization: although an attempt was made to disperse Russian Jews throughout Germany as had been done in Israel – in the end they became concentrated in the major industrial, cultural and economic centers. And there is also a political characteristic: Almost all the Russian Jews tend to vote for the moderate, liberal right.”

“While 70 percent of American Jews voted for the Democratic Party, 70 percent of the Russian-speaking Jews voted for the Republican Party and Donald Trump. Russian-speaking Jews still believe they are part of the so-called ‘Russian Cross-National Distribution.’ They feel that they belong to a large commune whose center is not in Moscow or New York, but in Jerusalem and they feel very deeply connected to Israel. Every Russian-speaking Jew has a close relative in Israel and that is a key feature in his identity. “

Hanin points out that Russian-speaking Jews are deeply in disagreement with American Jews, and progressive Judaism in general. “For them, progressive communities do not support Israel enough, so that any pro-Israeli president will receive more votes than any other candidate, whoever he or she might be. Anyone who maintains that the two-state solution is irrelevant will receive the automatic support of Russian-speaking Jews in the US. On the other hand, there two conservative values – divorce and abortion – with which they are not in agreement.”

Jews from “Fiddler on the Roof”

One who is very familiar with the subject is Alex Selesky who currently serves as director of World Beiteinu, (the Israeli political party). He deals with the national Jewish institutions, in connection with Russian-speaking Jews around the world. Selesky served as a Jewish Agency emissary to New York, dealing with former USSR immigrants, then later as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spokesman and adviser on Russian-language media in Israel and world-wide. He is not surprised that most Russian-speaking Jews in the United States support Trump. “Russian-speaking Jews in America no longer see themselves as immigrants, but as part of working America. They are also in favor of a strong Israel, an unapologetic Israel. They support the economic right but also the political right. The young people already feel totally American.”

I ask, “Why is there such a huge gap between Russian-speaking Jews in the US and the older and more established Jewish community?” 

“Because for Russian-speaking Jews, institutionalized Judaism is either Reform or Conservative. For them, these are the same. On the other hand, they see the Orthodox and do not know how to distinguish between the various streams of Orthodoxy. They do not know these communities in depth but their inclination is toward the Orthodox, although most of them are secular as a result of 70 years of Soviet rule that systematically tried to destroy their Jewish identity, but also because most of them are third or fourth generation descendants of Hassidim who lived in the Eastern European Pale of Settlement. In their collective Jewish memory, Judaism is by nature Haredi-Hassidi. Moreover, both in the former Soviet Union and in the US, there is the Chabad network that works directly with the communities. Chabad has a major impact on Russian-speaking Jewry throughout the world. It is important to remember that Judaism in the United States is a religion and for the Russian-speaking Jews, their national Jewish identity is expressed through their strong connection with Israel and Zionism and their relatives in Israel.”

As in Germany, the integration of Russian-speaking Jews in the United States is not simple, but in the US, they are not in the majority. “Although 30 years have passed,” says Selesky, “the central Jewish establishment was neither prepared nor willing to incorporate them into leadership circles. The efforts made were too little and too late, because the Jewish-American community, which is largely reform and conservative, the more it speaks nicely about integration, in fact cares for itself and maintaining it leadership position. Why integrate a new, different community? At the same time, there is also a great deal of ignorance and condescension: ‘We will do for you what we believe is right, in our way and in our place.’ In some instances the Reform Movement is working against this, and we, in Beiteinu together with our community partners, are also trying to change the situation.”

“For example, in the recent World Zionist Congress elections, the Zionist Movement of America, promised that there would be a Russian-language registration site – but the site was not set up. The chairman of the Central Election Commission apologized for not doing so. Could they not find a person to translate? What actually happened was that they did not want to allow the Russian community to strengthen its position and power within the Zionist-American movement. Nevertheless, the community mobilized and gained strength. Since then of course there has been progress.”

Ilia Salita, president and CEO of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, heads a major philanthropic fund that primarily invests in issues related to the Russian-speaking Jewish (RSJ) community around the world. “The size of Russian-speaking Jewish community is quite often underestimated. And, yet, just in in New York there are more Russian-speaking Jews than all Jews in Canada or in South America,” he says. “There are major differences in points of view between American and former Soviet Jews, some over critical issues. After all, for many Jews, Judaism is a religion, and for “Russians” it is a people.”

Salita says that, although US Jews were active and extraordinarily generous in the success of freeing of the Jews in the Soviet Union, the connection between the two communities after the fall of the Iron Curtain was not without challenges. “Both were expecting something but getting something else. The Americans did not know a great deal about the Jews in the USSR. Those who had actually visited the USSR, knew Refuseniks who were very committed and connected to Judaism, but did not necessarily reflect the way of life of the other Soviet Jews. Many American Jews were sure they would encounter Jews reminiscent of those depicted in The Fiddler on the Roof: religious families with many children, with no education, and from the village shtetls. The reality was the opposite. Soviet Jews knew they were Jewish and were proud of it, but in the majority, they were secular, highly educated, with one child or a maximum of two. Most came from large cities and had little knowledge of rural areas. The expectations were different, so the integration did not go as expected, especially not in the first years.”

“Soviet Jews arrived as immigrants and only a few years later did they begin to become established and started to comprehend the accepted American culture of philanthropy. Over the years they became wealthier and the American Jews presumed they would start to contribute to the community, but that did not happen right away.”

I ask “Why?”

“Because in the Soviet Union there was no “third sector,” nor did they understand why it mattered. Not everyone understood that charity had a significant Jewish value and, in addition, there was distrust as to what would be done with the funds raised. But the most significant reason was that the first generation of immigrants’ primary purpose was to ensure their families’ financial security not only for today, but also for tomorrow. These immigrants had no parents to help them financially. They wanted to build something for themselves and their children, and, therefore, any extra income would always go to their children’s education.”

Originally, efforts to connect with local communities were often via Orthodox schools. Many parents sent their children to religious schools, but when the children returned home and the parents asked what they had learned in math or foreign languages, the answers did not satisfy them. Both sides were unhappy with the match.

In order to maintain Jewish communities in the Diaspora, the existence of various Jewish organizations which employ members of the community is crucial. However, very few RSJs consider a professional career in the Jewish community. Salita explains that Soviet immigrants, who expected their children to be doctors, financiers or lawyers, weren’t familiar with perspectives of employment in such organizations and didn’t expect their kids to look for such jobs.

Salita says, “Since the launch of GPG we have been trying to facilitate better integration between two communities, and now we’re seeing first results. Slowly, Russian speakers have begun to connect with concepts like Tikkun Olam and understand why it is important to be part of a Jewish organization or a large and significant collective. There is a renaissance of amazing ideas coming out of our communities, as well as young people contributing to the communities themselves, especially in cities like New York, Chicago and Toronto. In recent years, talented young leaders started to emerge. As one example – Michael Teplitsky from Chicago has recently served as a co-chair of the Young Leadership Division of the Jewish Federation of North America.”

“Think of a person born in the USSR or whose parents emigrated from there. If I were to simplify, their identity can be seen as a triangle, with cultural corners that can be named as “Jewish,” “American” and “Russian,” and a personal identity as a circle inside this triangle, gravitating towards one of the sides. We want to cause it to move towards one of the two “Jewish” sides – either “Jewish-American” or “Russian-Jewish.” In Canada, it’s even more complicated, because vast majority of Canadian RSJ spent time in Israel, and their identity can be seen as rectangular. This is why the identity-building work among Russian-speaking Jewish communities is so challenging, and, yet, so rewarding.”

Authority in Front of an Audience

One of the most interesting projects in the Jewish community is Limmud FSU, a version for Russian- speakers around the world, of the successful British model of Limmud which was founded 37 years ago, and adapted for Russian-speaking audience all over the former Soviet Union, in Israel, Western Europe, USA, Canada and Australia. The principle is of an annual study event taking place in a central city, where Jews from all over the region can come to hear and experience Jewish content. Anyone can give a class or workshop or lecture, from a teenage boy who wants to speak on on Jewish humor, to a senior rabbi on the Talmud.

The whole program is run on the basis of local volunteers. The CEO of Limmud FSU is Roman Kogan. He immigrated to Israel from Estonia in the early 1990s at the age of 12. Kogan says, “Together with founder Chaim Chesler and several others, we determined that the successful British Limmud model could be adapted for Russian-speaking communities. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the established Jewish organizations, such as Hillel, the Joint Distribution Committee, Chabad, the Jewish Agency and more, were the main operators in the field. The 1990s and 2000s marked a notable revival of Jewish life. Only then could original and specific initiatives reach these audiences. Limmud FSU allowed participants to voluntarily and independently incorporate their own frameworks. It was no longer a series of lectures organized by the agency or the JDC, but incorporated a whole new approach: We can organize everything by ourselves.”

Kogan says it was not easy to persuade Jews of Russian origin to volunteer. “We came with a distinctly Soviet Jewish identity: In Russia, the word ‘volunteer’ was used mainly by the Communist Party. We were warned in advance that it would not catch on because Russians did not volunteer, and we proved them wrong. We were also told there was no way that people would pay to come to our events, because they had got used to all the programs offered by the Jewish organizations being offered free of charge, and sometimes also included a free meal. Here, too, we proved it wrong. Some people, in Ukraine for example, will pay half their monthly salary to participate in a few Limmud FSU study days.”

“How do you differ from the original Limmud in the UK? “

“Connecting to Jewish topics at Limmud is not through religion, but through culture. If you have lived in a country where the prevailing ideology is atheism, you have been clearly educated in a secular environment. That is why our connection is less religious and more cultural in nature. For people who are not interested, I will not offer a Gemara page in our advertising, because that is not what will attract them. We offer topics in culture, Jewish literature, Yiddish civilization, the arts, Holocaust history, theater, music, cuisine – topics which people find it easier to relate to.”

“I attended Limmud in the UK and saw that one of the speakers was a well-known and successful author. I was sure the event would heavily attended and in the end it took place in a small, half-empty hall. With us, such a lecture would have attracted hundreds of people. We place an emphasis on well-known figures, while in Britain the principle is that every Jew can learn and everyone can teach classes at the same time. Some 25 to 30 presentations take place at the same time even if only ten people come to a class. The Russians would see such an event as a failure. We try very hard to bring high-level people, from the academia and the media, well-known artists, writers, even famous rabbis. The Russians come from a tradition where they expect to listen to authoritative figures.”

Once a year in a “Fashion Show”

Zoya Raynes holds a senior position in the US banking system and at the same time also volunteers in a variety of Jewish organizations. As a child who immigrated to the US from Ukraine, this connection was unnatural. “We came here when I was three,” she says, “We had a family in Baltimore. My parents spoke to me in Russian and I answered them in English. Unlike other people who immigrated at the time or later, we lived in a totally American environment, so we probably assimilated faster.”

“The name Zoya embarrassed me so much that I told people my name was Judith,” she says, laughing. “My parents didn’t understand why people called our home and asked for Judith.” When she received American citizenship, Raynes decided to keep her original name.” My parents were engineers who worked very hard. We were very secular and visited the synagogue only twice a year. To me, it was kind of a fashion show, nothing more. My parents did not know much about Judaism. “

In college, Raynes met an Orthodox rabbi who had founded an organization working with Russian-speaking Jews, and slowly began to forge a connection. She has been working in Wall Street for a number of leading firms for over 20 years, and now works in a senior management role for a central bank. “When I moved to New York, I decided to get involved in Jewish organizations. I suddenly became exposed to people who had been active in the struggle for the release of Soviet Jewry, a subject of which I knew little. Even today, many Jews of Russian origin do not know what brought them to the United States or to Israel, which is crazy. The release from the Soviet Union completely changed their lives but they have no idea of the background to the struggle. Today, even young American Jews know little about it.

“When we arrived in the US, my sister and I were enrolled in a Beis Yaakov seminar for ultra-Orthodox girls. I understand that my parents must have thought to themselves: ‘They know nothing about their religion, so they can learn about it.’ But it was too extreme and we moved to a modern Orthodox school. At the end of second grade, I was kicked out as I had too much energy and they didn’t know what to do with me. I participated in a group Bat Mitzvah; we learnt a few lines by rote and recited them. Our parents worked very hard, were proud of their Judaism but it was devoid of any content.”

Raynes says that in the organizations she works with, she is often defined as the “House Russian.” “The organizations often decide whether to initiate an event targeted at Russian Jews, or to try and integrate them into their regular events. Obviously I’m in favor of joining existing events, but that doesn’t always work. I once helped organize an event targeted at Birthright alumni. You have to make sure the content fits, because there are major differences in mentality and interest. People like me, who grew up with no proper Jewish education, always feel somewhat inferior to American Jews who grew up as part of the community, even if they have no more knowledge than do I. So the specific focus for them is very important. There is a difference and that is fine with me.”

This article originally appeared in the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon. Translated from Hebrew and republished with permission.