Behind the Headlines: Resettlement of Soviet Jews in U.S. Full of Challenges and Rewards Alike

As the momentous aliyah of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews makes headlines around the world, an equally important immigration is making its mark on Jewish communities across North America.

Eighty-thousand Soviet Jews have arrived in the United States over the past three years. They have had a deep impact on the communities where they have made their new homes and on the people who are helping them make the transition from Soviet Jew to New American.

The Soviet Jews started coming in slowly — about 10,000 arrived in 1988. But by the next year, the gates had opened wide enough to let 36,700 come to America. Estimates for 1990 are about 36,000 and more than 40,000 Soviet Jews are expected to arrive here next year.

They have been welcomed by communities in every part of the country: in New York and Los Angeles; in Savannah, Ga.; Wichita, Kan.; Flint, Mich.; and Beaumont, Texas.

Seven cities are resettling most of the emigres. Every year New York accepts the lion’s share — last year, 17,400 immigrants.

Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Baltimore are the other top resettlement sites, while 17 smaller cities are setting from 100 to 500 refugees each year, and another 15 are resettling up to 100 each.

Other communities, generally those with Jewish populations of 200 or 300 people or less, are absorbing two or three families each. These include places such as Pottstown, Pa.; Duluth, Minn.; and Nashua, N.H.

Whether the number of emigres a community is welcoming is large or small, each faces an array of new challenges. And each of these communities has its own stories to tell: about personalities and bureaucratic red tape, successes and failures — and lessons learned.

“It has taken a tremendous amount of dedication, an outpouring of love from the community,” said Marilyn Chandler, executive director of the Greensboro (N.C.) Jewish Federation.

Greensboro has resettled 18 Soviet Jews this year and expects 40 more in the coming year.

SHLEPPING IMMIGRANTS EVERYWHERE

The Greensboro federation has matched each new immigrant family with four or five local host families, who “shlep them everywhere,” she said.

Initially, the federation advertised for the host families. Now Chandler has more than 100 people, all volunteers, working on resettling the new Americans in Greensboro. Each has pledged at least a six-month commitment to the endeavor.

Such community enthusiasm has also brought success to the resettlement effort in San Francisco, according to Anthony Fenner, planning and allocations associate for the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties. The federation has welcomed 3,117 Soviet Jews since July 1988.

“San Francisco is a major resettlement community, and that’s part of the excitement here,” he said. “We shelved all non-essential business for staff and lay leadership to focus on fund raising and education for resettlement.”

Professionals involved with the effort across the country agree that their greatest challenge has been getting the Soviet immigrants working as soon as possible.

“Employment has been, and continues to be, the biggest challenge,” said Jerry Levinrad, director of the refugee resettlement program at the Council of Jewish Federations.

“The large cities have a harder time than the smaller communities finding them early employment,” he said. “The rent is highest in the big cities, and the economy is probably the worst there.”

Employment may be the single most important factor in determining the speed and ease of the acculturation process for the new immigrants.

“The sooner people are employed and independent, the better their self-worth and their adjustment,” said Stephanie Spiegel, executive director of Jewish Family and Vocational Services in Louisville, Ky.

Louisville settled 137 emigres in fiscal 1990, which ended Sept. 30, and 20 people the year before. The community there is expecting at least another 116 people to arrive this next year.

THE NEXT STEP IS ACCULTURATION

English-language skills have been the biggest stumbling block to quick employment, and just about every community has organized classes with specially trained tutors.

Many of the people who arrived in this country in the last year spent an average of six months in transit centers in Italy, where immigrant processing used to take place. There they had a chance to start learning English.

Now processing takes place in Moscow, and emigres are coming directly to the United States with little chance to study English in advance.

They are also increasingly arriving with no family to assist them. Next year, about 15 percent of the immigrants will not have that important family connection, 50 percent more than in 1990. This is poses a major challenge for federations.

Another major challenge of the new year will be helping immigrants who have already cleared the first hurdles of absorption become independent of federation support.

The next step is to prepare them for the long term, and to do that, the communities are “moving into an acculturation mode,” as one official put it.

Acculturation means knowing how to open and maintain bank accounts, or being able to choose among six different brands of orange juice in the supermarket, when in the Soviet Union there was never any orange juice in the stores.

It also means becoming familiar with the various aspects of Jewish life in America, something arriving Soviet Jews know little about.

“They don’t come knowing how to participate in Jewish religious life,” said Max Kleinman, executive director of the Minneapolis Federation for Jewish Service.

“We are trying to reach them in a way they can relate to, with social gatherings and programs on the holidays in the Jewish Community Center.”

As challenging as the settlement effort has been for each community, it has also brought rewards. Jewish communities large and small have been mobilized by the effort and revitalized.

That is a good thing, because, “barring a cataclysm, the immigration could go on for a very long time,” said Karl Zukerman, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. He said there are estimates of 2 million to 4 million Jews still inside the USSR.

NEXT STORY