Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines: Plunge in Soviet Immigration to U.S. Has Forced Jewish Agencies to Cut Back

Four years ago, when the Soviet Union began relaxing emigration restrictions, American Jewish social service agencies readied for the challenge of absorbing thousands of Soviet Jews.

The new immigrants — whose numbers jumped from a few hundred in 1986 to 39,500 in year 1990 — would have to be housed, taught English, given career counseling and otherwise assisted in adjusting to a new culture.

Having grown up in a country where religion was banned, the children would have to be tutored in the rudiments of Judaism. The parents would have to learn the intricacies of capitalism.

But American Jews were eager to meet the challenge. Many, after all, had played leading roles in the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement.

As Eugene Kaminsky, coordinator for resettlement services at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said, “We had a commitment: We marched, we wrote petitions, we importuned the Russian government to let our people go.”

And then they came.

Across the country, federations expanded social service programs, hired Russian-speakers and prepared for a fairly constant, long-term onslaught of Soviet Jewish immigrants.

“We suddenly had to beef up our professional staff, develop a structure and tap into the job market,” explained Kaminsky, whose community resettled some 1,507 people last fiscal year, at a total cost of more than $3.5 million.

But this past year, the number of incoming refugees started falling. Initially, Jewish agencies did not panic, assuming that the 40,000 places set aside by the U.S. government for Soviet Jewish refugees this year would eventually all be filled.

But with two months left to the fiscal year, the number of new arrivals is still below 20,000. Consequently, most Jewish agencies assisting immigrants have finally been forced to cut back.

AN UNWIELDY BUREAUCRACY

Jewish agencies now estimate that the year’s arrivals will number between 26,000 and 30,000.

Jewish leaders blame the unwieldy Soviet bureaucracy for the slowdown, citing unexpected closings of OVIR emigration offices and a new regulation requiring emigrants to apply for passports before leaving.

They also point out that emigration, at the best of times, is an up-and-down phenomenon, with the total number of departures uncertain until the year’s last plane has landed.

“A lot of communities held off retrenching staff, and in the end it cost a lot of money” to hold on to unneeded staff, said Harvey Paretzky, who works in refugee resettlement for the Council of Jewish Federations, which represents some 200 Jewish federations in North America.

“In hindsight, this should have been done last year,” Paretzky said of the staffing cutbacks.

The New York Association for New Americans, which resettled some 17,500 Soviet Jews in New York last fiscal year, anticipates settling no more than 12,000 people this year.

Over the past two months, the agency has reduced its staff from 350 people to 270 and eliminated an employment program for professionals, NYANA officials said.

In Philadelphia, said Kaminsky, the federation mandated 25 percent reductions in its resettlement agencies after the number of immigrants it expected to resettle fell from 1,667 to a now-anticipated maximum of 1,200 for the 1991 fiscal year. By the end of June, the federation had resettled fewer than 600 people.

‘IT’S VERY FRUSTRATING’

The Atlanta Jewish Federation, which last year absorbed almost 500 Soviet Jews, had received 210 by the end of June, and now expects a total of 433 by the end of this fiscal year.

Back in February, anticipating a lower number of new immigrants, the federation did some “fine-tuning” of its services, said Steven Gelfend, the federation’s associate director.

“It’s a very frustrating program for agency professionals as well as lay leaders, because the information is constantly changing,” he explained.

The effect of these cutbacks will, at least for now, be minimal for Soviet refugees seeking to take advantage of job training and other programs, federation officials said.

Few programs have been cut outright, and while most savings are being incurred through staff layoffs, the smaller staffs should have little problem assisting the smaller number of refugees.

The real danger, officials said, is either a sudden increase in refugees, which could stretch the now minimal services in place, or a continued decline, which will force further cuts.

“We basically cut down to the basics, to what our clients must have for their survival,” said Misha Galperin, assistant executive vice president at NYANA. “If the rate of arrivals continues to stay at the level it has been, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

The ebb and flow of immigrants has forced some federations to approach next year with more than one resettlement budget. The San Francisco federation has three in mind: One assumes that the number of refugees will jump from 800 this fiscal year to 2,700 next year, another anticipates an additional 2,000 refugees and the third would allow for only 1,000 to 1,200 additional refugees.

“It’s partly a nightmare because some of the people we hired for this program we brought from across the country, because there are not many social workers who speak Russian,” said Tracy Salkowitz, director of planning and allocations for the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

“To have to look at the prospect of firing them, when we might have to rehire them in a few months, is, on the one hand, ridiculous,” explained Salkowitz. “But on the other hand, you can’t work on an ongoing deficit situation.”

THE BILLS PILED UP

As it is, San Francisco’s resettlement program incurred a $640,000 deficit this fiscal year.

The reason some federations are fumbling to balance a budget with often only a few months left in the fiscal year is that they were counting on U.S. government funds that help defray resettlement costs.

Agencies hired staff and established programs, believing they would be at least partly reimbursed at a later date. But the people never came, so the government did not pay, and the bills piled up.

Still, despite the costs, U.S. Jewry is pressing for more refugees.

NEXT STORY