Behind the Headlines: Russian Jews Today Think Twice About Packing Their Bags for Israel

At midnight inside Sheremetyevo Airport here, families moving to Israel shuffle into line at the check-in counter, their worldly belongings stuffed into hemp bags wrapped with rope, their cardboard boxes bulging at the sides.

They linger for a few last minutes with relatives, anxiously clutching their pets, their passports — and the classic emigrant’s dream.

“I just hope life in Israel will be better for our family,” said Larisa Naftalieva, 36, who worked as a kindergarten teacher in Dagestan, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. All her relatives except her sister are already in Israel, and the two siblings stand side by side, tears welling in their eyes.

In the last five years, about 500,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have taken these same parting steps and become Israelis, many of them known for their high level of education and limited knowledge of Judaism.

But now this wave, which peaked in 1990 with the departure of 185,227 Jews to Israel, is starting to lose force.

Chaim Chesler, the head of the Jewish Agency here, predicts that the number of emigrants to Israel this year will probably decrease by about 10 percent, from 69,191 in 1993 to about 62,000 for 1994.

“People are thinking twice about leaving, and this is a new situation,” said Chesler, who oversees scores of Zionist educational programs and provides transportation for olim.

“The sense is that half the source of Jews has already left and now we are working to get the rest,” he said.

The recent shift is the result of important changes in the factors that contribute to emigration, according to observers.

While political mayhem and economic crises still plague Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and other now independent states, this is no longer entirely true for Russia, home to about 700,000 Jews.

A SENSE OF STABILITY IN RUSSIA

“There is a sense of stability in Russian political and economic life,” explained Alexander Libin, immigration officer at the Israeli Embassy.

“People are learning to manage in a new situation, and Jews are the first ones to learn to reconcile themselves with the new economic game,” he said.

And while everyday living may be improving slightly for some here, Jews hear from their friends and relatives how arduous it can be to find decent housing and employment in Israel.

“In the past, people didn’t need information about life in Israel, they only needed information about how to get there,” said Yulia Bentsianova, who oversees the Tehiya Information Center for potential emigrants to Israel.

“Now the situation has changed. People know what is waiting for them. They want to know how they can transfer money to Israel, how to sell their apartments,” she said.

“Three years ago, people were leaving the country out of desperation,” added Lev Schiogolev, a former refusenik who moved to Israel in 1987 and then came back to Russia temporarily to work for the Jewish Agency.

“Now, psychologically, it is a very interesting group. Many are old people going to live with their children. Others are young people who can’t realize their profession here,” he said. “And in Ukraine and Central Asia, the economic crisis is much deeper. In those places people can barely eat.”

He then added, smiling wryly, “It is also a pleasure to note that a small portion are going to Israel because they are Jewish,”

Among that minority is Larisa Naftalieva of Dagestan.

“The Jewish community is not very big, but I was involved in it. I’m very attached to our nation, and it’s important to me that Israel is a Jewish state. Even in our small town, the Jews tried to be together and support each other.”

Her passion for Israel contrasted sharply with that of a mother recently visiting the Tehiya Information Center with her two daughters.

One of the daughters has a large burn scar on her face, and the family wants to move either to Israel or America so she can undergo cosmetic surgery.

“We have to wait for two years to go to America, but we can go to Israel immediately,” said the mother, identifying herself only as Anna.

AFRAID TO NOT FIND GOOD JOBS

“However, I think Israel greets people who arrive very badly, and unemployment is very bad. My husband is an aircraft engineer, and I’m afraid he won’t find a good job in Israel,” she said.

Another person in the information center, Lev Moskovkin, a geneticist, said he decided a year-and-a-half ago to move to Israel, but has delayed the move because of illness in his family.

During this time, his thoughts about moving changed, he said.

“My first feeling was release, a feeling of freedom. But then I got more information. I’m still firm in my decision, but I know I will not get a good job in Israel,” he said. “I know I won’t have the ability to live like the intelligentsia in Moscow.”

For others, moving to Israel is not even a consideration.

“I still feel a lot of affection for this country, no matter what is going on here. I am very connected to the culture and feel I belong,” said Esphir Vainer, a teacher in Moscow who has relatives and friends living in Israel.

She said that although she is not involved in the Jewish community, she would not move even if she were.

“There is anti-Semitism, but on the other hand people are now free to express their Judaism, to go to synagogue if they want. This is really a change,” Vainer said.

Another clear indication of the changing times is the growing number of Jewish tourists visiting Israel from the newly independent states — a sign that incomes are rising and people now take a look at the Jewish state before moving.

Chesler said a significant number of these tourists are deciding to stay. “We have a window of opportunity for the next three to four years, but we will have to work very hard to do well.”

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