Russian Immigrant Groups Adapt to Methods of Organized U.S. Jewry

Russian-speaking emigres in America want it known: They are not the same people who stepped off the boat at the turn of the century.

While their population — some 400,000 — has grappled with the challenges of resettlement common to most newcomers to the United States, they also have access to the resources of the American Jewish social and political framework, itself established by immigrants attending to those very needs.

Now, nearly three decades since the first wave of newcomers from the former Soviet Union began to arrive, these immigrants are taking a page — and a cue – - from American Jewish communal history, setting up their own infrastructure and finding their own, Russian-accented voice.

Across the country, grass-roots organizations have emerged, representing the diverse professional, ethnic, regional and social interests and backgrounds of the emigre population. The oldest such association is the American Association of World War II Veterans From the Former Soviet Union; one of the newest is the Russian Institute for New Americans.

The institute is currently compiling data on the immigrant population through public opinion polls and scientific surveys.

“According to our information, this is the first time in American history that the first generation of an immigrant group set up a research institute to study itself,” Alexander Lakshin, a founding board member of RINA, said in a telephone interview.

The 20-person board is financing the project. Technical support is provided by the Advisory Committee of Emigres, a joint venture of the New York Association of New Americans and the UJA-Federation of Philanthropies of New York. The committee provides professional assistance to doctors, lawyers and engineers from the former Soviet Union and fosters their involvement with the organized American Jewish community.

RINA hopes to produce its first results from telephone surveys by the end of the year. Although initial research will be limited to the New York area, the group also plans to expand its research nationally.

“This information should be useful to the immigrant community itself to better integrate into American society in general and into the Jewish community in particular,” Lakshin said.

The findings will also be of interest to organizations working with Jewish emigres, political parties seeking new voters and companies that provide services to ethnic groups — from telephone companies to hospitals, he added.

“The applications are enormous,” he said. “To begin with we have to make this portrait as accurate as possible.”

Besides clarifying how it is seen, the Jewish emigre population is finding a way to make itself heard.

Last fall, the nine-year-old American Association of Jews from the Former Soviet Union, in consultation with the Council of Jewish Federations Washington Action Office, mobilized hundreds of its more than 3,000 members nationwide for a rally in Washington to demonstrate against welfare reform.

That very afternoon, senators struck down several articles in the legislation, making way for the reinstatement of some benefits to recent immigrants.

Beyond the legislative success, the rally ignited a new civic consciousness among many Russianspeaking emigres. “They understood how to work in the frame of American democracy,” Leonid Stonov, the association’s president, said.

Stonov, a former refusenik, lives outside of Chicago, where he represents the association in the year-old Russian Community Forum, a consortium of emigre organizations.

“This is not fund raising, not direct service,” said Nina Genn, the manager of the Chicago federation’s resettlement loan program.

Instead, she said, the forum, which receives technical support from the American Jewish Committee, is giving the Russian-speaking community an articulate voice.

Last fall, the forum hosted a political debate, at which the audience of about 200 emigres probed congressional candidates for their views on Israel, welfare, immigration and world trade.

The candidates’ appearance was “another manifestation of this group getting to be more important in the country,” said Genn, who is an active leader in her emigre community.

This year, the forum began to focus its attention on the Russian-speaking community’s position in the American Jewish scene.

“We don’t want to be separate from American Jewishness, we want to be with them,” said Stonov. “I think it’s one of the most important ways to return to our Jewish roots.”

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