Behind the Headlines: Jewish Agency Visits Russia to Assess Emigration Desires

Will Russia’s economic crisis lead to a dramatic increase in the number of Russian Jews wanting to make aliyah?

With a view to answering that question, top officials from the Jewish Agency for Israel visited here last week to assess the situation.

While conceding that the emigration picture remains unclear, the officials said they want to be prepared.

Agency officials will do whatever is necessary “to make it possible for as many of these people to come [to Israel] if they want to,” said Charles “Corky” Goodman, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors.

After several meetings with members of Moscow’s Jewish community, agency chairman Avraham Burg said “people are concerned” about the economic situation and its possible future consequences.

At one such meeting, Burg and Goodman heard numerous accounts of how the crisis has worsened people’s lives.

“Emotions, psychology, economics and all the history of the Jews in this country came out” in the conversations, Burg said.

During one of the meetings, Jewish doctors, engineers and teachers complained that they had gone unpaid for months.

“This crisis was the last straw,” said Alexander, a 45-year-old engineer. “I realized that my life here can never get better.”

Burg said the Jewish Agency is urging the Israeli government to improve the absorption package given to immigrants, adding that a decision on this issue is expected by late next month.

While noting that agency officials will continue to monitor the situation closely, he made clear that they will not use Russia’s economic woes as an opportunity to entice more Jews to emigrate to Israel.

Jewish Agency officials note that some Russian Jews are not just asking about emigration procedures but are beginning to get involved in long-term planning – - such as enrolling in Hebrew courses, or ulpanim, in preparation for making aliyah.

In Moscow alone, more than 100 people applied for such classes on a recent day. The Jewish Agency office in Yekaterinburg, located in the Ural Mountains, reported that some 80 people have already registered for ulpanim — a marked increase from the 25 who registered a year ago.

The plunging ruble and virtual collapse of the Russian economy have led to an increase in inquiries about emigration to Israel, agency officials say.

While the inquiries do not necessarily translate into definite plans to make aliyah, they are “clearly a reaction to the situation, to the sense of hopelessness” pervading Russian society, said Alla Levy, head of the Jewish Agency in Russia.

“If the current interest grows into actual emigration, we will see it no earlier than the beginning of next year,” Levy added.

She said if there is an immediate increase in the number of immigrants to Israel, it will come from Jews in Russia’s eastern regions, such as Siberia and the Far East, where living conditions may worsen as winter approaches.

Levy said the social profile of people making inquiries about aliyah is different from that of those who usually take part in the educational activities organized by the Jewish Agency.

“These are Jews whom we rarely met before — young people in their 20s and 30s, professionals, owners of various businesses — those who can be called middle- class Jews.”

“Many of these people lost their fortune or savings because of the economic situation,” said Burg.

Among those making inquiries was Alexei, a 40-year-old Muscovite who calls himself an “average Russian businessman.”

“I came here to find out what should I do to apply” for making aliyah, he said during a recent visit to the Jewish Agency office in Moscow.

Alexei, who refused to give his last name, said he wanted to “make sure” that if the economic situation further deteriorates, “I have this chance” to go to Israel.

In addition to Israel, many Jews from Russia and other portions of the former Soviet Union have emigrated in recent years to the United States and Germany.

But American diplomatic officials in Russia say there have been no signs of growing interest in emigration to the United States among Russian Jews.

The German Embassy in Moscow said the number of Jews applying for emigration to that country has actually decreased slightly in recent weeks.

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