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Russian Jewish immigrants go to the head of the class

NEW YORK, Jan. 18 (JTA) — “A century ago it took more than one generation to integrate into American society. Now it’s six years,” Sam Kliger triumphantly announced here last week to a room packed with about 100 of his fellow Jews from the former Soviet Union.

As chair of the emigre-founded Research Institute for New Americans, Kliger was unveiling a groundbreaking report on the Russian Jewish community’s acculturation into New York life.

Despite the triumphant tone of those releasing the study, some Russian Jewish immigrants felt it presented an overly rosy picture by a community that — besieged by bad press about organized crime and welfare abuse — is eager to improve its public image.

The study, done in partnership with the American Jewish Committee and based on a sampling of 1,014 immigrants in the United States, uses the term “Russian,” but includes Jews from all parts of the former Soviet Union.

Of those surveyed, 40 percent have lived in America for more than six years; the rest arrived more recently.

The study of the estimated 400,000 Russian Jews living in the New York area — approximately half of the Russian Jewish emigres in North America and almost one-third of New York City’s Jews — likely reflects the Russian Jewish experience in other major American cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, where immigrants have settled in large numbers, said Kliger and others familiar with the immigrant community.

Russian Jews who have settled in smaller communities may have different experiences, they said.

Among the report’s key findings:

• Jewish identity is “very important” or “important” to 67 percent of the Russian Jewish community.

• The Jewish identity of Russian Jews is more cultural and ethnic than religious. Only 11 percent of those surveyed say they practice Judaism, and only 17 percent say they observe Jewish customs.

• Forty-nine percent of Russian Jews “insist that their religion is Judaism and there is no alternative for them.” Another 39 percent say they have no religion, 7 percent describe themselves as Universalist, meaning all religions appeal equally to them, and 9 percent identify as Christian.

But of those Jews who say they have no religion or that all religions appeal equally, 46 percent still consider themselves to be Jews and that it is important to them.

The numbers led researchers to suggest that “up to 150,000 Russian Jewish immigrants in the New York area are candidates for information about synagogue membership and what it means to follow Judaism.”

• Slightly less than half of the population is employed. Broken down by age, however, 56 percent of Russian Jews under age 65 — approximately 80 percent of the community — are employed, and the employment rate rises to 82 percent for those under 65 who have lived in the United States nine years or longer.

• At $15,000 per family, the average income is considerably lower than the income for American Jews as a whole, which according to the 1990 National Jewish Population Study was $39,000. However, among those who are employed and living in America more than six years, 24 percent have incomes of $30,000 or higher, 21 percent earn $50,000 or more and 11 percent have incomes of $75,000 or higher.

• Jews from the former Soviet Union are “the most educated immigrant group in American immigration history,” according to the study, and they are better educated than their American Jewish counterparts. Sixty percent of Russian Jewish immigrants have five or more years of higher education, compared to 35 percent of other American Jews.

• Politically, today’s immigrants are mainly Independents — 34 percent— and Democrats — 30 percent — with only 7 percent identifying as Republican. This contrasts with those who emigrated during the Cold War era, who were overwhelmingly Republican. Still, the study notes the more recent immigrants are “more conservative” than American Jews as a whole, the majority of whom identify as Democrats.

• Overall satisfaction with their lives in the United States is high. Forty- three percent of immigrants report they are completely or mostly satisfied with their lives, and of those who have been in the country nine years or more, almost two-thirds are satisfied with their lives.

“You’re talking about many people who’ve been here five or more years, and they’ve made it,” said Mark Handelman, executive vice president of the New York Association for New Americans. “They’re in the professions. Many have opened businesses and are successful in their lives. A majority have a sense of Jewish identity that’s positive.”

Many immigrants listening to the report’s findings said it confirmed their belief that their community is highly educated.

“There are many intelligent people, but we don’t all know English,” said Chaya Musman, a 77-year-old writer who was a lawyer in Russia. “American Jews have to use our potential.”

Arkadiy Kagan, a journalist with the Russian Forward, one of more than 20 Russian-language newspapers to have sprung up in this country in the past decade, said, “I don’t need to see the study to know we’re the most hard- working, well-educated group of immigrants ever.”

The community’s newspaper boom is echoed by a growth in grass- roots organizations as well, with approximately 35 new groups — including RINA, synagogues, associations of Holocaust survivors and cultural organizations — formed by immigrants in New York alone.

While Russian Jews tend to form their own organizations rather than join existing ones, a number of larger groups — and some synagogues — are making efforts to bring Russians in, often into decision-making positions. To work, however, outreach must take account of cultural differences and not appear patronizing, said those involved with Russians.

“They’re not interested in being token representatives of their communities,” said NYANA’s Handelman. “They want real power and input.”

Some immigrants attending the presentation found the study overly optimistic.

Leonid Goldin, who polls Russian Jews for the American Russian- language daily Novoye Russkoye Slovo, said the RINA study was an important contribution but that future efforts should also look at more negative aspects about the adjustment to America lest it be “a kind of propaganda.”

In particular, Goldin questioned the finding that Russians become more Jewish here, noting that the same factors that lead so many American-born Jews to assimilate also affect immigrants.

“If we are so prosperous, why did we need to raise money for the study from the American Jewish Committee?” demanded Marina Temkina, president of the Archive for Jewish Immigrants Culture, referring to the fact that Russian Jews raised seed money for the study, but then received the bulk of funding from the AJCommittee.

Temkina noted that many immigrants who are employed only work part time and in low-level jobs, while still receiving government assistance.

“Why were there no statistics here on the number of people on SSI or receiving welfare?” she said. “I think this is a good beginning, but it’s wishful.”

RINA’s Kliger defended the study, however, saying that “the reason for the study definitely was not because we wanted to make the image of the community better,” but rather “the sincere desire to learn more about ourselves and to give more information about our community to the host community.”

There will be plenty of time to tackle the problems in future studies, said Kliger, noting that RINA hopes to look at Russian involvement in organized crime, drug abuse and domestic violence, along with more neutral topics like involvement in Jewish communal life, attitudes in the 2000 elections and charitable giving.

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