MOSCOW, July 2 (JTA) — On a recent Friday night in Moscow, nearly two dozen university students and graduates gathered in a cramped room lit by two tungsten bulbs. Posters and artists’ renderings of Israel line the walls.
These Russian Jews sat around a small table laid with candles, a Kiddush cup and two jars of Rokeach grape juice. Alternating between Russian and Hebrew, the group debated. They prayed. They sang. Some louder than others, some off-key, some unsure of the words.
More important, though, was their mere presence here for another Kabbalat Shabbat at the local Hillel.
Undaunted by the controversies that are roiling Russian Jewry, they have not returned their Jewishness back into the closet.
Indeed, this group’s continuation of a relatively new tradition reassures that even as doomsayers and realists predict another surge in Jewish emigration to Israel and to the West, Jewish life in Russia is slowly but surely bouncing back.
Despite the fact almost 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union have already emigrated to Israel in the past decade, another 600,000 or so still remain in Russia.
Some American Jews, upon hearing of Russia’s endemic anti-Semitism and economic instability, may wonder: why stay?
“Here, I feel myself more Jewish than anywhere,” said a young woman named Mila.
“In Israel, I think they take their Jewishness for granted. But here, I appreciate it more. It’s richer, more cultural, more interesting. There’s more of a hunger for traditional things that we couldn’t do during Soviet times.”
Jews in Russia are not masochists, they say, though Jews here and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe are clearly conditioned to a higher degree of popular anti-Semitism than in the West. Comments on the streets that might make an American Jew’s hair stand on end is often shrugged off by Jews in this part of the world as par for the course.
If anything, the fact so many Russian Jews remain seems to speak volumes about how “Russian” many of them feel contrary to the stereotype of the Jew with “divided” loyalties. They feel deeply rooted within Russia’s rich cultural heritage, and to its language, music and literature. This is, after all, the land of Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov.
“I love this country because I was born here and feel like a part of this society,” said a young woman at the Hillel event named Anya.
“My father, who is 100 percent Jewish, has always told me that I’m a citizen of this country, and that I should live and serve this country. I actually feel more Russian than Jewish.”
Anya notes, however, that her father, a former chief submarine engineer in the Russian naval port of Sebastopol, was later fired because of his Jewishness.
Patriotism aside, emotional bonds to the land of their forefathers only go so far. Jews say there are many personal and logistical reasons for why they stay.
For most, there is the unpalatable notion of enormous upheaval and transition any move entails, plus separation from friends and perhaps family.
In a crude breakdown of other reasons, observers say the elderly generally feel too old to uproot, then live out their remaining years in an alien culture. Their children are often compelled to stay and look after them.
The middle-aged are also typically well-established in their careers — some living quite prosperously and afraid that elsewhere they would have to start from scratch. Plenty of horror stories circulated in Russia earlier this decade of proud Jewish scientists reduced to sweeping streets in Israel.
On top of that, word has spread throughout the community that while in Russia they are seen as “Jews,” in Israel they are seen as “Russians” — outsiders in either case.
Overall, though, this hasn’t deterred too many Jews from leaving.
Since the early 1960s, some 1.3 million Jews from the former Soviet Union have emigrated, primarily to Israel or the United States, according to a recent book called “A Second Exodus,” a reference linking the Jewish liberation from Palestine with the immigration of Jews from the Soviet empire.
Jewish emigration has become much more pronounced since the parting of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Israel has already received roughly 820,000 immigrants from the 16 former republics of the Soviet Union, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel. Roughly 185,000 emigrated there in 1990, tapering off to 46,000 in 1998.
Ukraine actually exports a greater number of Jews than Russia. However, with economic fears on the rise in Russia, the numbers of immigrants from the region to Israel leapt to 66,000 last year, a significant burden for a country of only 6 million.
During the 1998 economic crisis, some observers speculated that public anti-Semitic statements and incidents would spell the immigration of several hundred thousand Jews, but this failed to materialize.
As for the younger generation of Jews who remain in Russia, they speak of exciting job opportunities in the “New Russia” for the young, intelligent and ambitious — a category into which many of them seem to fall.
“I see a future for myself here,” said a young woman at Hillel named Sasha.
Her friend, Mitya, said he even relishes the unpredictability of Russian life.
“Some people in stable Western countries travel all over the world seeking such excitement as what we have here,” he said.
Still, lousy economic prospects continue to drive away young Jews.
Mikhail Povolotsky, who just finished his studies in Moscow, says that ideally he would return to his hometown of Cherkassy, Ukraine, despite its palpable climate of anti-Semitism.
However, he says, Ukraine is simply too poor to afford the modern technology that would enable him to pursue his chosen career in optical electronics. Besides, he wants to elude service in the Ukrainian military.
“When I go to our Jewish cemetery,” said Mikhail, “I can see the tombs of my great-grandfather and his father.”
“When I walk around town, I can see where my great-grandfather had his business. He was a tailor.”
“It’s important for me to keep this family tradition, and if I could stay there, I would. But then I couldn’t do the work I want to do.”
For Mikhail and the others, public backlash from the arrest of the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Vladimir Goussinsky, and the very public showdown between rival Jewish factions may serve as greater impetus for pulling the plug on their lives in Russia.
Both controversies, they suspect, were somehow orchestrated by officials within the Kremlin, perhaps even Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The perceived omnipotence of the Russian state is such that several of those at the Hillel event declined to give their last names, due to a lingering fear of persecution by secret police.
The future is still so uncertain that Mila, who speaks as if thoroughly content with her life in Russia, later added that she would not allow history to repeat itself and let her family be trapped as a persecuted minority within a closed, oppressive regime.
Mila envisions leaving Russia only if there were a clear pattern of violence against Jews or if the state again enacted policies with a whiff of anti-Semitism.
“The main difference between life in Russia today and life in the old days,” said Mila, “is that today we have the freedom to leave.”
In fact, some observers suggest that creation of a policy of anti-Semitism may already be under way.
The national television network, widely seen as the unofficial mouthpiece of the state, is said to be fomenting anti-Semitism through its blistering attacks on Goussinsky, a highly visible Jew and dual Russian-Israeli citizen. At the same time, if Putin were to successfully shut down Goussinsky’s media, which has been outspoken in defense of human rights and against anti-Semitism, it could be interpreted as a de facto official policy.
In the event of a larger than normal exodus, American Jewry would again need to be mobilized, both financially and politically, say Jewish officials.
To absorb immigrants in Israel, the Jewish state depends on dollars from American Jews: Each immigrant is said to cost the state roughly $100,000. To allow more Russian Jews into the United States, American Jews would also have to pressure Washington to ease restrictions on immigration.
With these concurrent controversies in Russia, it would not surprise American veterans of that refusenik campaign if Jews again start pouring out.
“I don’t think the final chapter of the exodus of Russian Jews has yet been written,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, now the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“It’s fair to say it’s not only Israel’s burden, but also a responsibility of world Jewry. We are one people, and we have a Jewish state that has always done a remarkable job of rescuing and absorbing Jews.”