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Around the Jewish World Unlike Their American Counterparts, Russian Jews Unafraid to Visit Israel

December 25, 2001
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Violence in Israel is forcing thousands of Jewish youth from North America to cancel plans to visit Israel this year.

But teens from the Soviet Union apparently aren’t experiencing the same fear.

More people than ever from the former Soviet Union are preparing to take the free trips, sponsored by the Birthright Israel program, during the next six weeks.

“In the 18 months of the program’s existence, a total of 1,547 people from the former Soviet Union visited Israel on four” Birthright trips, said the CEO of Birthright Israel International, Shimshon Shoshani. But this winter alone, he said, “we are bringing almost 1,600.”

The unprecedented number is largely due to an increase in funding for the Birthright program in the former Soviet Union.

But widespread interest in the program suggests that, unlike their Western counterparts, Jews here have largely discounted the personal threat from Israeli-Palestinian violence.

“We also live in a country that isn’t very stable,” said Kirill Fishkin, 20, a student at the Kazan Aviation Institute in the central Russian city of Kazan. “So it makes no difference whether we’re here or there. ‘Which place is more dangerous?’ That’s not a question.”

Fishkin hopes to participate in a second round of trips from the former Soviet Union planned for June.

Birthright Israel expects to send 6,135 young Jews to Israel this winter. The free 10-day trips include 3,149 North Americans, 1,596 Jews from the former Soviet Union and 670 from Latin America.

The program initially had hoped to send more than 10,000 Jews this winter.

Inna Osinovskaya, a 24-year-old Muscovite leaving on a Birthright trip in early January with her husband, also admits to a sort of fatalism.

“Honestly, I’m a little scared, but Moscow is not much safer,” she said. “We have the threat of terrorism here too, but life goes on.

“Anyway, there’s so much going on” in Israel,” Osinovskaya said. “It’s a normal, healthy country. I really think that, as advertised, this experience will be a great discovery. I’m expecting a life change.”

The indifference about traveling to a region known for explosive violence is affirmed by people who work closely with Jewish youth in Russia.

Natasha Bobkova, the secretary of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s youth department in Moscow, said that since October only five people out of 42 have canceled reservations made through the Jewish Agency, and “those were because of” university exams, she said.

Meyer Newman, director of Arezim, the youth movement of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, reported that only about 40 out of 500 people who had made reservations through the federation have canceled since October. Newman said the spots were immediately filled by others.

Participants from the former Soviet Union face local obstacles far more formidable than those faced by Western participants. Birthright requires each participant to pay a $150 deposit, which is later refunded, to ensure participation in the program once reservations have been made. This is quite a lot in Russia, where the average monthly wage is $113.

Nonetheless, participation has increased each year. Birthright reports that 90 citizens of FSU countries made the trip in the winter of 2000 and 714 in the winter of 2001. This winter, 1,050 will go from Russia, Belarus and the Baltic states, 450 from Ukraine and 42 from Uzbekistan.

In Russia, the Birthright program is administered through four Jewish groups: The Jewish Agency; the Federation of Jewish Communities; Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life; and Lishkat Hakesher, an Israeli government-sponsored cultural organization.

Most of the new funding for this year’s trips came as a private donation from businessman Lev Levayev, who is president of the federation. This is the first year the federation has sponsored Birthright.

A native of Uzbekistan who moved to Israel in 1971, Levayev feels a strong sense of obligation to build Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.

“Jewish youth today are eager to build their lives as Jews in the FSU. Unfortunately their parents cannot provide the material support or spiritual help to build their lives as Jews,” Levayev said. “I see the Birthright trip as a means to fill this gap and guarantee a future of Jewish life there.”

The executive director of the federation, Avraham Berkowitz, said Levayev’s donation will be responsible for sending 1,000 citizens from the former Soviet Union to Israel this winter and an additional 1,000 next summer.

“We wanted to do something that would totally energize our youth movement,” Berkowitz said. “And we thought this would bring the biggest bang for our buck.”

But Birthright’s fate in the region will not depend solely on its ability to attract more participants.

“We are always working on evaluation,” Shoshani said, emphasizing the need to examine whether and how participants are changed by the trips.

With this in mind, professors at Moscow State University, in cooperation with professors at Brandeis University in Boston, are planning to research how effective Birthright is in making participants more active in their Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.

For many in the former Soviet Union, there’s another incentive to go on Birthright, beyond a free trip to an exotic land or the chance to learn about Jewish history.

Given the mass emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel over the past decade, many of the Jews on Birthright know someone in Israel they would like to visit.

“It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t already have a friend or family member in Israel,” said Ilya Velder, 21, director of a Jewish youth center in Kazan.

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