Swapping stories in Russian, sharing smiles and posing for photographs, the American visitors in suits and ties connect with Israeli soldiers in uniform. The first-ever leadership mission of Russian American Jews traveled though Israel last week meeting with immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Their special focus was on getting to know soldiers who immigrated alone, leaving their families far behind in their home countries.
“They have a lot of hardships,” said Dr. Igor Branovan, from New York, president of the visiting Russian American Jews for Israel. “This is a subject that really resonates in our community.”
The mission symbolized the growing organization and strength of Russian Jewish immigrants in North America, and their desire to make common cause with Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union who need help: Of Israel’s 2,500 “lone soldiers” — soldiers without families living in Israel — approximately 80 percent are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
The organization has pledged to raise $1 million in their community for these soldiers, who often struggle both financially and emotionally doing their army service.
“This signals the transition of our community as a receiver of support to one that is becoming more active,” Branovan said.
They have promised to raise the money within a year, to be donated to a Jewish Agency for Israel fund for the soldiers.
“Because most of the lone soldiers are from the FSU, they are doing our job for us, defending the Jewish homeland,” said Margo Volfstun, a member of the delegation from the Washington area who came to the United States as a teenager from Kiev, Ukraine. These soldiers “do not have adequate support. They need more, and it is our job to provide it to them.”
Unlike their counterparts with parents in the country, these soldiers must tend to their own shopping, meals and laundry when they come home on Shabbat or holidays — often exhausted from long weeks in training or in combat.
Most rent their own apartments and their salaries of about $550 a month is stretched thin covering rent, utilities, transportation and food.
“Any human being must be touched by the example they set,” said Alex Goldin, a New York lawyer who was among the 10 Russian Jews from cities across America on the mission.
“Their courage must serve as an example to all Jews in the world of what it means to be a Jew,” said Goldin. “If I help these lone soldiers then vicariously we feel their courage and passion.”
Olesya Kuleshova, 21, who immigrated to Israel by herself from Ukraine in 1999 and is now an officer in the army, was among those lone soldiers who met the group.
She said she was both surprised and impressed at the group’s involvement with lone soldiers.
“It’s very impressive that people are doing this,” said Kuleshova. “It’s very important and it is really helpful, especially to soldiers who come alone and have nothing.”
Some 2 million Jews left the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. One million came to Israel; many of the others made their way to North America.
Many Russian American Jews have prospered, including members of the mission who are prominent business people and professionals in America. Now they want to give back.
Russian American Jews, who number between 600,000 to 800,000, identify with the need for a strong Jewish state after living with state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union.
This connection is reinforced because an overwhelming majority — some 90 percent — has close relatives and friends living in the Jewish state — and because a disproportionate amount of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union have been killed in terror attacks in the past five years.
Branovan has helped bring over victims of terror attacks from Israel to the United States for surgery including two young immigrants from the former Soviet Union, according to media reports.
Aware of the potential of the Russian American Jewish community, the Jewish Agency for Israel — which organized the mission’s program — sent its first-ever shaliach, or emissary, to the Russian immigrant community in the United States three years ago.
On its final day in Israel on Dec. 20, the group met with young soldiers from the former Soviet Union who are studying Judaism in a Judaism enrichment course called Nativ. The course is part of the conversion process for immigrants who are not Jewish according to Jewish law.
They also met with several university students from the former Soviet Union who were formerly lone soldiers and are now studying and facing financial difficulties juggling studies and part-time jobs.
Alex Koifman, a computer engineer from Boston, said meeting the young immigrants gave him a sense that the new Israelis are on the right track.
“I saw the future of the community and that future is the young people going through the school system and the army,” Koifman says.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.