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Russian American Jews Show Strong Ties and Support for Israel

April 1, 2004
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When North American Jews marched through the streets of Jerusalem in an act of solidarity last fall, one man stood out.

A little more strident than the others, David Vinokur, an elderly Russian American Jew, shouted: “God bless Israel! Best country in the world!”

His deep voice like a drumbeat, his legs moving almost like he was dancing, Vinokur yelled, “Yisrael, we support you. Don’t worry. Be with us. Everything will be OK!”

The moment marked the first time a delegation of Russian-speaking American Jews had joined the annual conference, or General Assembly, of the North American federation system.

The 292-strong group represented the first nonsubsidized national mission to Israel of U.S. Jews from the former Soviet Union.

The mission marked a two-way milestone — signaling both the community’s growing commitment to Israel and American Jewry, and the seriousness with which Israel and American Jews view the community.

Indeed, the Russian Jewish community in America — estimated at between 600,000 and 800,000 souls — boasts a glue-like attachment to Israel.

In large part, the close ties are genetic. Roughly 90 percent of Russian- speaking Jews in America have close relatives or close friends in Israel, says Dr. Igor Branovan, 36, president of the year-and-a-half-old group Russian American Jews for Israel and the director of residency training at the Manhattan-based New York Eye and Ear Infirmary.

But Israel represents more than a familial connection for Russian American Jews. For many, it was all they knew of Judaism before they arrived here.

Israel’s illegitimacy under Soviet rule only strengthened its appeal for Russian Jews, who fantasized about the promised Jewish homeland, says Yuliya Mazur, 38, of Brooklyn. Maybe, she says, that’s why her father, Simon Zbarsky, 75 — who, like so many Russian American Jews, says he is not religious — says his soul will return to Israel when he dies.

Or why her husband, Julian Abrams, 44, appreciates Israel as a refuge from Soviet persecution. Israel is “the only place where I cannot be kicked for being a Jew,” he says.

Recognition of such ties, in addition to the growing establishment of the Russian Jewish community in America, has fueled Israel initiatives within the community and outreach by American Jews and Israelis.

Russian American Jews for Israel, for example, has made a splash on the organizational scene.

The Russian Jewish community is less ambivalent than American-born Jewry in its support of Israel, Branovan says.

Sponsoring educational events, missions and rallies, Russian American Jews for Israel has coordinated meetings with New York senators and tours for Israelis to Russian Jewish summer camps. It drew more than 100 people to an October rally outside the Malaysian Embassy in New York to protest anti-Semitic remarks by the then-prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohammed.

Russian American Jews for Israel, which has opened an office in Boston and plans to do the same in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, plans to limit itself to a few dozen members. It hopes to exert its influence by encouraging members to join the boards of existing Jewish organizations, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, with which it has worked closely, Branovan says.

But despite his group’s success, Branovan says it is a tenuous time for the Russian Jewish community. With its most vocal advocates among the elderly and lacking strong Jewish roots, the community has about a decade to root itself to Jewish groups and causes, he says.

Still, several Russian Jewish groups are raising the community’s pro-Israel profile — and convincing established Jewish groups to invest seriously in the community.

Russian American Jews for Israel, along with the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations, known as COJECO, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, organized the November mission to Israel.

The groups brought a second group of 270 Russian Jews, primarily from New York, to Israel this month. And the missions are fast becoming regular features of the community.

Take, for example, the last two years of springtime pro-Israel rallies at Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

The events, organized by the Russian Daily News, Russian American Jews for Israel and COJECO, an umbrella of 34 Russian Jewish groups in New York, drew thousands — along with a letter of praise from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and appearances by top New York officials and Jewish communal leaders.

And the momentum spills beyond New York.

In the name of helping Israel’s terror victims, Milwaukee’s Russian Jewish community held its first fund-raiser in January, reaping more than $30,000. Russian Jews in Los Angeles raised more than $250,000 for Israeli terror victims last year. It marked the first time Russian Jews outside of New York raised that much money, according to Alec Brook-Krasny, executive director of COJECO.

Nationwide, he estimates that Russian American Jews have raised more than $2 million for Israel over the course of the intifada through a variety of groups like the federation system’s Israel Emergency Campaign and the Israel Defense Forces.

Such activity has raised eyebrows in Israel’s tourism industry, which views Russian American Jews as a target population.

It is a “new niche that has a big potential,” says Haim Gutin-Golan, Israel’s consul for tourism in the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast.

“We know that they are integrated into the American society,” Gutin-Golan says, making mention of Russian entrepreneurs, doctors and lawyers. “It’s a new generation” with the resources to travel, he says. Why not remind them of their “obligation as a Jew to visit their homeland?”

One of Israel’s major tour providers, birthright israel, has sponsored several tours geared for Russian American Jews.

“It is part of our commitment to the Jewish community, as well as our moral obligation, to help connect these Jews who have emigrated from the former Soviet Union to North America and other parts of the world with Israel,” says Marlene Post, chairwoman of birthright israel North America. “Providing the first-hand experience of a trip to Israel is the best way we know for these young Jews to make connections to their history, explore their roots and strengthen their Jewish identity.”

The Jewish Agency, which runs aliyah and Israel education, also is reaching out to Russian-speaking Jews in America. Over the last two years, the group appointed two Russian Israeli emissaries to New York’s Russian Jewish community.

One of them, Ronnie Vinnikov, says his goal in promoting Israel is to add “spiritual ties” to the community’s “family ties.”

In a program called Windows to Israel, the Jewish Agency brings Russian Israeli speakers, like IDF officers, journalists and politicians, to meet with young Russian American Jews. The Jewish Agency also offers Hebrew lessons for members of the community.

And, along with the Hillel, it has drawn hundreds of New York-based Russian American Jewish students to weekend retreats that focus on Israel.

The efforts aim to strike a popular, if still inchoate, nerve in the community, reflected by an elderly woman resting in a cabana one summer weekday in Brighton Beach.

Asked to explain her feelings for Israel, Maria Finn touched her heart.

“I not have words to say why,” she said. But when there, she said, “I feel I am at home.”

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