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Tales from the Pale in Former Soviet Union, Jews Ask: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

August 26, 2004
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Reuven Margulis is not only head of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Pyatigorsk, he’s the only Jewish Agency official in town. Just 320 Jews made aliyah last year from the entire North Caucasus region, including Dagestan. And despite growing terrorist threats, increased crime and a miserable economy, he expects this year’s numbers to be the same. How many immigrated to Israel last year from the rest of southern Russia, an area with 66,000 Jews?

“I prefer not to know,” Margulis admits. “But each year it falls by 40 percent.”

The reasons are simple, he explains. First, there are fewer Jews in the region today; about half the Jewish population has already emigrated. Second, those left behind have heard stories of financial hardship and fruitless job searches from earlier immigrants. Finally, life in the larger cities in Russia is steadily improving.

“There’s almost no aliyah at all from Pyatigorsk,” he remarks.

In! deed, Jewish Agency figures show that just 2,703 Jews made aliyah from the entire former Soviet Union in the first four months of 2004.

Head east 45 minutes from Pyatigorsk, and you’ll hit Kislovodsk, another 19th-century spa town that has fallen on hard times since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Viktoria Lanovaya, president of the Kislovodsk Jewish community and Jewish Agency coordinator for the town, says there are just 200 Jews in her town.

Those few local Jews who are considering moving to Israel can be found every Wednesday afternoon studying Hebrew in Kislovodsk’s Jewish Agency-sponsored ulpan. One recent Wednesday, 15 students are in class, ranging in age from their early 20s to retirees. All say they “might” make aliyah, and are eager to glean useful information from a visitor who knows both Israel and the United States.

“What do you advise?” asks one woman, with a worried expression on her face. Another woman says her 33-year-old son lives in Tib! erias. “He says it’s terribly hot. Do you think I’ll be able to stand it?”

“Which is better, Israel or America?” wonders an older man.

A 40-year-old woman who says she’s a journalist follows the visitor out of the room and confronts her privately in the hallway. She wants to know which Israeli city she should go to: Will she be able to find work, will she be lonely, is she too old?

“I love Russia, but I have personal reasons for leaving,” she confides darkly. She asks whether the U.S. government gives financial help to new immigrants, and is disappointed, but not surprised, to find out it doesn’t. “So, Israel is the place I should go,” she decides.

Reuven Margulis doesn’t think Israel is the place for every Russian Jew.

“It depends,” he muses. “As a Zionist, who believes Israel needs more Jews, I look at it through Israeli eyes. But the age that can help Israel is not old people who can only take from the system. There are those who send grandma off to Israel for a better pension, and they stay behind. This is what we are tr! ying to avoid.”

He feels strongly, however, that there is no Jewish future in Russia for young Jews.

“I say, go now, don’t wait until you’re 50. Don’t think it will ‘get better some day.’ “

As the communication and transportation channels between Israel and the former Soviet Union have become more fluid, attitudes toward the Jewish homeland have become more casual, more familiar.

Jews of the former Soviet Union now feel comfortable joking about aliyah, without worrying, as many did 10 years ago, that they might come across as not sufficiently pro-Zionist.

One restaurant owner in Cherkassy, a gray Ukrainian industrial city two hours outside Kiev with about 300,000 residents and 4,000-5,000 Jews, says his parents live in Beersheba.

He visits them twice a year, but laughs at the suggestion that he might consider moving to Israel himself.

“I was just there for a month, and it was more than enough,” he chuckles, waving his hand at the absurdity of the id! ea. “We have a saying: If you’re a bricklayer, you’ll do better in Isr ael. But if you want to build a business, you’d better stay here.”

This article is part of a series of pieces on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. This series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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