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Tales from the Pale Russian Jews Returned from Israel Help Galvanize Jewish Community Life

August 26, 2004
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Dasha Milevsky was 14 in 1998 when she left Kiev for Israel. Although her mother is not Jewish, she enrolled in a religious high school in the city of Tiberias, where she converted to Judaism.

Milevsky finished high school, did her national service and planned to go on to medical school in Israel, but didn’t have the money.

So early this year she returned to Kiev.

“When I came back, I was sure I’d return to Israel,” says Milevsky, now 20 and a regular at Kiev’s thriving Hillel, where she runs a program to teach Jewish identity through Hebrew song. “Now I’m not so sure. There’s a lot of work I can do here. People need a Jewish education here more than in Israel.”

More than a million Jews have left the former Soviet Union since 1989, most of them for Israel.

By the early 1990s, some of them began to trickle back home, mainly elderly people who couldn’t fit into a new society, and young go-getters eager to make it! in the newly booming business environments of Moscow and Kiev.

In 1998 the ruble crashed. Political unrest grew, crime increased and the economy grew worse.

None of that seemed to decrease the tide of returnees — it remained a quiet, steady flow.

Last year, Baruch Gur, of the Prime Minister’s Department of Connection with the Jews of the Former USSR, told Ha’aretz that more than 120,000 repatriates had returned from Israel to the former Soviet Union.

What Jewish leaders in the former Soviet Union are beginning to notice, however, is that increasing numbers of those who are returning from Israel bring with them a heightened sense of Jewish and Zionist identity that they want to preserve. They’re putting their children in Jewish schools so they won’t lose their knowledge of Hebrew.

They’re affiliating with their local Jewish communities, showing up for holiday celebrations, joining Hillel, or even taking jobs with Jewish organizations where they are able t! o put their first-hand knowledge of Israel and Hebrew to good use.

In fact, they’re acting a lot like American Jews who make aliyah and decide to return to the United States. They keep ties to Israel, they travel back and forth a lot, and they keep Israel consciousness high in their homes and their communities, local Jewish leaders say.

Dani Gechtman, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s director in Kiev, estimates that about 9,000 Jews have returned from Israel to Ukraine, most of them to Kiev.

While he believes most have come back for economic reasons, they are nevertheless infusing local Jewish life with a strong dose of Zionist energy.

“Many of those returnees bring a renewed sense of Judaism and Jewish identity back with them from Israel that works to strengthen the local Jewish community,” he says. “They come back more Zionistic than when they left. They put their kids in Jewish schools, they want them to learn Hebrew. It enriches the entire community.”

Dasha Milevsky isn’t making excuses when she says ! she feels more useful to the Jewish community in Kiev than she would in Jerusalem. She, and other Ukrainian and Russian Jews who have spent serious time in Israel, say that although they love Israel, they were often made to feel like second-class citizens there.

One young repatriate returned recently to a major city in the former Soviet Union after seven years in Israel. He declined to give his name because he works for a Jewish organization and fears jeopardizing his job.

He says he feels more at home in Ukraine as an ex-Israeli, than he did in Israel as an ex-Ukrainian.

But the years he spent in Israel, plus the fact that his parents still live there, has given him a strong Jewish and Israeli identity.

“I’m an Israeli and I feel very Israeli,” he says. “I listen to Israel Radio every day, I enjoy Israeli music and film, I talk to people here about what’s going on in Israel. But I also know all the new Russian music. I don’t feel like a foreigner here.”

! He says he did not choose his profession by accident. “All the work I do is connected to my knowledge of Hebrew and Israel. I feel like a bridge between the two countries, and I enjoy being useful in this way. I feel I’ve found my place.”

Alex Rosen, the JDC’s director in Odessa, Ukraine, a city with a strong Jewish history and a current Jewish population of about 35,000, notes that emigration from his city has slowed down.

Jews are returning from Israel, he acknowledges, but he insists that most of them maintain their dual citizenship so they can open businesses in Odessa and go back and forth to Israel.

“The more that Ukraine gains economic independence, the more this will increase,” he predicts. “It’s very easy to do business here when you have Israeli citizenship. Israel is close, it only takes two days to bring a container to Odessa port.”

David Friedman, 31, left Odessa in 1996 and spent five years in an Israeli yeshiva. He’s back in Odessa now, heading the local Chabad yeshiva.

Friedman says that in the mid-1990s, when! he first started attending synagogue in Odessa, he’d take off his yarmulke as soon as he exited the shul. Today’s Odessan Jews exhibit their Jewishness in public, he says, particularly those who have come back from Israel.

“In Israel they learned not to be afraid,” he says. “They want Jewish schools, they want synagogues, even if for ten years in Israel they didn’t do anything” Jewish.

“Once they leave Israel, they want it.”

It’s not too difficult to understand why someone might return from Israel to Moscow, Kiev or even Odessa. But former olim are also returning to smaller towns in Russia and Ukraine, albeit in fewer numbers.

Pyatigorsk is a former spa town southern Russia. An hour’s drive from both Chechnya and Dagestan, it is plagued by spillover ethnic violence from across the border. Chechen suicide bombers blew up commuter trains just outside Pyatigorsk twice last winter, killing more than 100 college students on their way to classes.

More than a mi! llion Chechen and Dagestani refugees have poured into the North Caucas us region since 1992. Thousands of them were Jews. Many headed for the central town of Pyatigorsk, which became a way station for Jewish refugees on their way out of the country.

But some of them have come back. Pyatigorsk’s Geula Jewish day school, with 232 students, is filled with children who speak fluent Hebrew, the result of years spent in Israel.

In one class of 15 students, five are returnees from Israel. Oleg Israilo, 15, was born in Dagestan, made aliyah with his family, and is now back in Pyatigorsk. Sixteen-year-old Anna Pesachava was born in Pyatigorsk to Chechen refugee parents who returned from Israel after seven years in Holon. She thinks she’ll remain in Russia, although her friend Sofia Cohen, 16, who lived in Holon for eight years, insists she’ll go back to Israel after high school.

The pattern repeats in every classroom. Asked to stand up in front of their classmates, the children who have returned from Israel are neither reluctant nor proud to! be so identified. It’s simply one more piece of their very complicated biographies. Some of them say their parents “were tired of the violence in Israel,” according to one child — an ironic explanation, given the constant terrorist threat in Pyatigorsk.

All these children are equally at home in Hebrew and Russian. Principal Ruth Shalumova says they inspire the others to learn Hebrew, too.

A far cry from these former refugees is Vyacheslav Dadashev, 47, one of the wealthiest men in Pyatigorsk. A major partner with his brother Oleg, 43, in the Slavyanovskaya Mineral Waters bottling company, he also owns a nearby spa resort and the Dadashev art gallery, which is named in all the guidebooks.

Vyacheslav spent three years in Israel, and holds dual citizenship. His former wife and son live in Haifa, in a house he bought for them. But his other children live in Russia, and Oleg’s son is in university in Germany. It’s the new Russian Jewish reality, says the elder Dada! shev.

“We Russian Jews look at Israel the same way as American Jew s,” he says. “It’s where our heart is, and we will always support her, but we don’t feel we have to live there.”

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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