Soviet Jews to Israel

CBS News

Changing fortunes lead Soviet Jews from Israel to Russia

Last Updated Sun, 20 Jun 2004 20:14:25

MOSCOW – Thousands of the Soviet Jews who fled to Israel when the Soviet Union collapsed are beginning to return to Russia.

Slowly but surely, the synagogues of Moscow are filling up again. In the late 1980s and early 1990s close to one million Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel. The Soviet Union was collapsing, Russia was in economic and social chaos and anti-Semitism was rampant.

“When they left they were cursing this country saying, ‘My feet will never set foot on this soil again,’ such hatred and unhappiness. But we must admit things have changed,” said Berl Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi.

The Russian economy that was on the verge of collapse is now booming, while the Israeli economy is sinking under the weight of the intefadeh.

Israelis live in a state of siege. And in spite of bloody exceptions, such as the recent Moscow subway bombing, Russians feel their security problems are confined to faraway Chechnya. Moreover, says Rabbi Lazar, anti-Semitism in Russia is declining.

“We know anti-Semitic attacks are less than in the past. People can get a job in the government, people can feel secure within government, they won’t hear anti-Semitic insults. This is a big change.”

Dr. Igor Dvrdon is one of the Russian Jews who returned. He’s been back in Moscow for two years. Because doctors in Russia earn just $300 per month Dvrdon is working at his second profession, journalism, writing for a Jewish internet news service.

Dvrdon fled Russia in 1989 right after graduating from medical school. He was full of hope at the time. For years he dreamed of moving to Israel and living in a democracy, free of the humiliating anti-Semitism that was so much a part of Russia. As a committed Jew, he wanted to help secure the Jewish homeland. But Dvrdon says soon after arriving in Israel, he woke up.

“For a new immigrant it is especially hard to advance in this system (Israel), this system is built on connections.”

Dvrdon says he quickly discovered that Israeli-born Jews had all the good jobs and all that all the promotions went other Israeli Jews and their relatives. He says Israeli-born doctors at his hospital used their connections to evade compulsory military service. He on the other hand ended up serving four-month stints on the army front lines every year. “I was in Lebanon, I was two times in the occupied territory in Hebron, Bethlehem, I said ‘Enough!'”

No matter how hard he tried to learn Hebrew and fit in Dvrdon says Israeli Jews always considered him a Russian rather than a Jew. And he says, he missed Russia terribly.

Rabbi Lazar estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 of the one million that left have returned in the past three years, creating what he calls, a renaissance in the Russian Jewish community. They are coming back with a lot of knowledge of what a Jewish community should be like, so where they go they do help the locals learn more about their Jewishness.”

But Rabbi Lazar many of the returnees are also conflicted; torn between going home to Russia and feeling guilty for abandoning Israel.

Israel still encourages Russian Jews to emigrate. The Jewish state needs immigration. The birthrate amongst Arabs living in Israel is much higher than the Jewish birthrate. Without immigration Arabs could outnumber Jews in Israel in a few decades.

But given Russia’s new stability and prosperity Russian Jews are now staying home and increasingly, a growing number of those who left, are returning.

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