After Russian exodus, Jews rebuild communities

While Saddam Hussein’s forces shelled Israel during the Gulf War, 12-year-old Alex Kalmikov arrived at Ben Gurion Airport from Soviet Georgia. “Three days later we had our first gas mask alarm,” he recalled.

In what is considered by many to be the second major Jewish exodus (following the story of Passover), about 2 million Jews left the Soviet Union just before and after its collapse, settling primarily in the United States, Germany and Israel.

Moving earlier was Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet prisoner and refusenik who made aliyah in 1986 and is now chairman of the executive at the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Sharansky said in an interview with JointMedia News Service that for emigrants, leaving the Soviet Union was about the survival of “our Jewishness.” Specifically, the Russian aliyah to Israel brought “additional energy” to the country, he said.

Of course, there were also those who chose to stay in what is now the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Today about 1 million Jews live there, according to Asher Ostrin, director of the FSU department of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

In the days leading up to the March 4, 2012 presidential re-election of Vladimir Putin, some young Russian Jews joined fellow activists of varied social groups and ethnicities in protesting what many deem to be a corrupt election system. Unlike their older predecessors, young Russian Jews have begun to display not only a religious revival, but also unprecedented political engagement.

Twenty years after their Russian exodus, the lives of Jews who live in the U.S., Israel, and Germany—and those who stayed in the FSU—differ markedly. Here are the stories of those who left and those who remain.

United States

The Lautenberg Amendment first invited Soviet Jews to America as refugees. Nearly 750,000 Russian Jews currently live in the U.S, according to research by Sam Kliger, the director of Russian Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Typically, Russian Jews living in the States and other countries emigrated to escape political oppression or anti-Semitism.

Inna Yalovetskaya, 25, from Glendale, Ariz., came to the U.S. in 1992. Even in America, Yalovetskaya was often told by her parents “you do not say who you are no matter who is talking to you.”

For many, economic reasons also factored in. “I didn’t feel that I was needed professionally,” said Galina Goncharov, a computer programmer who came to Chicago, Ill., with her husband and teenage son in 1995 from Chelyabinsk, Russia. Due to their high level of education, by 2004 about 23 percent of immigrants were already earning more than $60,000. “I did have some language problems,” Goncharov said, and she lacked American work experience, but these were challenges she overcame.

While overall Russian Jews integrated smoothly into American society, one source of tension did remain. American Jews expected Russian Jews to become religiously active once they were free. But as Russian Jews tend to define themselves more as an ethnic group, many found it hard to relate to the religiously organized nature of America’s Jewish community. Kliger’s research shows that the majority of Russian Jewish Americans feel that religion is either “not important” or has “no meaning at all.” That, however, is beginning to change.

“Today I see myself more as a Jew than I did when I lived in Russia. In Russia I never knew anything about the Jewish holidays except Passover because Matzo always appeared in our home from some unknown location… Here I know everything,” Goncharov said.

Unlike adults, children of immigrants were often attracted to America’s structured Jewish community. Jewish Sunday schools and community centers made Yalovetskaya’s husband, Alexander Polatsky, 27, become part of Jewish-American culture. Today, “I don’t identify as a Russian in any way other than the fact that I was born in Russia,” he said.


According to Lily Galili, an Israeli journalist who completed a book on the subject, more than one million Russian Jews came to Israel between 1990 and 1996. A 2011 report in the Guardian stated that more than 15 percent of Israel’s total population today is immigrants from the former USSR.

Yosef Yoshpa from Ashdod moved to Israel in 1990 with his wife and two children. It was not “like moving from England to France,” he said. From an economic standpoint, in such a small country the new immigrants had to compete with Arabs and lower-class Sephardic Jews over menial jobs. Soon an image of Russian professors sweeping the streets of Tel Aviv evolved. Thousands of Russian engineers came, but “what can Israel do with an expert on Siberian trains? We hardly have trains,” Galili said.

Russian Jews have always tended to keep to themselves. Today they work in Israeli society, serve in the army, speak Hebrew, but after hours they prefer to stick together within their own unique culture. “I feel Israeli, but Russian-Israeli. It is a somewhat different animal,” said Yoshpa’s son, Benny, 32.

Members of the Russian community in Israel are predominantly secular and not always considered halakhically Jewish by the government. Israel’s Law of Return allowed the immigration of non-Jewish spouses, and those with only one Jewish parent or grandparent. “They’re Jews in Russia but they’re Russians in Israel,” Galili said. There were efforts by the army to convert them but most already see themselves as Jewish, she added.

Yosef Yoshpa’s second son, Michael, 26, felt completely Israeli in the army, where “everyone came together from a different background for the purpose of defending our country,” he said. Alex Kalmikov’s family, which lives in Holon, came to Israel out of Zionist beliefs. Even so, as a Russian, he “was beaten and spit on” in school. For Michael Yoshpa, that’s not unique. “Kids always pick on each other,” he said. But even by the time Kalmikov entered service in an elite army program, one woman still called him a “stinky Russian.” 

The June 1, 2001 Palestinian terrorist attack on the Dolphinarium night club in Tel Aviv was a turning point. Twenty mostly Russian teenagers were killed, and Russian immigrants joined Israeli society by sharing in the loss caused by Palestinian terrorism. Since then Russian immigrants have become staunch supporters of the Jewish state. The Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party, founded by current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, generally represents Soviet immigrants in Israel.

By now more than 20 percent of Israel’s high-tech employees come from the USSR, Director-General of Association of Entrepreneurs in Israel Irena Valdberg told Yedioth Ahronot in 2010. Israeli television offers a Russian channel and Russian subtitles often appear even in the Hebrew programming. “They never gave up. These are not people who give up,” Galili said.

JAFI’s Sharansky told JointMedia News Service that Russian aliyah “brought a lot of knowledge and a lot of ambition to Israeli society, opened it to new competition, made it much more dynamic, removed many barriers which existed inside Israeli society, and made Israel much stronger.”


Germany’s Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust, but as of 1991 the country has offered Russian Jews massive social benefits. More than 220,000 Soviet Jews immigrated to Germany in the past two decades, resulting in a major Jewish revival in the country. Around ninety percent of today’s German Jewish population comes from the former USSR.

According to Paul Harris, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama who co-authored a book about Soviet immigrants in the past 20 years, many chose Germany because they felt that Israel was an unstable place. Many couldn’t get into the U.S., and some were elderly people who struggled economically and needed German welfare.

Among Russian-Jewish immigrants in Germany, “the older generations had huge problems…They were just too old to learn the language, to find jobs,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a Berlin-based attorney and a Jewish immigrant from Russia.

Igor Mitchnik, 21, was five months old when his parents moved to Germany from St. Petersburg. Back then his mother’s Russian degree was not accepted and she had to return to school. Mitchnik’s grandfather still works as a taxi driver. “If you talk to taxi drivers in Berlin, you see really intelligent people who had the same fate like my grandfather.”

The children of Russian-Jewish immigrants are now becoming more visible in German society by opening Jewish restaurants, schools and synagogues in cities such as Berlin and Munich, Reuters recently reported. About 20,000 Israelis who live in Berlin also spur this German Jewish revival. An Orthodox Jewish community is also steadily growing.

But a recent parliament-appointed commission study showed that 20 percent of Germans are still anti-Semitic. Mitchnik feels great in Berlin, but in some regions even some ordinary people “don’t really know how to deal with Jews because they are not taught to realize that there are still Jews left in Germany.”

Former Soviet Union (FSU)

The JDC’s Ostrin said many Jews stayed in Russia for economic reasons.

“There is no middle class…If you’re poor you immigrate, and if you’re rich you stay,” Kliger added.

Sergey Stern, 38, from Moscow, said back then his father had a high position that gave access to special supplies. As scientists, his grandparents also had decent pensions. In addition, it was simply too frightening “to drop everything and begin anew,” added his father Vladimir Stern.

Stern and his family recently joined an enormous crowd on the streets of Moscow to protest against the Russian government, which is “full of people who are used to getting what they have only by bribes, stealing or kickbacks. These guys can’t do anything else—they simply don’t know how,” he said. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently regained the presidency in the March 4 election, and there were allegations of vote rigging at a recent parliamentary poll. The protest crowd included everyone from “liberals, nationalists, and communists to girls from glamour magazines, all in one place shouting “Russia without Putin.” The protest also included many Jews.

Sharansky said that Putin’s attitude for Russian Jews has been “very consistent” in making sure that there is no official policy of government anti-Semitism, and that those Jews who want to both develop their own communities and connect with Jews in Israel and elsewhere abroad can “freely do it.” However, that doesn’t mean the state of Israel—with a citizenship that values freedom and democracy—doesn’t have other points of “deep disappointments or disagreements with the policy of Putin” in general, he said.

Interestingly, many children of those who stayed “aren’t ashamed to be Jewish. They want to be identified as a Jew, and wear a Magen David,” Ostrin said, especially in the big cities. Initiatives sponsored by the JDC, Chabad, the Jewish Agency and others are bringing Jews back into the community fold. “I am definitely first Jewish then Russian,” said Anna Kaller, 25, missions and project coordinator for JDC in Moscow.

The Jewish community in Russia today still needs to develop organized leadership, Ostrin said, but it’s evolving. Twenty years ago people were used to getting everything for free, but now people want to get involved in the Jewish community, “not only to get but also to give,” Kaller added.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to the country, and we don’t know what’s going to happen to local Jews,” said Katya Potapova, 26, deputy head for community development for JDC-St. Petersburg, “but it’s interesting that people chose to stay and still be Jewish.”

With reporting by Jacob Kamaras and Masha Rifkin

A Growing Presence

It has taken roughly three decades for L.A.’s community of Russian-speaking Jews to steadily, if incrementally, gain a foothold in Jewish American and mainstream American life.

"In the Russian Jewish community, you didn’t have, until the early ’90s, any organization," said Miriam Prum Hess, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ vice president for Planning and Allocations. "Now that this community has made it as one of our wonderful success stories."

One sign that Los Angeles’ immigrant-heavy Russian Jewish community has "made it" as a rising philanthropic force in the larger Jewish community is this month’s Russian Dinner Gala, co-sponsored by The Federation and the American Russian Medical and Dental Association — headed by Dr. Ludmila Bess and Alex Gershman. The Jewish entities will join forces to host the first large-scale community-wide effort ever staged by this city’s Russian-speaking Jewish community.

Also crucial in the staging of this milestone fundraiser is the Association of Soviet Jewish Emigres (ASJE), a Federation affiliate that gets ample support from West Hollywood. Smack in the middle of the "Little Moscow" section of West Hollywood, the ASJE is housed within a nondescript office building along a busy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard — conveniently located across the street from Plummer Park, long a social and recreational hub for local Russian Jewry.

Every day, from the ASJE’s humble, two-desk office, the mostly underclass Russian Jewish immigrant population in the area seek help in navigating through the bureaucracy to obtain SSI checks, get welfare assistance, install utilities, pay parking tickets and face other diurnal affairs that can be challenging for anyone with a poor command of the English language.

The ASJE, which also helps immigrants acquire donated furniture through its Furniture Division, will play an instrumental role in putting together the event, in particular via the participation of Helen Levin, executive director of ASJE, and her husband, Eugene Levin, publisher of the venerable local Russian-language newspapers Panorama and Friday Express.

From the early 1970s to mid-1990s, Los Angeles — like other major cities in the United States and Israel — became the constant recipient of Jewish refugees fleeing Communist Russia. Coinciding with the fall of communism, Russian Jewish immigration reached its peak in 1992, when the largest wave of immigration of about 2,800 settled in Los Angeles, according to the Hebrew immigrant Aid Society. There are now about 402,000 Americans of Russian ancestry; 72,000 Russian-born persons reside in California, 70-80 percent of whom are Jewish, according to Pini Herman, of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, who compiled numbers from the 2000 Census and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

By the mid-1990s, L.A.’s Russian-speaking Jewish community fanned out from its West Hollywood/Fairfax District epicenter. They now constitute pockets of the San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Bel Air, and with their population growth over the past decade has come an increase in upward mobility, assimilation and involvement in Jewish affairs and the political process.

The history of Los Angeles’ Russian Jewish philanthropy is much shorter. Observers say it does not in truth extend much before early 2002, when a pair of parlor meetings — held by Michael and Vera Landver, and by Dr. Leonid and Natalia Glozman — raised $70,000 for Friends of Israeli Defense Force, and $20,000 for The Federation’s Jews in Crisis campaign, respectively. In May, a Russian Jewish demonstration of solidarity for Israel was organized by Eugene Levin.

The Jan. 16 Sheraton Universal Hotel gala will honor nine prominent L.A. individuals and entities crucial in supporting L.A.’s Jews from the former Soviet Union will be honored: Philip Blazer, president of Blazer Communications; Vladimir Davidovich; Dr. Samuel Fain; Si Frumkin, chairman of Southern California Council for Soviet Jews; Michael Landver; Kira Macagon; the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles; Sid Sheinberg; and County of Los Angeles Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

The evening’s goal will be to raise money for the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, (formerly Ichilov Hospital), a Federation Jews in Crisis Fund charity which aids victims of terror from the ongoing Intifada in Israel.

"In Russia," Hess said, "the only concept of volunteerism is the Communist Party, which Jews tended to run away from."

"It’s very hard to think about community as a whole if you can not help your own family," said Maya Segal, director of The Federation’s Refugee Resettlement and Acculturation Program. Segal added that it will take several generations to see a shift of mentality from a land where no freedoms prevailed to one of total abandon; from an atheistic society to a country that embraces religious freedom.

The Levins and Segal know firsthand the plight of the Russian Jewish immigrant. Helen and Eugene Levin came to Los Angeles 15 years ago with their 7-year-old daughter. Segal came to America from Russia 13 years ago and has seen the steady, if sluggish, evolution and assimilation of Los Angeles’ Russian-speaking Jews — both within the Jewish community and mainstream American society.

Eugene Levin believes that in the coming decade, Russian Jewish involvement and clout will continue to grow.

"Before it was more a relationship like big brother and small brother," he said. "Russians were mostly takers but now they’re givers. Things are changing. This event is an example of that."

For information on the gala, call (323) 761-8226. To contact the ASJE, call (323) 969-0919.