My Meeting with the Israeli Immigrant, Part XII: The Russian Immigrant

In the past dozen years, over a million Russians have immigrated to Israel, and changed the face of Israel significantly in the process. Natalia is one of the more recent immigrants, and she agrees to meet me in Tel Aviv and share her story.

Natalia’s Story

Natalia, a 23-year-old psychology student at Tel Aviv University, arrived in Israel with several family members three years ago. She was raised in Moscow in a comfortable home with parents who were both professionals. Natalia made the decision to immigrate after visiting Israel for a Taglit Birthright trip. Her trip countered some of the negative comments she had heard about Israel; e.g., “I heard that it was nothing but a war zone, with people being killed in the streets every day.” She was pleasantly surprised at what she found during her visit and looked forward to making a permanent move here.

As her mother was Russian and her father Jewish, Natalia underwent conversion at the Joint Conversion Institute, according to Orthodox standards. “I always knew that I was Jewish, but I didn’t know much about what that could mean,” she explains. “Part of being Israeli means that I am Jewish in every way.” Natalia plans to become a clinical psychologist and focus much of her work on immigrant children.

The Jews in Russia

Russian Jews have had an eventful past in their native country. Centuries of persecution followed by decades of Community rule led to significant decreases in Jewish religious practice in the former Soviet Union.

Because of the secularizing influence of the former Soviet Union, many Jews in Russia were raised to think of their Jewish identity more in ethnic than religious terms. They are proud today of their rich cultural and historical heritage. A premium is placed upon higher education, as evidenced by the fact that 60% of Russian immigrants to Israel have post-secondary educational backgrounds.

Declining economic conditions in recent years served as a significant impetus for Russians of Jewish ancestry choosing to leave the country.

Russian Jews in Israel

After two decades of accelerated immigration, one in six individuals in Israel now speaks Russian. The disproportionate influx on individuals from the former Soviet Union has changed the immigrant profile of contemporary Israel, and even impacted its politics. Last year, for example, former U.S. president Bill Clinton generated controversy when he noted that the large number of Russians in Israel today has slowed down the peace process, because their historical context of the FSU makes it difficult for them to imagine any historical claims that would justify dividing the country.

Both Russian immigrants and Israeli citizens have faced significant adjustments pains, a fact that is understandable for all parties, given the enormity of the immigration numbers. For example, Russian immigrants tend to be better educated and professionally trained than the average Israeli. When they seek comparable jobs in Israel, they find themselves often having to settle for lower-paying, lower-status jobs, with only around 20% being integrated into comparable employment initially. Other immigrants and native Israelis, on the other hand, feel in competition for better jobs with this imposing immigrant group with advanced skills and education.

Concerns about immigrants’ Jewish status have also made the transition difficult at times. As many ethnic but non-practicing Jews entered Israel, they were required to undergo formal conversion to Judaism, and over a thousand recent immigrants still wait to be converted today. Changes in immigration laws have even been contemplated due to concerns that practicing Christians were entering the country under guise of making aliyah.

Because for modern Russian immigrants the sense of Russian identity often remains as strong as the sense of a Jewish one, assimilation is not occurring at typical levels. Russian immigrants tend to associate mainly with the Russian community and teach their children Russian language and culture. As with many immigrant populations, the tension between maintaining one’s geographic cultural roots and one’s religious heritage makes assimilation a slow process.

Natalia, for one, is confident that suspicions will lessen over time, as greater assimilation occurs. The wave of Russian immigration has provided a great variety of engineers, physicians, and other professionals to Israeli society, as well as infusions of its arts and culture. “I don’t think about the negatives so much,” Natalia says. “We have so much to offer Israel, and Israel has so much to offer us. It’s is our true home land now.”

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