The Australian Jewish community "missed the boat" in dealing with Russian Jewish immigrants, resulting in 77 percent of the newcomers not being affiliated with the mainstream Jewish community, Associate Professor Suzanne Rutland of the University of Sydney said on Wednesday.
"More outreach should have been done on an informal, personal level when the Russians were arriving," Rutland told The Jerusalem Post.
Rutland, whose book The Jews of Australia was published last month, presented the findings of a new study on the subject to the Jewish Agency at Kiryat Moriah in Jerusalem last week.
While they total about 27 percent of the local Jewish population, only 7,000 identified as Jewish, according to a recent Australian census.
Rutland, who chairs the Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies Department at the university and is here working on a research project, said that while the Jewish community provided financial support, her survey indicated social support was lacking.
Census figures used in the study found that of a total population of 110,000 Australian Jews, those from South Africa totaled about 11,000, with about 7,000 from the former Soviet Union and some 4,000 from Israel.
However, Rutland said the number of Russian Jews entering Australia sponsored by Jewish groups is far larger than the number indicated by the census data, putting the figure closer to 30,000.
She said Russian Jews generally come from secular backgrounds, with little or no experience of Jewish community structure, and usually identify as Jewish via ethnic identity rather than through religious practice, so the support failed to meet their needs.
Rutland's study, which took approximately 18 months to complete, focused on the issues like Jewish identity, reasons for migration, attitudes towards Israel, Jewish communal life and intermarriage. She also examined geographical distribution and socio-economic status among the immigrants.
There have been two main waves of Russian Jewish immigration, the first from around 1971 to 1980, while the second occurred between 1989-1997.
Reasons for immigrating to Australia included wanting a better life for their children and an opportunity to join family and friends, and a desire to escape the anti-Semitism which was prevalent in Russia, said Rutland.
Most of the Russian immigrants live in Melbourne and Sydney. Forty-five percent of the polled respondents from the former Soviet Union reported having sent their children to Jewish day school, as compared to 76% of former South Africans, said Rutland.
The survey's findings will be used to try to reduce the level of assimilation among Jewish immigrants to Australia, said Deborah Lipson, Director of Research at the Jewish Agency.
The agency has become "increasingly aware that different population groups need specific forms of programming and outreach to help meet their needs where the Jewish Agency mandate is concerned."
To that end, the survey's work was broadened to include groups of immigrants from South Africa and Israel as well, she said.
Jewish Agency spokesperson Michael Jankelowitz told the Post that the survey was commissioned to investigate reasons why South African Jews were choosing to live in Australia rather than Israel, a phenomenon which the Jewish Agency found "troubling."
"I think it is a great initiative of the Jewish Agency to support a survey of this nature," said Rutland, "because for good educational programming you need to have a knowledge and understanding of the clientele."