After Exodus, making their own way in America

Organized US Jewry embarked on an extraordinary effort 25 years ago to welcome their Soviet brethren. How is the next generation adapting to American life?

Russian speaking Jews take part in a havdala event at Princeton University. (photo credit: ROSS DEN)
Russian speaking Jews take part in a havdala event at Princeton University.
(photo credit: ROSS DEN)
JUST BEFORE dawn on a clear morning in 1992, Peter May remembers watching a plane land at Ben-Gurion Airport carrying special cargo from the Russian capital.
Having spent most of his life removed from Israel and its politics, Peter was becoming a part of its history.
Since the late 1980s, he had been running a campaign to rescue Soviet Jews from their pasts, and to provide their children with more promising futures.
On that plane sat dozens of them – highly trained, ambitious and brave, yearning for a world in which their skills could be put to use.
“A lot of them would kiss the ground” once they disembarked, May said in a phone interview. “The joke was, if they didn’t embark the plane carrying a violin, they were piano players.”
Twenty-five years ago, the gates holding back the talents and creativity of the Jewish community in Russia were opened, leading to a flood of immigrants to Israel and the United States. The flood rushed in quickly, but the effects it has had on the Jewish community here in America are still being understood.
The exodus occurred shortly after an historic visit by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to Washington in 1987, when he was greeted by the largest gathering of American Jews in US history: 250,000 marching on the National Mall, calling on the Soviet leader to “Let my people go.”
“Openness” became the new Russian policy, after president Ronald Reagan, having seen the protests, personally relayed the protesters’ request at the White House. But the result was a surge of immigrants that caught the US, and its Jewish community, largely off guard.
Upon the arrival of over 130,000 Russian Jews to New York, one organization, the Jewish Federations of North America, raised and spent tens of millions to settle them. The effort was dubbed Operation Exodus, and the mission was simple: To welcome their Soviet brethren into the Jewish American fold, and to incorporate them into a community that had already existed, with vibrance, across New York society for decades.
To their first goal, the mission was an historic success. The city’s Russian- Jewish population has reached parity across New York civil society; several Russians who personally emigrated all those years ago are now pioneers of business, the arts and nonprofits similar to UJA itself.
May was chair of the New York campaign at the very beginning of Operation Exodus, and recalls raising $31 million among the city’s elite after a single breakfast.
“There had been UJA missions to Israel for many years, trying to help people who were essentially smuggling their Judaism during the Communist period. So there was a very strong feeling of empathy in New York – everyone knew it was the second largest Jewish population in the world, outside the United States.”
Yet on a cultural level, engagement today by Russian Jewry with the rest of the New York community remains distant and infrequent. That gap has become the new focus of UJA and its affiliates: Operation Exodus, in this regard, is an ongoing project.
They are, a quarter-century on, still identified as a distinct subset of the New York Jewish community – though “the Brighton Beach days are largely over,” says Gene Rachmansky, himself a Russian- speaking Jew (“RSJ,” in UJA-speak) and a Federations pioneer in RSJ research and field work.
“In 2002, when the community conducted its population study, people were really shocked to learn the number of Russian speakers,” Rachmansky said.
The number was shocking indeed: 20 percent of New York’s Jewish community was found to be Russian-speaking. The organization believes that number is closer to 25% today.
“I think the community woke up and said, wow, this is a huge percentage,” Rachmansky said. “And yet, where are they?” UJA research suggests that they have scattered in recent years, dispersing from their concentration in Brooklyn to Manhattan, Westchester and Long Island. But that is not what Rachmansky is referring to. Wherever RSJs are physically, they are largely absent from visible, organized spheres of Jewish life.
“I think they appreciate the slightly different tradition, the slightly different culture and the narrative of overcoming yet another struggle,” Rachmansky speculated.
“There’s a sexiness of overcoming the immigrant experience.”
Since the 2002 study was released, UJA and a number of other nonprofits have launched new initiatives with the goal of identifying and engaging with Russian Jews. Their tactics are similar to those targeting Jewish youth on campuses; they offer networking opportunities, social support and community engagement.
“The same questions apply: How do we engage young people, how do we get young people to look at synagogues as more than relics,” Rachmansky said. “It’s not just a Russian-Jewish question. It’s a Jewish question.”
The Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, or COJECO, considers itself the central coordinating body for the city’s Russian-Jewish community and focuses on education and representation for RSJs in other spheres. The Wexner Foundation, alternatively, attempts to foster activism and leadership.
Both COJECO and Wexner are projects funded by the UJA Federation.
“Our experience before the Russians arrived was that individual Jewish identity precedes collective identity,” said Alisa Rubin Kurshan, executive vice president of community planning and agency resources for the UJA-Federation of New York. “And yet here come along Russians, who have no identity, and yet have an incredible collective understanding of what it means to be part of the Jewish people.”
Maintaining Jewish identity in Soviet satellite states was a tall order: After Nazi occupation, most synagogues in Poland and the Baltic states had already been destroyed.
Moscow’s anti-religion policies prevented their reconstruction.
“The language of assimilation is no longer helpful,” Kurshan continued. “We’ve needed to widen the definition of being a part of the integrated Jewish community.”
To this day, UJA’s focus remains on core social services that lift the Russian-Jewish community up. Programs focus on language and job training, education and loans management, as well as other social services.
“We heard the complaints at the time: They don’t want to practice Judaism the way we do. That was the negative expression,” Kurshan said, arguing that integration would be a positive development. “But the positive expression was of history, of culture, of affinity for Israel.”
Affinity for Israel, however, does not appear universal among this cultural enclave.
“One of the theories as to why these immigrants went to the United States, and not to Israel, is that going to Israel would necessitate embracing the Jewish identity. And coming from the Soviet Union, they wanted to shed that identity,” said Michael Drob, director and producer of Stateless, a documentary on the exodus supported by COJECO.
In his research – and his personal experience – Drob found that Russian Jews have largely rejected assimilation efforts encouraged by their American brethren.
“A lot of that didn’t happen, in part because of the Soviet psyche,” he said. Drob himself emigrated in 1988 from Riga, Latvia, at the age of 10 with his parents. “I don’t think the direct goal of the operation was necessarily reached, as a lot of people hoped.”
In Drob’s documentary, several subjects account for the experience of being Jewish as an historic liability – not a cultural asset to be cherished. They recall passports they were forced to carry which flagged their Jewish ancestry; discrimination was the norm, “just a regular part of our lives,” one émigré describes.
In Rachmansky’s experience, the current cultural gap between Russian and American Jews also extends to their politics.
“The Russian Jews that I know are on the conservative side of the political spectrum – and it was liberally oriented Jewish organizations that brought them over,” he said. “I think some of it has to do with the realities of having lived under a Communist regime.”
And yet, 25 years later, the original generation of émigrés – and their memories of Communism – are fading into another annal of history. A new generation of Russian Jews, now definitively American, is firmly in control of its decision whether or not to engage with the wider Jewish world.
This past holiday season, Peter May returned to Israel for the first time in nearly 15 years. Traveling with his entire family, he was reminded of his first trip to Israel when, at 40 years old, he surprised himself with his interest in the Zionist cause.
As he toured the Israel of 2015, he could see what the exodus of nearly 1 million had brought to the land: innovation and art, diversity and community.
The men and women he had first met at absorption centers – those he had helped rescue – were now definitively Israelis.
They had made their own way.
So, too, have the Russian Jews of New York.