Jewish groups offer aid for Caucasus immigrants

Pilot programs set for Beersheba as research shows group suffering severe socioeconomic problems.

UJA kavkazi 224.88 (photo credit: Boris Isakov)
UJA kavkazi 224.88
(photo credit: Boris Isakov)
Wide-ranging socioeconomic problems coupled with an insular culture are creating serious difficulties for the second generation of Jewish immigrants from the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union, according to new research by two groups on the 80,000-member community. The problems, say experts, are not dissimilar to those facing the Ethiopian immigrant community. The new research has triggered a far-reaching initiative to help the Caucasus community launched this week by the UJA-Federation of New York in cooperation with the American-Joint Distribution Committee. The first study, conducted by Dr. Michal Krumer-Nevo from the Spitzer Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, discovered that the community had an extremely high proportion of school dropouts and very low scholastic achievements compared to the national average. It was also found that the community is socially isolated from mainstream Israel, with a tendency to violence among young males and uncontrolled sexual behavior among some of the women. The second study, by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, focused on employment, community development, family, formal and informal education, the social integration of youth, youth at risk, and army service. Despite noting some improvements over the past five years, its findings were similar to Krumer-Nevo's. "We have made it one of our top priorities to work with this community," David Mallach, managing director of UJA-Federation of New York's Commission on the Jewish People, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "We have been running some programs for the Kavkazi community in various locations throughout Israel, but following this report we have decided to focus in on one place with an emphasis on the 12 to 18 age group," he said. Still in its pilot phase, the program is aimed at the 20,000 Caucasus Jews living in Beersheba. More than $1 million has already been pledged to the initiative for the first two years, with a commitment from both organizations to see it through for the long-term and perhaps use it as a model for other locations. According to Mallach, teens constitute a "crucial transition point" and providing them with greater educational opportunities and the chance to better integrate into mainstream Israeli society will likely filter through to the rest of the community. "They are very stubborn and proud people," said Vitali Iskov, who emigrated from the Caucasus in 1996 at age 18 and will run one of the programs for teens in Beersheba. "Their pride goes back a long way and they don't believe that they need help from anyone, especially not Israelis." Iskov said part of the problem stemmed from the incorrect absorption of the first wave of immigrants during the late 1970s and 1980s. Roughly 12,000 people arrived back then, with another 60,000 making aliya in the 1990s. "There is a real lack of connection between the Kavkazi community and Israel," he said. "I have carried out my own studies and found, for example, that young children in our community do not see themselves as Israelis at all; they say that they are Kavkazim first. Plus, there is almost no participation in extra-curricular activities in the wider Israeli society." Krumer-Nevo's research found that in the past, the Caucasus community had simply been "lumped together with other immigrants from the FSU." "This 'lack of recognition,' or 'mistaken recognition,' does not reflect the historic processes that helped shape this Jewish community from the mountainous region, their connection to the State of Israel and [to] Judaism," she wrote in her introduction to the study. "The community's cultural characteristics were greatly influenced by their proximity to Muslim communities and include: a patriarchal family structure; marriage, especially of girls, at a young age; and the great importance of concepts such as "pride" and "honor" that help organize the behavior of children toward adults and of women toward men. "This is in contrast to most other Jewish communities in FSU countries, which were influenced to a much greater extent by the ethos of the 'Soviet man' and the Communist regime in the specific values and norms it instilled," Krumer-Nevo wrote. Iskov said the main aim of his program was to provide after-school programs to prepare ninth graders with the tools to eventually matriculate and to encourage Caucasus teens to join enrichment programs with other Israelis their age. "We need to start with the younger children and work our way through to the entire community," he said. "There is a stigma against our community and the only way to change it is for us to fix the problems from within."