On My Mind: Redeeming the fourth matza of hope

More than 2 decades after the liberation of Soviet Jewry it’s worth examining how hundreds of thousands of Jews from the FSU have fared in America.

seder 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
seder 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
The fourth matza was introduced at Passover Seder tables in the 1980s to symbolize a shared hope for gaining freedom for Jews to leave the Soviet Union. That annual ritual in homes across the United States, combined of course with the valiant courage of the many Soviet Jews who put their lives on the line, as well as Israel’s key role in facilitating and welcoming emigres, and significant pressures by the US Congress and presidents, were instrumental in opening the gates for this modern day exodus.
Today, it is estimated that more than 750,000 Jews in the US are from Russia and other countries of the Former Soviet Union. Half are living in the greater New York City area.
So how are they faring and, importantly, integrating into American Jewish communal life? Sam Kliger, a former refusenik who immigrated to the US in 1990, and today heads up AJC’s Russian Jewish division, has led pioneering research for years through the Research Institute for New Americans, a group he founded to track the assimilation of Russian-speaking Jews in American society as well as in the US Jewish community.
Like the generations of Jewish immigrants and others who journeyed to American shores throughout the twentieth century for economic opportunity, or political freedom or religious choice, or a combination of all, they arrived filled with expectations and strived to succeed.
For the Russian-speaking immigrants seeking to integrate in American society, their story has been one of success. “Upward social mobility in the Soviet Union was only possible through education,” Kliger told me, and that value has traveled across the ocean and been transmitted to the younger generation. More than 90 percent of high school graduates in the US go to college.
“There is no professional field in the United States where Russian Jews are not represented significantly,” says Kliger.
ASSIMILATING INTO the mainstream American Jewish communal life is an evolving process, and along the way cultural, religious and political differences have been revealed.
Only about 13 percent of Russian Jews in the US hold synagogue memberships, though most do attend services, especially on holidays, in Reform, Conservative or Orthodox synagogues. True, about 50 percent of the broader American Jewish community affiliates with synagogues. But, Kliger calls the Russian Jewish phenomenon “detached affiliation.”
They engage when suitable for personal lifestyle, but are not yet fully embracing the American Jewish way.
Interestingly, Russian Jews prefer Orthodox rabbis to handle their brit milahs, bar mitzvahs or weddings. Not because they may prefer that denomination. It’s more basic. They recall that in the Soviet Union their fathers and grandfathers told them Orthodox rabbis provided the stamp of authenticity, says Kliger.
Looking ahead, how to impart Jewish education and rituals to the younger generations will be a challenge, not dissimilar to the task American Jewry already has been confronting. For the latest immigrants, there is a special interest in preserving the Russian Jewish identity – language, culture, food – and so far there is genuine enthusiasm.
“The younger generation is finding it cool to be Russian,” says Kliger. He already is planning new research to understand the attitudes of these youth, and the findings will be important for helping those involved in planning for the American Jewish community.
Finding ways for the Russian Jewish immigrant community and the bulk of American Jewry to learn more about one another is essential for the future of long established US Jewish organizations and institutions, and their abilities to build a strong community that can mobilize on key issues of concern.
As Jews from the FSU get more involved politically in the coming years, their worldview could have an impact on the American Jewish community’s advocacy for Israel. Given that 60 percent of Jews from the FSU now living in the US have first-degree relatives in Israel, the Jewish state is a top priority concern for them.
Russian Jews are politically more conservative than most American Jews. In sharp contrast to the longstanding voting patterns of American Jews, an overwhelming majority of Russian voters preferred the Republican candidates, President George W. Bush in 2004 and Senator John McCain in 2008.
Still, Barack Obama did win 78 percent of the total Jewish vote. Further examination of the Russian Jewish voting patterns in 2008, as well as of the thinking of newly minted voters since President Obama came into office, will be useful for 2012.
Nuggets of information gleaned so far by Kliger only propels the desire to dig deeper with more polling and research into the communities of Jews from the FSU in the United States.
I will return in future columns to the impact of FSU Jews on the American Jewish community and, as I do, will always be thinking about the fourth matza of hope.

The writer is director of media relations for the American Jewish Committee.