Russia’s chief rabbi Berel Lazar caused a commotion among Israeli Jewish clerics in early October by giving an interview to the Hanaaseh Vehanishma publication, in which he indirectly discouraged Aliyah, or immigration to Israel, among Russian Jews. He argued that the difficulties Russians have faced in assimilating into the Israeli society often weakened their faith, while a Jew’s geographical location wasn’t too important with regard to religion. Some, however, disagree.
The interview was picked up by all major Jewish publications and received extensive coverage in the media in Russia and as well as abroad. Predictably enough, Israeli rabbis lashed out at Lazar for delivering a setback to Israel’s efforts to lure in new immigrants. At the same time, Jewish communities at home quietly embraced his message.
Over the 60 years of its history the very existence of Israel has hinged on immigration, as the actual goal of its establishment was to gather Jews from all over the world and provide them with the long-sought home where they could maintain their Jewish identity.
The Soviet Union and later Russia and the CIS served as the leading source of immigrants throughout the better part of Israel’s short history. The Soviet state imposed severe restrictions on immigration, often too hard to overcome, causing many Jews to stay put. Once those eased up, the number of Russian immigrants to Israel skyrocketed, reaching almost 50,000 from Russia alone in 1990 and 1991. The total number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union totaled 772,000 in the 1990s, or over 80 percent of the total immigrants. Both these numbers have been gradually declining since the beginning of this decade.
Last year immigration to Israel hit a 20-year low, and while overall immigration declined by six percent, the number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union went down by 15 percent. For the first time since 1984, emigrants from Israel outnumbered returnees.
The Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption has been running out of ways to attract Jews, who are already granted citizenship upon arrival and later provided with assistance in finding employment, learning Hebrew, and gaining rights to the so-called Absorption Basket (financial payments of up to $30,000 for immigrant families).
Amidst this struggle, Lazar’s statements came as an unexpected setback for Israel. The Israeli daily HaTzofe ran an article summarizing the response of Israeli rabbis, with most of them stating that Jews, especially those in Russia, should aspire to move to the Holy Land. Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger opined that Israel should take Lazar’s statement seriously, and check whether repatriates are provided with enough attention and a good enough chance to come to Judaism.
Jewish communities in Russia claim that the work that has been done here is exactly why people see little need to seek a better place to be a Jew. “It would be fair to say that the general mood that exists among the Russian Jews resonates with what Lazar had to say; immigration is not an end in itself,” said Borukh Gorin, the head of the public relations department of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR), the largest official Jewish organization in the country.
While the desire to flee from the communist regime and economic motives have always been the chief rationales for immigration, the ability to openly practice Judaism and live a sound community life have been also factored in. “There was a time when we had nothing, we had one and a half synagogues in 1991, and maybe a hundred scholars,” said Andrei Glotser, the spokesman for Berel Lazar.
Since the country’s first officially sanctioned Jewish cultural center opened in Moscow in 1989, Russia has slowly begun to get back on track in restoring Jewish infrastructure following decades of religious oppression. Synagogues, which were stripped of their property after the revolution, started receiving their old buildings back with permission to use them for religious purposes.
The minority which, according to various estimates, numbers between 228,000 and a million, has 200 officially-registered communities, with the largest community center opening in Moscow last year. The $13 million facility is involved in charitable activities, such as distributing meals and treating patients at its own clinic. Last week it was announced that Russia would soon be home to the world’s largest Jewish museum.
Ninety four Jewish Sunday schools and five higher education institutions function within the FJCR. Just like other educational institutions, Yeshivas offer a military service deferment.
Last year, the government went as far as to permit rabbis to work in all military districts, providing spiritual guidance for Jewish conscripts and military personnel. “Now, all conditions exist to abide by the Jewish traditions and live a Jewish life,” said Glotser. “Now we have Jewish kindergartens, synagogues, schools, Yeshivas, a full spectrum of Jewish infrastructure. The bulk of it has been done in the past few years, and it’s a great achievement of the Jewish community. By making this statement, Lazar has acknowledged that the tide has turned and Russia is now the right place for Jews,” he added, claiming that Lazar is a respected figure and even non-religious people are likely to listen to him.
“In part, he spoke of the changes that have taken place, and he encouraged reconsidering immigrating to Israel if one doesn’t feel a strong spiritual obligation to do so. It’s important to be a Jew, but it’s not important where, and it is true that for many, it is more comfortable to do the jobs they’ve been doing for a while over here,” said Glotser.
The work that is being done in Russia is not only directed at preserving the existing Jewish population, but also at goading those who have already left to return. According to the Haaretz newspaper, 100,000 Jews who immigrated to Israel have returned to Russia and Ukraine, and this number is heading north. Last year, Haaretz reported that the Russian embassy opened a special government branch disguised as a cultural center, whose prime responsibility is to persuade Russian Israelis to return.
These activities will counter Aliyah encouraging organizations functioning in Russia, such as Sokhnut, whose job is going to be even harder to do following Lazar’s remarks. “Israeli wars can only attract thrill-seekers,” said Marina Krasnova, a practicing Jewish Muscovite who has traveled to Israel and remained there for a month at one time, yet has never sought immigration. “You can have a little Israel in your heart.”