Young Russian Jews Say 'Da' to Birthright, but 'Nyet' to Aliyah

Study shows 87% of Russian Jewish youths want to emigrate, but only 36% consider Israel an option.

A large majority of Russian Jewish youth are unhappy. Eighty-seven percent are interested in emigrating; however, less than half of this group - 36 percent - consider Israel a desirable destination and only 30 percent are considering immigrating in the next four years.

Professor Eli Leshem, who conducted the Jewish Agency-sponsored research, surveyed this year's birthright Israel participants, including teens unaffiliated with a Jewish community or activity. This is the first time such teens have been surveyed.

Olga, a 28-year-old who works in public relations in St. Petersburg and is a part-time tour guide for Russian and Caucasian youth, didn't need research to tell her this. Last year she led two groups to Israel.

"For most of the group, it was just fun to go on a trip for free with young people, so they went," she says. "Especially those from the Caucasus, who aren't used to urban life and shopping malls. But from my conversations with them, they have no plans to come live in Israel."

Olga says she has many friends in Israel and has visited several times, but has no plans to immigrate.

"My partner and I would like to leave Russia, although we both have good jobs, but not to Israel. He is not Jewish, and we know that would be a problem. I'm not so enthusiastic, either."

Leshem's research included all 1,127 of last summer's birthright participants from the former Soviet Union. A total of 1,006 participants aged 17-30 answered questionnaires. All the respondents would be entitled to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, but only 51 percent are Jewish under Jewish law. However, 77 percent of respondents said they feel Jewish.

Asked if they would remain in their homelands or emigrate if given the opportunity, only 13 percent said they would opt to stay. Of the 87 percent who preferred to emigrate, only 36 percent said they would choose to live in Israel, while 51 percent mentioned other countries.

Thirty-one percent of respondents are considering immigrating to Israel within the next four years, and 42 percent said they are not considering aliyah at all. However, 6 percent were willing to come to Israel for academic studies.

These numbers reflect the decreasing pace of immigration from the former Soviet Union, which peaked in the 1990s at 100,000 immigrants a year and currently stands at a few thousand annually.

The survey did reveal that the respondents feel a strong connection with Israel - 91 percent said they feel it is important to know what's going on in Israel, and 58 percent feel part of Israel and its problems.

birthright international marketing director Gidi Mark said in response, "Figures we compiled about two years ago indicated that more than 40 percent of participants have immigrated to Israel or study here. birthright is designed to strengthen the connection to Israel, and we do not expect youth who have never been here and have no connection to Israel to immigrate after a 10-day visit."