NEW YORK - Even the leaders of the Jewish-Russian immigrants in the United States are surprised by the depth of support for Israel within the community.
"We are seeing manifestations of support on a scale that the veteran Jewish community in New York has not experienced for many years," says Ronny Vinnikov, a Jewish Agency emissary who works with the city's Jewish-Russian population.
"About 85 percent of the immigrants in New York have relatives in Israel, and 60 percent have first-circle relatives, such as parents, brothers and sisters," explains Dr. Sam Klieger, a sociologist and a former refusenik from the Soviet Union, who is now the American Jewish Committee's coordinator for Jewish-Russian immigrants. "The immigrants here have always shown an interest in the events in Israel and in the situation of their relatives," he adds.
In the past three years, though, Klieger notes, interest in Israel among the immigrants has also been channeled into expressions of support and sympathy.
Surveys conducted among the immigrants and conversations with those who are identified as their leaders confirm that in the past three years identification with Israel has been translated into activist terms, especially among the second generation of immigrants. The Jewish Agency emissary tells about members of the second generation who want to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Three youngsters who immigrated to new York from Ukraine subsequently immigrated to Israel within the framework of a program known as Ulpan Kibbutz - referring to an intensive Hebrew course based on a kibbutz - and after a few months on Kibbutz Yavneh joined the army and are serving in an elite unit.
"One of them told his mother that he was going to Israel to study," Vinnikov says. Other young people have also asked for information about the possibility of serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he says.
"The children of the first immigrants are now looking for something beyond the career success and economic security they have achieved," says Professor Daniel (Igor) Branovan, 36, a noted nose-ear-throat surgeon who is considered a rising star within the leadership of the immigrant community. According to Branovan, "The central theme for the great majority of the second generation of immigrants is their Jewish identity, and, for most of them, the search for identity takes place on the level of relations with Israel and everything this entails."
Branovan agrees with the view of most of his colleagues that the wave of violence and terrorist attacks in Israel during the past three years, and especially the large proportion casualties among Jews from the former Soviet Union, were a catalyst of the newly awakened interest in Israel.
One of the young Russian immigrants who was seriously wounded in the suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv was brought to the United States at Branovan's initiative and also underwent surgery by Branovan.
List of donors
Senior Jewish activists in New York who are monitoring the frame of mind within the community of immigrants from Russia point out that their growing interest in Israel is compensating for the weakening of ties with Israel that is visible among large segments of the veteran community.
"There are disagreements about Israel's policy within the mainstream of the community and one can hear reservations expressed about its actions," Branovan notes. "However, among the Jewish immigrants from Russia, there is hardly any ambivalence about Israel. The overwhelming majority supports Israel without any reservations."
The Jewish Federation of New York (which includes also the United Jewish Appeal) was apparently the first Jewish organization to solicit funds among the Jewish immigrants from Russia, a full decade ago. In recent years the Russian division of the federation has raised between $500,000 and $750,000 in the immigrant community. However, according to community activists, one of the major expressions of the pro-Israel awakening is that many of the immigrants from Russia are involved in autonomous fund-raising projects and prefer to make a direct donation to specific goals rather than channel money through the federation.
Fund-raising for Israel is almost routine among the immigrants, the activists say. Vinnikov relates that thousands of dollars are collected in door-to-door soliciting in immigrant concentrations in Brooklyn and Queens, especially on Fridays. In the past two years, a large portion of these funds has been earmarked for casualties of terrorist attacks, and more specifically for seriously wounded individuals who were identified as immigrants from Russia.
Since the suicide bombing in the Park Hotel in Netanya on the Seder night of 2002, the Russian-language version of the Forward, a weekly newspaper, has published a weekly list of Jewish Russian immigrants in New York who have given money to the Libi Fund, which supports Israeli soldiers. Each such list contains dozens of names. According to another source, about $150,000 has been collected through the paper, most of it donated by elderly people and pensioners.
Two months ago, the only Russian-language daily paper in the U.S, Novoe Russkoe Slovo, launched a fund-raising drive to finance the construction of a new wing for Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, which will treat casualties of terrorist attacks. A target of $750,000 was set, of which $150,000 has been raised so far. The Russian-language television station in New York has raised $50,000 to date, which was sent to the Jerusalem Municipality to pay for the purchase of medical equipment to help victims of terrorism.
Sam Klieger, the sociologist, explains that the unreserved support for Israel among the immigrants "derives its strength from the virulent propaganda against the Jews and against the State of Israel, to which the Jews in the Soviet Union were exposed for decades." Klieger, who arrived in the U.S. in 1990 on a tourist visa, says that now that the Jews of the former Soviet Union "are living in the U.S. and enjoying equal rights and freedom of expression, identification with Israel is also a form of settling accounts with the Soviet regime and a late reaction to years of suppression and persecution."
Equal partners, not clients
Proof of the growing interest in Israel can be seen in the establishment of two new organizations in the past two years, which have as their declared goal to consolidate support for Israel and to initiate activities and projects to assist Israel. The Council of Jewish ?migre Community Organizations (COJECO) was set up about a year-and-a-half ago as local community organization under the auspices of the UJA-Federation of New York, which also funds its operation. COJECO is an umbrella organization of 26 groups, about half the groups that are active among the Jewish Russian immigrants. The organization has already proved its necessity, says its executive director, Alec Brook-Krasny, who is from Moscow and came to the United States in 1983. "It led the support for Israel and promoted cooperation with mainstream Jewish organizations, especially with the UJA and the Federation of New York."
In contrast, a large number of immigrants prefer not to become dependent on the veteran establishment and to continue to initiate independent activity. Branovan says that he supports cooperation with Jewish organizations, but he, too, emphasizes: "We do not want to become clients of the Jewish organizations. We want to be equal partners."
The number and clout of the ?migres is sufficient for their voice to be heard independently, he says.
In addition to COJECO, which operates as a local community body, a national organization has also been established in New York: Russian-American Jews for Israel (RAJI). Its goal is to initiate and steer activities and projects for Israel. According to its founding charter, its mission is to make Russian-speakers in the U.S. aware of Israel's needs and of its security needs and well-being. The president of the new organization is Professor Branovan, who says it will also act as a lobby for Israel, adding that its leaders have already held several meetings with lawmakers in Washington.
In interviews and conversations, leaders of the ?migre community say they are satisfied with the attitude of the Jewish Agency toward the immigrants from Russia. Last September, the Jewish Agency sent Ronny Vinnikov to New York as a special emissary to the immigrants and put him in charge of the Israeli Center for Russian-speaking Jews that was established in Brooklyn. Meir Nitzan, the head of the Jewish Agency mission in New York, says that the activity among the ?migres is carried out in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of New York.
In an effort to heighten the affinity with Israel, a meeting was held recently in New York between a group of immigrants and a delegation of about 40 officers from the IDF's National Defense College. Education Minister Limor Livnat also met for a conversation with immigrants during her visit to New York.
It is still not clear whether the immigrant community is interested in settling in Israel. According to Vinnikov, about 100 immigrants who asked for information about such a move are registered in his office. The majority, he says, are motivated by a desire to be reunited with their family. Dr. Klieger thinks that a movement promoting immigration to Israel among the ?migres will be possible only within the framework of programs for experts and professionals. Branovan, in contrast, says that the Jewish immigrants from Russia feel good in America and that therefore their rate of immigration to Israel will be no different from that of the veteran Jewish population.
Young and educatedJewish immigrants from Russia in the United States recently took the opportunity to observe themselves and examine the results of their experience with Western democracy. The conclusions came as a favorable surprise even to them.
According to a survey of the status, identity and integration of the Jewish emigres in New York, which was conducted by the American Jewish Committee, 90 percent of the community has a high-school education, 60 percent have studied for five years or more in institutions of higher learning and more than 50 percent have at least one academic degree.
"The proportion of those who have higher education is even higher than it is among the veteran community," says Dr. Sam Klieger, who compiled the results of the survey and formulated the conclusions. The fact that 40 percent of the Russian community in New York is in the 25-55 age bracket is construed as likely to increase their influence within the general community.
According to the generally accepted estimate of the Jewish organizations, about 700,000 Jewish immigrants from Russia reside in North America. In the wake of a survey of mobility within the Jewish population of New York, which was commissioned by the UJA and published last month, a debate sprang up between community activists and those who conducted the survey concerning the exact number of emigres who live in the Greater New York area.
The survey cited a figure of 168,000, but Klieger puts the number of emigres in Greater New York and its suburbs at about 400,000.
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