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Returning to Israel
From Novoye Russkoye Slovo
April 15, 2003

By Mikhail Nemirovskii

The majority of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants in the United States emigrated from the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s with Israeli visas. Now many of them intend to leave the US and permanently settle in Israel.

Ronny Vinnikov, director of the Israeli center Sokhnut for the Russian-speaking community in New York, has been surprised by the number of people calling his office with questions about repatriation to Israel.

Under the aegis of a policy known as aliya, the Israeli government fully finances the resettlement of Jews in Israel.

Ronny Vinnikov: It was an eye-opener for me that Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants in the US have decided to link their fate with Israel, while that country is experiencing such hardships. Every year, up to 3,000 American Jews undertake the aliya. That number includes 40 to 50 immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The main focus of my work in America is Jewish, Israeli education. But during my first days of work here, Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants began expressing interest in aliya. That surprised me. Just today 40 people called us from the New York metropolitan area. And another 20 called from Philadelphia, Boston, New Jersey and Miami.

I have identified three main motivations for aliya among Russian-speaking immigrants.

Reuniting families: Jewry of the former Soviet Union have been scattered as a result of emigration (to countries of the former Soviet Union, United States and Israel). Massive emigration tore apart almost all Jewish families. Today, many of these families have decided that they cannot live like this any longer and plan to spend the rest of their lives in Israel. For example, in Albany, a mother and father have decided to go to Israel to be reunited with their children and grandchildren, after a long separation.

Ideological reasons: I am not speaking about religious motivations, but love for Israel. In particular, young people have grown to love the country. Many of them have visited Israel under the auspices of various programs and they have made a decision, fully understanding the future consequences. Many of them want to serve in the Israeli Army. Military service. That will enable them not only to protect their homeland but it is also the most effective means of social adaptation, particularly for men. Education is another significant motivation. Young people have demonstrated a passionate desire to study, particularly in Israeli universities.

Religious motivation: This is evident among that part of the Jewish Russian-speaking community in America, who returned to their religious origins. Today, these people do not want to live far away from Jerusalem, far from the Wailing Wall. For them, a future without Israel is impossible.
On the last day of Passover, we always say: “Next year in Jerusalem!” Over the course of the twenty-first century, the majority of Jews will fulfill this covenant.

Q: Ronny, the motivations for aliya are understandable. What can you say about the education level of those wanting to go to Israel?

Ronny Vinnikov: I think it would be premature to classify immigrants according to their education level. However, I want to point out that many of them are highly educated, have successful careers and are unlikely to achieve greater professional success in Israel than they have in the United States.

For example, we were contacted by the family of a wealthy businessman who decided to settle in Israel. He has no plans to conduct business in Israel. He bought a house in southern Israel and plans to relocate his family there. His company will continue to operate in the United States and Canada under the direction of experienced managers.

A highly skilled doctor manages a large clinic in the US. He told us: “I have seen what is taking place in Israel. I am transporting my clinic to Israel so that Israelis can use my services.” He knows what to expect in Israel and he is going there with the intention of offering his services where they are the most needed.

People come to our Brooklyn office, young people who have earned bachelor degrees and graduate degrees in America and now want to be educated in Israel.

Q: I have heard that Israel has changed the way it handles repatriated Jews from various countries.

Ronny Vinnikov: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said for a long time that the continuation of aliya is one of the priority tasks of any Israeli government. As of January 2003, a repatriated Jew from any country receives the same rights as a repatriated Jew from the former Soviet Union. Sokhnut and the government have completely financed the air travel of all members of the family and transport of their luggage (up to 100 kilograms per person). Each person receives 16,000 shekels.

For émigrés of the former Soviet Union, departing from the US for Israel, we have a special gift: $500 in cash from a fund established by the philanthropist Arthur Flauer. His name is well-known in St. Peterburg. He helped many Jews from there. All of the money given to the newly repatriated Jews is tax-free. In that way, families have a financial support to help them become established during the first period in the country. Don’t forget that upon arrival in Israel, you receive free medical care, and pensioners receive a pension. From the minute you arrive, you become a citizen of Israel and can put forward your candidacy for the post or prime minister.

Q: I gather that Sokhnut has many other tasks aside from arranging aliya. What are the main activities of Sokhnut?

Ronny Vinnikov: As I said at the beginning of the interview, the primary goal of my work in America has been Jewish education for Russian-speaking Jews. Today, we are creating educational projects for groups of various ages, in order to connect people with Israel spiritually. For us, every Jew, who is part of the Diaspora, is an important resource for the support for our government and for that reason, we are here. Jews should remain Jews, regardless of where they live. In particular, we have many programs for young people.

Q: Do you operate independently or in cooperation with other Jewish groups in the United States?

Ronny Vinnikov: Cooperation with organizations of the Russian-speaking community and other Jewish organizations in the United States is a priority of our work. We created a public committee of the branch in the Russian-speaking community in New York, comprised of representatives of different organizations. We support the community; we support any constructive project, particularly in the area of education. For example, after Passover, we organize a large Sabbath for 150 students in collaboration with the organization Hillel and three other public organizations, including the youth synagogue Shaarei Emun. Visitors come from Israel and Russia. We can accomplish a great deal together. Interviews with Russian immigrants intending to resettle in Israel:

Rakhmin Failyaev, a religious Bukharian Jew, arrived in America in 1991 from Samarkand, Uzbekistan. He is a kosher butcher in Queens. He lives alone in New York. Failyaev said: “I decided to go live with my sister in Israel.” “The dangerous situation there doesn’t scare me. I’ve visited a few times. My relatives have been waiting for me for a long time. I will definitely find work there. I’m sure of it. They love to eat there and they are connoisseurs of meat products. How did I decide? Very simply. I visited, looked around and worked a little. I can have a Jewish lifestyle there. I am pleased about that. I am ready to leave. I think I will leave in late spring.”

Vera Muchnik and her husband Alexander Rudin live in Albany. They came to America from Poltava, Ukraine and have lived here eight years. Muchnik said: “I am going to Israel with my husband. Our daughter and grandchildren are there. I can’t live without them. My reasons? I feel at home there. I love America, but Israel is my home. In Israel, I hope to return my profession, teaching music. I hope that we will get our second wind there. And we will have a good life there!”

Boris Mullokandov: “I am from Dushanbe [Tajikistan] and have lived in the US for nine years. I am a student at Queens College and will become a bio-chemist. I have wanted to go to Israel for a long time. My parents approve of my decision. I am going to Israel alone. My aunt and uncle live there. I will live in Beer-Sheva. Most of all, I am going because I am a Jew. If I must, I will enlist in the Israeli Army. I want to become a teacher some day. My dream is to study at Ben-Gurion University. I hope to arrive in Israel in time for the next academic year.”

Translated from Russian by Elizabeth LeBras

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