Valeria Chazin

30 Years Post USSR Collapse Soviet Jews are an Integral Part of Our Community

Rally in New York for Jews in the Soviet Union. Photo: Barbara Alper, Getty Images
Rally in New York for Jews in the Soviet Union. Photo: Barbara Alper, Getty Images

This year will mark 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, officially ripping apart the Iron Curtain, and providing the long sought-after freedom to emigrate for millions of Jews who lived behind it.

In the area of modern-day Ukraine, where my family lived, for example, a census done in 2001 showed that nearly three-fourths of the Jewish population left the county in the decade following the collapse of the USSR. The two main countries that these Jews moved to were Israel and the United States.

For years, those Jews in the USSR were cut off from their Jewish identity. While some were able to quietly maintain their faith in small, underground settings, this was not an option for most. Nevertheless, in the decades prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, a group of Jews stubbornly maintained their faith and identity publicly, and fought for their freedom.

These activists were called “Refusniks.” They were denied the right to leave, and many of them were severely punished for even trying to do so. They were removed from workplaces, labeled traitors to their country, and sent to gulags and harsh prisons due to their activism. Still, some were willing to take the risks and persist in their efforts to leave the Soviet empire. Activists in America and Israel, and all over the world, put pressure on the USSR to release them. When the Soviet system collapsed in 1991, many were able to leave.

Yet despite the huge effort that it took to get out of the Soviet Union, there was not much time spent looking back. The first generation of immigrants needed to deal with the hardships that come with building a new life, learning a language, finding housing and an income, reestablishing professional licenses, or finding new professional paths altogether. On the American Jewish side, many volunteers took it upon themselves to assist, and community programs were established to benefit the Soviet Jews and help with their new transition.

Despite the hardships, 30 years later, it is safe to say that Soviet Jewish immigrants adjusted well to their new countries and communities in Israel and the US. The Russian-speaking Jewish children of the 1990s, are now young professionals in their 30s and 40s, and speak fluent English.

Perhaps now is the appropriate time to look back and thank the generations before us for the risks they took to ensure that we and our children can grow up in a place where discrimination against Jews is not an official state policy, and where we do not need to hide our identities.

In my parents’ childhood in the USSR, they would only acknowledge the dates of Jewish holidays, but never actually celebrate them. And the fact that there were no Jewish books allowed in the Soviet Union, and that the only synagogue in Kiev was constantly monitored, prevented Jews from practicing their faith. Today, however, we proudly celebrate the Jewish holidays surrounded by family and friends.

As the Russian-speaking Jewish community in the US has thrived, I would argue that it is time to become more involved with the broader American Jewish community. We should continue moving beyond the specifically targeted programs we are involved in for Russian-speaking Jews, and become active as members of leadership circles and governing bodies of organizations influencing American Jewish life as a whole.

Increased involvement will be a win-win situation, where these institutions will benefit from an added point of view and insight, and the Russian-speaking Jewish community will receive more attention. Together, we can keep building a strong community, where the latest large group of Jewish immigrants will be a full participant under the broader tent of American Jewry.

About the Author
Valeria Chazin is the co-founder and board of directors chair of Students Supporting Israel. She is a speaker on topics of Israel and Zionism, and an activist in the Jewish community.
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