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Why Russian-speaking Jews settled beyond the Green Line

When you have had to fight for Judaism, you may be willing to risk living on Jewish land, never mind that it's 'dangerous' and 'occupied'
Nofim, Shomron
Nofim, Shomron

My friend, a Russian-speaking doctor living in Hebron says: the situation is bad, but we decided that even if only 10 dying families remain in Hebron, ours will be among them.

There have been a fair amount of discussions about Russian Jews in Israel. What positive and negative traits did they bring? How did they change Israel in general? However, not too much is said about those who chose to defend this land with their very bodies going through checkpoints every day. There is considerable intrigue surrounding the decision of many who, upon making aliyah to Israel, opted to reside beyond the “Green Line” in Judea and Samaria. 

As a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1997, my theory is this: Soviet Jews, like their ancestors running from imperial Russia, were ready to do anything to break free and start living on their own ancestral land, especially once their spiritual connection with their brethren in Israel and the land itself was firmly established.

Those who came to Israel after facing many challenges leaving the USSR and those who arrived in the 1990s with a strong commitment to the land of Israel, experienced a spiritual yearning for Torah and Jewish culture, leading many to become baalei-teshuva (religiously observant). This transformative journey brought about a return to religious observance for numerous individuals who had not previously known of such connections.

Personally, I always wanted to live in Israel. Unfortunately for me, when I finally left Russia in 1997, I went straight to New York, due to family circumstances beyond my control. But my heart is always in the east. Growing up in the USSR, I did not know much about being Jewish beyond “kitchen conversations” and my grandmother’s cooking. Prior to leaving at 32 years old, I was fortunate enough to start learning Jewish traditions and language while still in Moscow. I felt connected right away, and sent my daughters to the first re-established government-supported Jewish school. Little by little I began taking mitzvot upon myself. 

If I were in Israel, I might have lived in one of the beautiful places where some of my friends decided to build a home — Judea or Samaria. And I ask myself: What is the reason so many Russian Jewish olim (immigrants to Israel) choose to live there? Why do they desire to stay and raise families in the areas that most of the world deem “problematic” or “occupied”?

For me, the answer lies within the attachment that as a Russian Jew, I and so many others of my background feel to those long gone. Every time I come to Hebron, for example, praying at the place where our ultimate grandmother, Sarah, is buried, brings me close to my own grandmother of the same name. If the Western Wall brings awe, Maarat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) inspires connections, drawing out sacred tears that I can whisper only to the closest person I miss so much. Since many of my ancestors were Hassidim, I feel close to those Russian Jews who settled in Hebron in the 1800s as followers of the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement, and who went on to establish the Hebron Yeshiva. 

Whenever I travel to Israel, I find that the people I encounter in Judea and Samaria are highly educated, religiously motivated patriotic Jews whose children choose to shepherd sheep in the hills of Judea, serve in the army, and then become doctors, entrepreneurs, or rabbis. I’ve heard stories, and read the books like that of R. Ben Zion Tavger, professor of physics who made aliyah in 1972, and, instead of furthering his scientific career, chose to clean up and rebuild the ruined Jewish cemetery of Hebron, and the 16th century Avraham Avinu synagogue. 

Like me, my fellow Russian Jews saw the outside world and lived in a totally secular country. An individual going back to their religious roots has to have a deep conviction before they become religiously observant. So I think that former Soviet Jews, deprived of any links to their history, find solace and comfort in the idea of a Jewish homeland within the biblical borders of the land of Israel. My Russian Jewish friends and family are experienced in standing up for their beliefs. We are ready to die for an idea that promises a better future for our children and grandchildren, and even the whole Jewish nation. And we are not easily persuaded to believe things that just don’t feel right. 

When you have learned that Judaism is something that must be fought for, you are prepared to live in a place deemed “dangerous.” When you understand that your very existence on this particular parcel of land is protecting your family, your friends in an adjacent town, or two kilometers further, you have the moral clarity and courage to stay where you are, and live with dignity as a Jew on the Jewish land. My prayer is that, this spring, all of the nation of Israel should see salvation, and clarity as to why we must remain there.

About the Author
Born in the Soviet Union, Yehudit (Yuliya) Mazur-Shlomi started her Jewish learning in the Great Moscow Synagogue in the early 1990s. She immigrated to the US in the summer of 1997 and has been involved in the New York Russian-speaking Jewish community since her arrival. After working for the JCC Association’s Mandel Center for Excellence in Leadership & Management, she transitioned to a career in Jewish education. Yehudit has a passion for Torah study and the fusion of traditional and modern Jewish learning. Today, she teaches Torah, Hebrew, and Jewish women’s history to those in her global Jewish community. For four years, she served as a co-author of the Global Limmud Chavruta book. Yehudit has an MA in English from Russia, MJCS from Gratz College, and MA in Jewish Studies from Touro Graduate School for Jewish Studies. In her free time, she is a kosher cooking enthusiast blogging about kosher food at https:/noshingacrossthenation.wordpress.com/. She is a loving mother, a grandmother, a wife, and a daughter.
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