Russian-Jewish Americans and American Jewry: Encounter, Identity, and Integration

By Kliger, Sam | Sociological Papers, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Russian-Jewish Americans and American Jewry: Encounter, Identity, and Integration


Kliger, Sam, Sociological Papers


Russian-Jewish immigration to the United States

According to a 2003 population survey conducted by UJA-Federation of New York, 19 percent (or about 220,000) of Jews in the five boroughs of New York City were Russian-speaking (The Jewish Community Study 2002). However, there are many indicators suggesting that the actual figure is significantly higher (Ruby, July 2003). Though the exact number of Russian Jewish immigrants living in the country and in New York is unknown and probably could never be obtained, it is estimated that, because of almost 40 years of immigration of Soviet Jews (and non-Jewish family members), some 700,000 Russian-speaking immigrants now live in the U.S. About half of them, or 350,000, have chosen New York City and its vicinity as their permanent home in the new country. By any account, the number of Russian-speaking Jews in the United States now probably exceeds those of Russia and Ukraine combined, and New York today is the most Russian-Jewish populated city in the world. Soviet authorities' anti-Semitism, as well as political and economic turmoil in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, caused millions of Soviet Jews to leave their homeland and to seek refuge in many countries worldwide. Over a million of them settled in Israel, hundreds of thousands emigrated to Germany and other European countries, many landed in Canada, Australia, and even New Zealand. The process of integration in their new host communities is different in each country of their resettlement; however, there are some similarities (Remennick, 2007; Ben Rafael et al., 2006)

The Russian-speaking community in the U.S. got a fresh start in the early 1970s. The Soviet government seeking detente with the West, began to allow some of Soviet Jews to leave for Israel on the grounds of humanitarian reasons (for family reunification). It was during this period that many Soviet Jews who received invitations (vysov) from real or fictional relatives in Israel and managed to exit the USSR, 'dropped out' along the way to Israel in Vienna and instead applied for the U.S. visa as political refugees. Though the Israeli government objected strongly to the dropout phenomenon and chastised those who decided to go to the West, the U.S. Jewish community leadership upheld the principle of freedom of choice and by the late 1970s as many or more Soviet Jews were coming to the U.S. as to Israel (Harris 1976, 2000).

In 1974, the U.S. Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a law that linked the Soviet Union's desire to get a preferential trade status with the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate. In response, Soviet regime slipped back into full-blown repression and cut back sharply on Jewish emigration. Many Soviet Jews, who applied for exit visas, lost their jobs; their requests were denied, and they became refuseniks. Nevertheless, the flow of Soviet Jews who got permission to leave continued, especially after 1975 Helsinki Accord, signed by 35 European nations including the U.S., Canada, and the Soviet Union. About a third of the Russian-speaking Jewish population now living in America arrived during the 1970s (Election 2000). After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the subsequent U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics and the return to an overtly hostile U.S.--Soviet relationship, the Soviet authorities almost ceased to grant exit visas to the Jews, and the flow of emigration dried up for nearly a decade. It started slowly again in 1987 during Gorbachev's Perestroika and gradually increased, especially after Gorbachev strengthened contacts with President Reagan and European leaders, who pushed him to liberalize Soviet emigration policy.

In 1989, the U.S. Congress passed the Lautenberg Amendment, which stipulated that Soviet Jews, along with some other religious categories, were a persecuted group, which automatically qualified for refugee status. Over the next decade, a huge wave of new Russian-Jewish immigrants headed to the U. …

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