Judaism After Communism

Jewish life flourishes both in and outside the former Soviet Union.

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Russian Jews in Israel

The first Soviet-era immigrants to Israel in the 1970s were political activists who migrated because of ideological and Zionist motivations. The immigration wave of the 1990s--almost a million people--was much more diverse. In the 1990s, after the United States placed new restrictions on immigration for Russian Jews, Russian émigrés had fewer options, so most went to Israel. This meant that the new wave was much larger than the first, and less ideologically committed to Zionism.

"The Russians," as they are known in Israel, transformed Israel as much as Israel transformed them. Russian suddenly became a de facto language of the Jewish state, with its own radio and television stations, newspapers, theaters, and film. Russian Jews established political parties to advocate for their needs in an Israeli socio-economic climate that forced many educated migrants to take menial jobs.

The presence of a large number of non-Jews who came with their Jewish relatives forced Israel to ask new questions about its national identity and that of its citizens. The question of who is a Jew took center stage. Israel became deeply tied to Russia, the birthplace of one million of its citizens. As a result, Russia and Israel have developed tight cultural, social, and economic relations--a huge change from the Soviet era. 

Russian Jews in Germany

For the past 20 years, Germany's Jewish community has been the fastest growing in the world. In 1990-91, a newly unified Germany offered post-Soviet Jewry easy access to German residency and generous social benefits. Today, Russian-speaking immigrants constitute a majority of German Jewry, and their presence in the country--initially hailed as a demographic salvation--now threatens the very identity of the German Jewish establishment. Post-Soviet Jews are less traditional than the established German Jewish community in terms of Jewish practices, and generally do not join Germany's official state-sponsored Jewish community, known as the Gemeinde.

One thing is clear--the new Russian migration is going to transform Jewry throughout Europe. In June 2007, the European Jewish Congress elected a new president, Moshe Kantor, who is also the president of the Moscow-based Russian Jewish Congress. Some European Jews are worried about having a Jew from Moscow run the Congress. Indeed, Kantor has already called for a significant shift in funding away from political action around Israel and toward culture and education, reflecting the concerns of most Russian Jews.

The fall of Communism, like the decline of the tsars 100 years earlier, has sent Russian Jews on a global migration that is having profound impacts on the places where they settle. It has also meant a new vision of Russian and European Jewish life in places that many had written off.

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David Shneer

David Shneer is an associate professor of history and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and his most recent book is Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust (Rutgers, 2010).