The Return

Soviet Immigrants Forge A Distinct Path to Observance

By Boris Fishman

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
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This is the second in a three-part series on the challenges faced in the United States by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

A year ago, Max Berlin was planning on becoming a journalist after graduating from Hunter College in New York City. A thoughtful young man who had emigrated from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1992, Berlin, 21, had founded a newspaper at Hunter and was in the process of seeking out experienced reporters for insight into the trade.

But what he learned about the profession worried him. He couldn’t imagine reconciling its unpredictable demands for time and mobility with the other emerging passion of his life: Orthodox Judaism.

A devout worshipper and a religious student, Berlin is part of a sizable minority of Soviet Jewish émigrés who have become observant despite two formidable obstacles: first, the militant atheism of the former Soviet Union, and second, the seemingly patronizing attitude of the Jewish community that greeted them in the United States. Most Soviet Jewish émigrés — whose secular background meant that they viewed Judaism primarily as an ethnicity — eschewed observance after they arrived in the United States, disappointing those American Jews who had thought they were laboring for the liberation of Jews desperate to reconnect with a forbidden faith. However, even those émigrés who were curious about religion frequently failed to find common ground with their American brethren.

“There was unintentional condescension,” said Zvi Gitelman, a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, “The American attitude was, ‘You know nothing, so I’ll teach you.’ Well, guess what? A 50-year-old émigré may not want to learn from a 20-year-old schnook. There are some people who still remember a lot about what it was like. You’re going to tell me how to make Pesach? My Bubbe’s gefilte fish was so much better than yours.”

Since then, a significant number of these émigrés — many of whom are younger — have forged their own way to religious practice.

“They say that when a child is in the mother’s stomach, it learns the entire Torah, but when it comes out, an angel strikes it on his lips and makes it forget,” Berlin said recently. “That’s a good description for what happened to us. I am not starting anything new. I am only going back to our roots.”

“There’s no rational explanation for what inspires” Soviet Jewish émigrés to become observant, Rabbi Aryeh Katsin said. Katsin is the Soviet-born principal of Sinai Academy, a yeshiva for Russian Jews in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, N.Y. The school is Berlin’s alma mater. “Every Jew has a spark — a pintele yid. It becomes evident when the tradition is broken.”

For some, the turn to observance is a form of rebellion against parents deeply influenced by the Soviet prejudice against religion. For others, the appeal is more abstract. It wasn’t until Max Berlin reached the secular environment of Hunter College that he found himself longing for the religious study and rituals that he performed mostly out of obligation at Sinai.

Marina Goodman, who emigrated from Minsk, Belarus, at the age of 5, initially dismissed Orthodox Judaism as discriminatory toward women, but reconsidered after a college semester abroad in Israel. “Unlike the U.S., there were lots of places to ask questions there,” Goodman, the author of a book on the role of women in Judaism, said. “And I got lots of good answers.”

Typically, such transformations are resisted aggressively by baffled parents who send their children to yeshivas for a better education than public schools appear to offer, only to find they’ve begun to take that education to heart.

“My parents were very upset,” said Natalie Zelenko, a medical resident who emigrated from Ukraine in 1990 when she was 10. “They thought Orthodoxy was closed-minded, an opiate. My mother wouldn’t acknowledge I was trying to keep Shabbos, would be angry I didn’t call on Saturday, would schedule family trips that day.”

Many Soviet Jewish émigrés felt that American Jews were no more understanding.

“The attitude with which we were greeted was: You freezing, starving people who’ve never seen anything in your lives, let us educate you,” said Rabbi Avraham Binsky, the head of Kehilas Moreshes Ya’akov, an Orthodox Russian-speaking congregation of 250 “souls” in Brooklyn. “We were treated like children.”

“Do you know Chicken Kiev? Well, I call it Cholent Kiruv,” said Rabbi Binsky, offering a pun on the Hebrew term for outreach efforts. “[American Jews] love these charity tables for Russian Jews at the synagogue. But think about what it’s like for an adult to have his food provided by another…. When I held gatherings for new arrivals, the only thing I ever offered was coffee.”

Indeed, some Soviet Jewish religious leaders object to the notion of integration on principle.

“I don’t believe in Russian Jews integrating into American society,” Rabbi Pinchas Bobrovsky, the founder and dean of a small high school for Soviet Jews in Brooklyn, said. Bobrovsky, who became devout long

before emigrating, has led services at Shaarei Emunah in Brooklyn — which bills itself as “the first congregation established by Russian-speaking Jewish youth.” A resolutely Russian sensibility informs the proceedings at the synagogue, which include as much banter about Soviet-era cartoons as about prayer. The meal afterward at Bobrovsky’s home — which tends to feature vobla, a salty Caspian fish, and Baltika beer — is an equally Proustian experience.

“We have to keep our uniqueness,” Bobrovsky said. “To keep our origins is to become American Jews.”

There are others who think the reluctance to integrate is nothing more than nouveau-American insecurity. “The best way to honor Judaism — rather than making it suit you — is to go beyond the narrow community,” said Russian-born advertising executive Rabbi Moshe Soloway. “It’s up to the Russians themselves not to feel inferior.”

Gitelman argues that Soviet Jews are simply replicating the experience of immigrants in general. “From the beginning in this country, many of the shuls were ethnically distinct,” he said. “There was the Hungarian shul, the Galician shul. There was a different shul for each shtetl in Bessarabia! There are nuances in the way each culture does it, a common history.”

This uniqueness, however, may have an expiration date. Emigration from the former Soviet Union has slowed to a trickle, and Gitelman — who says that exclusively Russian shuls “is a first-generation phenomenon, terminally so” — believes that their children will attend services in English-speaking congregations.

That those children will attend synagogue at all — a habit that once seemed antithetical to the Soviet-Jewish experience — is now almost a given for many observers. A study of Soviet Jewish émigrés conducted in 2001 by Sam Kliger, the director of Russian Jewish community affairs at the American Jewish Committee, revealed greater rates of observance among Soviet-born youth (13%) than among their parents (7%). “The young generation is the new torchbearer,” Kliger said.

“This generation is looking to their roots more,” said Leonard Petlakh, who was born in Belarus and is now assistant executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Society. “It’s part of a process of self-discovery: I’ve tried pot, now let me try this.”

For Berlin, the discovery is not only of oneself, but also of an entire national tradition sundered from its roots by a tyrannical ideology. In August, he decided to postpone his journalism career and temporarily relocated to Israel to continue his religious studies.

“It’s a matter of unraveling your past,” he said. “It’s like coming home. I’m bringing back what was ours a hundred years ago. It’s my role. I’m fulfilling a mission.”

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