Russian Jewish resettlement changed two communities’ lives

Thirty years have passed since the masses marched on Washington in the name of Jewish refugees.

On Sunday, Dec. 6, 1987, as Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev prepared to meet President Ronald Reagan, nearly a quarter of a million people flooded the National Mall.

The demonstration, which was facilitated by Jewish organizations throughout the country, catalyzed a series of international decisions that ultimately yielded the release of more than 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union.

In Pittsburgh, efforts had been underway to save Soviet Jewry for years.

Rabbi Mark Staitman, a former spiritual leader at Rodef Shalom Congregation, adopted the cause as a Californian rabbinical student in 1968. By the time Staitman arrived in Pittsburgh in 1975, taking an active lead in Russian Jewish resettlement was “kind of a natural thing,” he explained.

The topic of Soviet Jewry was already on the minds of Steel City residents.

In 1971 Pittsburgh Jews had formed the “Pittsburgh Conference on Soviet Jewry, first called Pittsburgh Voice for Soviet Jewry, to gather and send clothing donations to Soviet Jews, distribute promotional materials to local agencies, organize protests and rallies and to lobby local and national politicians for policy changes to help free the Jews suffering under Soviet rule,” according to the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives.

While aid was distributed abroad, refugees arrived in Pittsburgh. But between 1972 and 1982, a period that Polina Kats termed the “third wave” of Russian Jewish resettlement, the number of refugees dwindled.

By the end of the 10-year span, the “doors to the West were again suddenly closed for Russian Jews,” wrote Kats in her Carnegie Mellon University senior honors thesis, “Same Origins, Different Perspectives: Russian Jewish Immigration to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1882-1917 and 1989-1995.”

Between 1982 and 1987, while exodus was restricted, Russian Jews experienced extreme persecution, as Pamyat, a Russian nationalist organization, rose in power.

The ultra-conservative group accused Jews of destroying elements of Russian history as well as contributing to the “persistent problem of alcoholism that existed in the Soviet Union,” said Kats.

“It was anti-Semitism from the government; we were afraid of being there. We suffered from it. We suffered from being Jewish,” said Nina Krimer, a Greenfield resident who resettled in 1997.

Fears swelled as emigration rates declined. In 1985, only 1,140 Russian Jews were allowed out, and in 1986, merely 914 were granted exit, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

By 1987, as Gorbachev’s commitment to glasnost (openness) increased, many Jews felt that there was “no choice but to leave,” said Kats.

In May of 1988, Alexey Kharitonov arrived in Pittsburgh with his younger brother and parents. Kharitonov, then 13, was among the first families during the “last wave of immigration,” he said. It was a challenging period, “being the only immigrant in school.”

Fitting in, not only in the broader American society, but in the local Jewish community, was onerous due to a “gap of expectations,” he said. “When people started coming here, they really came without the religious background that a lot of American Jews expected them to have.”

In Russia, it was “dangerous” to be a Jew, explained Krimer. “I could not imagine to be in a synagogue because we were afraid.”

But it was more than prohibitions against religious activity. “People were told from birth that God doesn’t exist, that religion is the opium for the people,” said Kharitonov.

Once they finally arrived here, “Russian Jews had, I think, a lot of challenges not just being accepted into the Jewish community, but accepting the Jewish community themselves.”

You can’t be between. If you move to another country and you’re still thinking the old way, you can’t live.

Efforts were made to welcome the Russian Jews, explained Leslie Aizenman, director of Refugee & Immigrant services at JF&CS.

Communally, “hundreds and hundreds of people” were involved, said Staitman. Between teaching English, helping with housing and employment or simply serving as friends to the new residents, Pittsburghers from all denominations assisted.

“I took interest in them by teaching them a special class,” said Cantor Moshe Taube, formerly of Congregation Beth Shalom.

Given Taube’s Russian proficiency, he organized biweekly meetings for “five to six years in the early 1990s.” The gatherings were a chance to share insights into religious services, cantorial music and “whatever I was able as far as the Shulchan Aruch is concerned about Jewish laws and customs,” he said.

One outgrowth was a group marriage, where Russian Jewish couples experienced a traditional Jewish wedding complete with a chuppah and ketubah.

Similar activities occurred elsewhere, said Staitman, who recalled Rabbi Alvin Berkun, formerly of Tree of Life Congregation, organizing a comparable event.

While the synagogues and organizations provided services, the Jewish day schools offered tutors and translators to ease integration.

“The Jewish shuls and schools were welcoming. I went to CDS, my friends went to CDS or Hillel,” said Kats, who arrived in Pittsburgh in 1989 at age 9 along with her parents.

Where problems arose, though, was in enabling the immigrants to branch out.

“I think it just didn’t occur to us that we needed to do things to help them build relationships outside of the Russian Jewish community and outside of the particular families who sponsored them or resettled them,” said Staitman.

“Our focus was in many ways kind of a single-minded focus. Our focus was we want these people to have the tools necessary to have a meaningful Jewish life, so we looked at both education and language building and that kind of thing, and we looked at employment, we looked at medical needs and housing, and we looked at helping them to have Jewish experiences.”

One piece of the resettlement puzzle was having local families welcome Russian Jewish emigres.

The difficulty was that “many people saw this as one small aspect of their life. They would have their Russian Jewish family over to the house once or twice a month and take them out to an event or something, but they didn’t think about how do I go about helping these people build relationships with other Jews in the community,” said the rabbi.

“They could have done better. They could have made them more welcome and given them more attention … and tried to make them feel at home,” echoed Taube.

Further obfuscating coalescence were those who “were leery of the Russian immigrants,” said the cantor. “They didn’t like the idea that they are coming and being welcomed and feted.”

Krimer never felt that way.

“We came like refugees, that’s why we are here. Thank you America, it’s the best of countries,” the octogenarian said.

Kats, whose family was matched with an American family, also appreciated her arrival.

“Being embraced and welcomed, I think it was the right way to approach it. It got people engaged in Jewish life that might not have been engaged otherwise,” said the New York resident.

But Kharitonov disagrees.

“The Russian Jews sometimes felt that they were force-fed religion when they came here. They kind of felt that the American Jews were kind of throwing it in their faces, that they didn’t know the practices, didn’t know the Hebrew. They felt, I guess, that they weren’t accepted as Jews,” said the CMU graduate. “I think those things kind of created a rift between Russian Jews and American Jews and the end result being you rarely see Russian Jews participate in the Jewish community here.”

The only active members are the older generations, added Kharitonov.

Staitman concurred.

“The majority of the kids went to day schools for a period of time, so they were learning about Judaism, but it was difficult for families to make Judaism a part of their lives. And what we see now, and I see this particularly in the synagogue I go to, is some elderly people who have built a nice Jewish life for themselves, but we don’t see a lot of the people who came over in their 20s and 30s and their children in the synagogues today or involved in Jewish organizational life today.”

Alex Kiderman, a mechanical engineer, arrived with his wife, son and mother-in-law in Pittsburgh in 1989. He was 40 years old.

Two days after their arrival, Kiderman’s wife was hired as a translator by JF&CS. Roughly three months later, he found employment as a simple design engineer.

In the interim, he attended English classes at JF&CS and religious services at Beth Shalom. Kiderman, whose prior knowledge of Judaism was that his “grandparents were religious,” gravitated to the activities at the Conservative synagogue.

In conjunction with Taube’s offerings, he organized a Russian Jewish club in 1989. At its peak, the group, which met at Beth Shalom for eight years, included 200 immigrants.

“My goal was to bring as many people as possible to services,” said Kiderman.

It was necessary to “substitute Russian culture” for Jewish culture and American culture; “you can’t be between,” he said, “If you move to another country and you’re still thinking the old way, you can’t live. If you’re not going to check The Chronicle and you start to check the Russian newspaper, living here, it’s not good.”

Over the years, Kiderman’s involvement in the Jewish community grew.

After decades on the board of Pittsburgh’s Hebrew Free Loan Association, Kiderman eventually became president, an honor he holds most dearly.

“I feel that I’m part of society, it’s most critical. Because to make money, OK, this is something, but to be part of community, this is critical,” said the organization’s immediate past president.

These days, Kiderman serves on the board of trustees at Beth Shalom and as president of the synagogue’s men’s club.

Kharitonov holds a similar spot at Rodef Shalom Congregation. After decades of uninvolvement, Kharitonov met Rabbi Sharyn Henry around the time of his marriage roughly five years ago.

“I went to classes, became a member of the brotherhood, was asked to chair a taskforce and started feeling like a member of the community,” said the current Rodef Shalom board of trustees member.

The Russian Jews sometimes felt that they were force-fed religion when they came here…They felt, I guess. that they weren’t accepted as Jews.

Looking back on the collective experience, there are lessons to be learned, said those involved.

“We weren’t professionals in the area of resettlement,” noted Staitman, and though mistakes were made, “I think we were very successful in building a sense of responsibility in the American Jewish community.”

Kharitonov agreed. Although “integrating Russian Jews into the community here” was “something where everybody dropped the ball,” the opportunity to welcome Russian Jews back into the fold “has not been lost,” he said.

“Just like in my case. I know a lot of people who came here as immigrants and are having children, and it’s a great time to start immersing them in the Jewish culture and Jewish customs.”

“Judaism is incredibly important to all of us; we are sort of redefining the role that it plays in our daily lives,” said Kats, whose intermarriage featured a Jewish wedding and whose son’s naming was performed by Rabbi Chuck Diamond. “Rabbi Chuck was a big part of my childhood,” said the 37-year-old.

“Linda Ehrenreich and Charlotte Zabusky, they would tell me how we would take care of people when they came,” said Aizenman. “I do think that JF&CS has kept the model of wrapping around the families and doing what we need to do, supporting them beyond what is required by our funding.”

Russian Jewish resettlement rendered vast enhancements, explained Staitman. “In any area of life — medicine, academics — we’ve seen tremendous contributions to our lives here from the people who came here, and we would be a much poorer community, country, world if this had not happened.”

The community took on tremendous responsibilities, which was unexpected and “amazing,” said Kats. “The community really pulled together,” agreed Ehrenreich, chief innovation officer and former director of the Career Development Center at JF&CS.”

“It set a tone in terms of people working together regardless of their personal theology, regardless of their personal affiliations, people working together to help people build meaningful lives,” said Staitman. “Resettling Jews was as important for our Jewish community as it was for the people being resettled.” PJC

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