Chronicles of Former Soviet Union Emigrés
As world events have brought Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union to our collective attention, we take a look back at how the first wave acclimated into our communities and a look ahead to how new ones can adapt.
While awareness of the challenges of Jewish refugees from former Soviet Union countries faced has lain dormant since the wave of emigration in the early 1990s, it has suddenly been reawakened. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted an unexpected refugee crisis, and Jewish eyes are on their brethren in the Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, those in Russia too.
The plight of Soviet Jewry in the last century, concluding with the mass exodus of Jewish refugees in the 1990s, took the form of a long and painful odyssey. Antisemitism and discrimination against Jews in the former Soviet Union created hardships within hardships under a communist regime. And the struggle to free Soviet Jewry presented its own difficulties against the backdrop of the Cold War.
The fight for Soviet Jewry evolved into an international human rights campaign known as the Soviet Jewry Movement. It advocated on behalf of freedoms for Soviet Jews, chiefly among them the freedom to emigrate. Groups formed in the 1960s — such as Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry — that ran events and organized demonstrations under the slogan “Let My People Go.” Larger establishment organizations lobbying for Soviet Jewry were also founded, like the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
Refuseniks from the Soviet Union including Rabbi Yosef Mendelovich, Natan Sharansky, Yosef Begun and Yuli Edelstein , galvanized advocates by highlighting the intolerance they faced as Jews. Pressure led to measures like the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, which effectively linked U.S. and USSR trade with Jewish emigration. And in the 1980s, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union ushered in a period of glasnost and perestroika, enlarging political, social and economic freedoms.
All these activities culminated in the 1987 Freedom Sunday march on Washington, D.C., on the eve of the first Reagan-Gorbachev Summit. Demonstrating that activism is key, more than 250,000 people participated in that massive rally advocating for Soviet Jewry.
As a young girl, I was one of them. I remember arriving from New York and joining the streams of demonstrators flooding the nation’s capital with one purpose. And it worked. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a mass immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, totaling around 1.7 million, to the U.S. and Israel.
But while refugees overcame the struggle for emigration, they faced new struggles integrating into their host countries. In addition to the myriad hardships confronting refugees, Jews who chose to embrace a Judaism that was previously denied to them had their own set of difficulties. Having fled a system that banned religion, they had to develop tools to absorb their newfound freedom.
In the following five interviews, I spoke with three former Soviet emigrés and an American activist in New York, and a current Ukrainian Jewish refugee I met in Zurich. In conversations that were as inspiring as they were instructive, they each spoke honestly and candidly about the challenges of emigration and of becoming Orthodox Jews who joined the frum community.
Mrs. Ilana Liapina
Ilana Liapina was born in Kiev, Ukraine (Kyiv today), and emigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1991, before the collapse of the former Soviet Union. She attended the Occupational Therapy program at Columbia University, from which she graduated with honors. Mrs. Liapina married, had a son and currently lives in Brooklyn, where she works as an occupational therapist, specializing in pediatrics.
How difficult was your initial integration into American life?
I came in 1991 from Kiev, Ukraine, directly to Brooklyn, N.Y. The first few years were the most difficult — leaving behind family and friends, past life experiences, everything that made up my everyday life. I arrived in a new, unfamiliar world with no place to live, no friends, no money, no job, no medical coverage, very few familiar people to ask questions to, and no knowledge of basics.
I was lucky compared to other immigrants because I was 22 when I came and already knew some English. It was harder for my mother, who knew little English and was older and struggled more with language. Also, I was already a professional, even though I had to go back to school for a few years.
Did you find that people and organizations here were willing to help?
Very few relatives and organizations realized the exact difficulties I was having. Some relatives showed up to take us sightseeing, which was not exactly important in the beginning. Organizations also were not very helpful. They offered English classes, which were important, but didn’t offer the basics like help finding apartments or jobs. I didn’t know whom to ask things of or even what to ask, like about Social Security, right-to-work cards, applying for medical insurance, or finding apartments.
Was antisemitism the main reason you emigrated?
Yes. For example, I graduated college at the top of my class. Every graduate was ranked, and those at the top had the choice of the best jobs offered by job recruiters. But not if you’re Jewish. When they saw my documents that identified me as Jewish, I wasn’t offered those top jobs. The same applied to college acceptance.
There was also antisemitism on the corporate and government levels and even on an everyday level by citizens. Neighbors and co-workers would denigrate Jews. In Kiev’s population of over 3 million citizens, there was only one small synagogue attended only by old people who didn’t work anymore. That’s because the KGB was everywhere. If anyone was caught going in or out of the shul, they would immediately notify their college or workplace and you would get fired without discussion.
When you first arrived, what were your initial reactions to American life, specifically as it related to being a Jew?
Seeing Jewish life here shocked me. I was so surprised to see Jewish people living together, dressed as Jews, and Jewish stores in very clearly marked Jewish areas. I couldn’t believe my eyes and was so happy. I couldn’t stop looking and looking. I would walk the streets and feel like I was part of a movie.
When I first arrived, I went to Crown Heights. My first Shabbat here I went to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I stood on line and met so many Jews. It was the most amazing experience. From there I went to Boro Park, and that was an even bigger Jewish community.
Logistically it was a little difficult to feel part of the community because they all knew each other and their families for a long time. But I did get to meet people in shul and elsewhere and was happy to become part of it.
Was there any formal Jewish education in Kiev? How did you maintain your Jewish identity there?
There was no formal Jewish education, only secretly, through relatives or family. It was very difficult to be Jewish and maintain any kind of Jewish religion and traditions. But unlike the majority of Jewish people from the former Soviet Union, I grew up in a very Jewish family, where my relatives spoke Yiddish.
Regardless, my Jewish identity was always strong. In Kiev I had started learning about Judaism myself. A few years prior to my arrival here, I was able to find some books that people sold from person to person and made photocopies of them. When I came here, it was easier for me to learn more. In Crown Heights, I attended a college for Jewish women to study Torah studies.
Most Russian emigrés are politically conservative after suffering the ills of communism. How has your personal experience been impacted by this outlook in today’s political climate?
Every first-generation Russian-speaking immigrant I know is conservative. Apart from antisemitism, this is mainly why they are here. But what we’re seeing here recently is like the socialist society we ran away from — the lack of freedom of speech, the neo-Marxist worldviews taught in schools, the refusal to accept that people differ in intelligence and abilities. I went through all of that; it was part of being in school in Ukraine. This mirrors my childhood memories — manipulation of people’s minds, withholding of the truth, idolizing the least productive and most criminal class of society, requiring politically correct language, censoring media, double standards, propaganda. American values are being destroyed.
Are you concerned that second-generation emigrés might subscribe to this mindset if they are sent to public schools and don’t receive a Jewish education?
The reason I said the first-generation immigrants are conservative is because those are the people who hated socialist values so much that they dropped their lives and friends and established jobs to live in a free world. Schooling is crucial for the second generation, especially a Jewish education that covers English subjects in a truthful manner without corrupting American history and other subjects. A Jewish education preserves the Jewish way of living and values and keeps socialist-inclined thinking away.
Yet it seems that many emigrés did not end up not sending their children to yeshivos. Why is that?
I think it depends on the family and how important a yeshivah education is for them. Many people were turned away because of the need for a strong Hebrew. For Israeli Russians that might have been easier, but for Russian-speaking emigrés it was not. There were some children who went to yeshivos and then ended up leaving.
It also depended on the age of the emigrés. When people first came, they didn’t have the extra income to pay for private schooling. I did because to me it was the most important thing to do. I skimped on other extras because I felt it had to be done, no matter what. But not everyone thinks like that.
In Russia you were called Jews and here you are called Russians. Does that offend you?
It’s true but not unexpected. There you are different because the majority are Russians, Ukrainians or different nationalities and you are not. You are Jewish and different in that way — you look different, your family is different, you have different values.
But it’s not offensive to me because I understand that my accent reveals that I’m from the former USSR. When I am called Russian, I understand it to mean a Russian Jew. In Russia, I was excluded and made to feel second class. I came here for freedom and lack of antisemitism, but in a way I’m still second-class — not because I’m Jewish, but because I’m an immigrant with an accent.
Now, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I expect dislike of Russian-speaking people will be happening again, as it was in 2014 [when Russia annexed the Crimea] and then it quieted down. I think it will again be felt here and around the world.
Your Jewish identity was repressed in the former Soviet Union, and now you are free to live as a Jew. What does that mean to you?
It means that my whole adult life I did not experience antisemitism. I am free to study Judaism, to attend shul, to put a mezuzah on my door, to dress a certain way. It means that I am not afraid to identify myself as Jewish, to speak with people at work about Jewish holidays and Israel. I am able to raise a child with Jewish values without fear and the need to hide.
Harav Avraham Binsky
Harav Avraham Binsky is the Mara d’Asra and Rabbinical Advisor of Kehilas Moreshes Yaakov, which caters exclusively to the Russian-speaking immigrant population in Brooklyn, N.Y. Born and raised in Vilna, Harav Binsky and his wife lived for several years in Israel before moving to New York, where they have dedicated their lives to bringing Yiddishkeit to former Soviet Union emigrés.
Speaking several languages, Harav Binsky gives daily shiurim, is a successful shadchan and a sought-after counselor in all areas of life. His kehillah, which began with just three families, now has over 200 families and several hundred members. Harav and Rebbetzin Binsky have five children, all of whom are involved in Kehilas Moreshes Yaakov.
What part of the former Soviet Union did you emigrate from, and what was your level of Jewish identity and education?
I came from Vilna, in Lithuania, which was part of the former USSR. I had mazel because at that time we were able to have a bris at eight days old. Most people were married with a chuppah [l’fi halachah], and we kept Pesach and some traditions. My parents miraculously survived the Holocaust, and I had relatives who knew to keep two leil haSedarim and how to read the Haggadah shel Pesach in Hebrew.
But there was no formal Jewish education at all. There was a shul that the government allowed but it was not free. We had limited freedom in Lithuania as opposed to in Russia, where it was much worse.
Did you feel any antisemitism growing up?
The Lithuanians were big resha’im during the Holocaust, and 95-97% of [Lithuanian] Jews were killed by non-Jewish Lithuanians; there were few Nazis there. But under the Soviet Union, the Lithuanians also felt persecuted, so we were in the same boat.
Can you describe your emigration process?
Before coming to the U.S., I made aliyah in 1973. I married my wife, whom I knew as a child in Vilna and who had moved to Israel in 1972. In Vilna we had felt very Jewish, and for us it was a dream to live in Eretz Yisrael. It was also a dream to serve in the army; I was in Tzahal.
But we were very surprised and upset when we first lived in Be’er Sheva and then in Kiryat Bialik in the north and couldn’t find any religious Jews. We searched and couldn’t find any until we moved to Yerushalayim.
Did this disillusionment play a role in inspiring you to become a Rav?
Yes. I graduated university and almost became a lawyer but then chose to go to yeshivah. There were very few people from the former Soviet Union learning in yeshivah then. But I had a big yearning when I saw what was going on in Israel.
We started a very successful yeshivah for Russian Jews called Shvut Ami in Yerushalayim, after a stint on shlichut to Holland for a few years. Then, when the big wave of Russians came in 1990, I was invited by Agudas Yisroel of America to come to America and do kiruv with Russian Jews.
How many Russian emigrés from that big wave integrated into the Orthodox Jewish community?
A very small percentage. When I first arrived, I realized that Americans were concentrating on enrolling Russian children into Russian yeshivos rather than building a community. I was discouraged because my concept was different. I wanted to deal with parents, because if they are connected, they will bring in children and grandparents. Everyone was pushing Russian yeshivos and they spent so much money. But how many frum Jews actually came from those yeshivos? Many of those Russian yeshivos have closed.
I advocated for Russian children to go to mainstream yeshivos. Sadly, some yeshivos didn’t want them. It was not easy to get them in. But I advocated for them. Russians have a high level of education and these children are usually the best in their classes.
Can you describe the early challenges of a Russian Rav doing kiruv in America?
When the Russians first came, the Americans were excited and wanted to be involved. They wanted to do everything themselves. But I believe that if you want to be successfulyou have to consult professionals. And here, the Russians were the professionals.
Once, a wealthy American gvir sponsored a Pesach with free meals for Russians. Around 1,000 people came. A Rosh Yeshivah invited me to speak, but I hesitated because I knew that only the elderly and their grandchildren were coming, and they were coming for the food. They would take home two matzahs and eat it with bread inside. After several years, the gvir complained that he had invested so much money, but no one became frum.
When the Russians first started coming to Israel, Harav [Elazar Menachem Mann] Shach, zt”l, said, “Please leave Russians to Russians.” He worried that the Russians were going to change the makeup of the country. It was like nevuah. No one listened at the time, and now we have Avigdor Liberman. Very soon we will have nisu’im ezrachim and Reform giyur, chas v’shalom.
The challenges were compounded because there was little money and very few people wanted to help. Harav [Yisroel] Belsky, zt”l, was very involved, and so were the Skverer Rebbe, shlita, and a few other individuals. They helped us rent space from the Young Israel of Midwood before buying our own property. At one point, we had no money to even pay the rent and the shul was almost forced to close. At a meeting I said that I was dumbfounded by the lack of involvement that followed so many demonstrations at the Capitol and across from the Russian embassy, proclaiming, “Let my people go.” I was told, “Then it was political. Now it’s financial.”
Despite these challenges, what success have you had?
There are branches of my former mispallelim and talmidim that have opened up in Passaic, Lakewood, Eretz Yisrael. We are all over. These are first-, second- and even third-generation emigrés. It’s a process that can take years, but Hashem helps.
What specific obstacles do frum Russian emigrés face, particularly in the area of shidduchim?
Fifteen years ago, Russians primarily made shidduchim with other Russians. Today it’s easier since there are fewer [American] boys, or the perception of fewer, so we have more shidduchim being made with American girls. I’m not a professional shadchan, but Hashem has helped me to make over 100 shidduchim.
But there are problems. There was a prominent Rav, whom I disagreed with, who said that the Russians had a status of safek mamzerim. But Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, and Harav [Yosef Shalom] Elyashiv, zt”l, declared that they did not. For sure there was intermarriage, but there was no chuppah or kiddushin — maybe one in a million — so there was no marriage l’fi halachah [and therefore no possibility of mamzeirus].[Regarding one’s actual status as a Jew,] Russian passports stated that a person was Jewish.
But didn’t passports identify someone as Jewish even if only the father was Jewish?
Yes. Today you have to check everything. Some people know their yichus and have documents andsome people don’t. Sometimes we have to go to the cemetery to look for a matzeivah. It’s a process, but it’s possible to find out.
The question is also from which country. If someone came from a Baltic country or Moldova or Carpathia, it’s different because they became part of the USSR much later. For these people it’s much easier to find out. But for those from Russia, like Moscow and St. Petersburg, or from Ukraine, it’s more difficult. I also deal with giyur and it’s not a simple thing. It takes time, sometimes over three years.
What do you see as the future of Russian Jewry here?
Very simple. Whoever has some tradition will remain a Jew. Everyone else will assimilate. It’s America, right?
Do you think it all boils down to education?
Yes, definitely. We need education. But everything needs money. If there were funds, I believe there would be interest. Baruch Hashem, people are more established now, with houses and good jobs. But now they need ruchniyus.
Are you optimistic?
I try to be realistic. Some emigrés came here not knowing anything and they became very chareidi. A former mispallel came to my shul with a long ponytail. I was mekarev him step by step. He learned in the Mir Yeshiva and Kollel and I found him a shidduch. This couple is now chareidi l’kol davar and opened a branch of the kehillah in Passaic. So, it’s possible.
Even though assimilation is high and the challenges are high, Hakadosh Baruch Hu is above all and He has rachmanus on His people. Every Russian couple that keeps Torah and mitzvos is a miracle. And Hakadosh Baruch Hu does perform miracles.
Mrs. Esther Skalet
Esther Skalet was born in Leningrad, Russia, and came to America in 1990 with her husband Uri and two children. The Skalets had another son in New York, and all three children are now married with children of their own. Mrs. Skalet was a French and English college professor in the former Soviet Union and currently works as a teacher in the New York public school system.
What part of the former Soviet Union do you come from and what was the level of antisemitism there?
I am originally from Leningrad, which is now St. Petersburg, and my husband is from Odessa, Ukraine. In Ukraine, antisemitism was more open but not as severe as in Leningrad because there were more Jews in Ukraine. In Leningrad, the atmosphere was more severe and ruled by strict government decrees.
Did you grow up with any degree of Jewish identity or education?
My husband knew he was Jewish but knew very little because his parents weren’t educated. They were just traditional Jews. There was only one shul in Odessa but he never went there because anyone who did go could be arrested by KGB agents, who would report you and kick you out of college or work or blackmail you.
My parents were slightly more educated but only culturally, not religiously. For example, we ate matzah on Pesach, but together with challah. On Yom Kippur we went to a synagogue but it was more of a social gathering. Very often that’s how many shidduchim came about. I used to go dancing at the synagogue but it was always under threat of getting reported.
How difficult was it for you to acclimate after arriving in the U.S.?
We came in 1990. The first year was very hard, especially financially. We were living on $50 a month. We were so strapped financially and busy with our children that we didn’t make any steps toward becoming religious. We were very busy just trying to survive. When our oldest daughter was ready to go to school, we put her in a public school because we didn’t know better.
Was there any outreach toward Russians by frum people?
No, not at the beginning. When we first arrived, a local Reform synagogue welcomed us. We didn’t even know what Reform was. Eighty percent of people in that Bensonhurst synagogue were Russian Jewish immigrants. They wanted immigrants to become members, but it didn’t happen. They came for a kiddush Friday night, and in the morning no one came. That synagogue doesn’t exist anymore.
But they were helpful because they had a Sunday school that was run by Orthodox people. We sent our daughter there, where she learned about bentching licht and other things. She then taught her classmates in public school how to sing Shalom Aleichem. It was ultimately her public school teacher who encouraged us to send her to private school, but we couldn’t afford it.
Why didn’t you send her to a Jewish Russian school?
We didn’t know about them. But a chance encounter in a local park with frum girls led one to give us the phone number of a Chassidishe man who connected us with Harav Binsky. We slowly started learning and becoming frum. We tried to enroll our daughter in a mainstream frum school, but we were rejected.
Do you think mainstream yeshivos refused to accept Russian emigrés because of lack of observance or lack of money for tuition?
A combination. Every school was hesitant to accept kids from foreign backgrounds. It was obvious that we were different. On top of that, they questioned whether we were Jewish and whether our kids were mamzerim.
I understand that schools have certain standards to upkeep, but it was difficult. We finally went to YOB, where we had a four-hour interview with Harav Manis Mandel, zt”l. That interview prompted us to start thinking about who we were. Later on, we realized that he was trying to ascertain whether we were really Jewish, but the way he conducted the inquiry was very respectful.
Our daughter was accepted to YOB. In order to make her feel comfortable and keep up her status, Harav Mandel came to her class and remarked on how good she was in math. He announced, “You must have come from Russia.” She ended up becoming G.O. president two years in a row.
How challenging was your integration into the frum community?
We were very fortunate to meet wonderful people who befriended us. We felt very welcomed by neighbors and people in shul, who reached out to us. Rebbetzin Kahn, from our shul, Knesses Bais Avigdor, came early in the morning to bring me to shul when we made a bris because we didn’t have anyone. It was a new world for us the moment we became Orthodox.
I think the main reason we became frum was for our children. We came from a very educated, cultural and idealistic background, despite being poor. Coming to America was a big culture shock. There was no idealism or patriotism in the non-Orthodox population and a lot of hypocrisy and materialism. That totally contrasted with many of the frum people we came in contact with.
How did the fact that you are Russian affect shidduchim for your children?
We knew our three kids were great and they did really well in school, but we got many rejections. It was hardest to find a shidduch for our daughter, even though I was fortunate to have a support system. For our boys it was different because there seem to be fewer of them.
I hear a lot of outcry from emigrés who came here very young, became frum, went to Jewish schools and now have kids in shidduchim. Although some Russians do marry Americans, many people don’t want to even consider making a shidduch with a Russian girl. Shidduchim between Russians are also tough because some people become more frum, some less. Different standards create problems. They try to follow the system but the system isn’t theirs yet.
Is the subject of yichus an obstacle in shidduchim?
Possibly. We made a chuppah when our children were young after having become close with Harav Belsky, zt”l. He helped us a lot and arranged for our chuppah, since we hadn’t had a religious marriage in Russia. Although we were married by having our own household, Harav Belsky said that that this will answer our yichus questions in the future. At the time we didn’t understand that, but Harav Belsky was a well-regarded posek so if he gave consent to our chuppah that meant our yichus was okay.
Do you think second-generation emigrés like your children have become fully integrated into the frum community or do they face their own set of challenges?
My daughter suffered a lot because, despite her popularity, she experienced and saw things through a different lens because we were not American. Kids are kids. It took a long time to outgrow any complexes, but she successfully has.
Is there any advice you would offer others becoming frum?
I would suggest to go slowly and not judge. When you become frum and everyone around you is at a different pace, you can have the tendency to become judgmental, and that’s a problem. Things are so difficult and we have to accept Jewish people the way they are and concentrate on the good in people.
Rabbi Ezra Klein
Rabbi Ezra (Edward E.) Klein was born in Forest Hills to Holocaust survivors, whose home was steeped in Torah and gemilus chessed. A senior level real estate litigation attorney by trade, he is the Founding and Managing Partner of the law firm The Klein Law Group CRE, PLLC. In addition to supporting the Russian kehillah, Kehilas Moreshes Yaakov, Rabbi Klein is the Founder of Agra D’Pirka, a unique, part-time kollel that currently has 10 locations in five states. He and his wife, Amy, live in Flatbush, where they have raised a family with ahavas haTorah and ahavas chessed.
What inspired you to get involved with the Russian Jewish community, and in what capacity have you worked with them?
There was a Russian family that joined my shul, Harav Aharon Kahn’s shul, Knesses Bais Avigdor, around 1993. This was following the beginning of perestroika in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of Russians immigrated to America and over a million to Israel. I saw that this family was shomer Shabbos and invited them for a Shabbos meal. I asked them what made them become frum because I hadn’t seen too many Orthodox Russian families. They told me about Harav Binsky. I wanted to meet him, because I wanted to see somebody who seemed successful with Russian emigrés.
I connected with Harav Binsky and we had some meetings at our house. We held a seminar and it blew my mind that we attracted 70 Russian-speaking Jews. The rest is history. I became involved, along with Harav Belsky, zt”l, and other local people. Harav [Avraham] Pam, zt”l, was also very strongly involved with Russian kiruv. We helped the Russian kehillah, which started in a basement, to eventually have a building of its own in Midwood.
Was your role mostly a financial one?
My role was more than fundraising, although that was most important. We have been involved in the fundraising needs of the shul for the past 25 years, but we also go to each other’s simchos. I became integrated into the community even though I’m not Russian.
From an outsider’s view, what did you see as the biggest challenges Russian emigrés face integrating into the frum community?
Looking at it from the perspective of 30 years, the challenges that they face were the same challenges that our parents, the Holocaust generation, faced when they came here to America after the war. There were issues of parnassah, schools, integration into the American scene, both frum and otherwise. I think it very much mimicked what my parents went through in the 1950s and 1960s.
Do you think the integration was a success in terms of the number of Russian emigrés who became frum?
It’s not small. I think there are 20-30,000 frum Russians in the U.S. today. I’m including Lubavitch, which numbers in the thousands. Even a small kehillah like Harav Binsky’s, the next generation probably numbers close to 1,000. And he’s only one group.
Those emigrés who were older when they arrived in the 1990s did not become frum, and there is virtually no integration of older Russians who came before 1990. They’re gone, and so are their children and grandchildren. Unfortunately, they never had the benefit of a Harav Binsky or Harav Katzen or the Russian Rabbis of which there are probably a few dozen with kehillos throughout the country.
There were yeshivos that were established for Russian children, many of which don’t seem to exist anymore. Were they helpful in being mekarev the Russians?
The success of the Sinai Academies and all the other schools that cropped up for the Russians was limited. And that gets into a whole subtext of kiruv that appeals to individuals, which is the way the kiruv movement has worked in the U.S. and Israel. This differed from Harav Binsky’s successful approach, which aimed at getting a whole family involved in Yiddishkeit. When you get a 10- or 12-year-old in a school, very often he will not stay frum because the house environment does not permit him to do that.
Do you think that mainstream yeshivos were as welcoming as they should have been?
Definitely not. It was a struggle in the 1990s and 2000s to get Russian kids into mainstream yeshivos because they thought they were inferior. That was wrong. Not only can Russian children compete, they’re often the best in the class. That struggle is over now because there are so many thousands of Russian baalei teshuvah, but it was definitely a struggle for the first 20 years of the Russian wave.
It seems that the Russian emigrés had a double hurdle to overcome integrating into frum society as both baalei teshuvah and Russians. In what ways do you think this affects them, specifically as it relates to shidduchim?
There is integration of Russian families into frum society but there are many issues. Like with any baal teshuvah movement, there are issues of yichus and getting married. A lot of the families that came were intermarried. Very often the husbands were goyim, but for whatever reason the [Jewish] women married them — they didn’t know that perestroika and freedom were around the corner. Many Russians ended up divorcing and remarrying someone Jewish. But that perspective causes American Yidden to hesitate about marrying into a Russian family. Are they pure? Are they mamzerim, G-d forbid?
But yichus is an issue that you can check fairly easily because not that many generations were irreligious in Russia. Two generations were lost, but the third generation, the one that came in the 1980s and 1990s, had many that came back.
Do the same challenges regarding shidduchim exist among the second generation of Russian emigrés? Are many marrying within their own kehillah?
Many of them are finding good shidduchim, and many are not. It depends on the whole package. There’s definitely a lot of marriage within their own kehillah, and also with the Bucharian community. I don’t see the cultures as completely the same, but there’s a lot of overlap between those two kehillos. There’s less between Americans and Russians.
Yichus is one issue and culture is another big issue. It’s a different culture. Language is a big issue. And it’s a very authoritarian culture. I see it as being very father- and man-centric. And this is a funny thing, but they drink vodka like we drink water. It’s something that’s anathema to our community because of all the problems with drugs and drinking. But they can hold it. That’s just an example of a seriously different culture.
In what way do their conservative values play a role in finding common ground with the frum community?
That is the most common area because they have the same political views as us. Politically we are aligned in almost the exact same constellation.
Do you think the future of the Russian kehillos will mimic the dwindling Yekkishe kehillah that was absorbed into mainstream Ashkenazic culture?
Good question. I think for those in the second and third generation the answer is yes. The “graduates,” the initial baalei teshuvah, are now branching out all over the U.S. There are a few hundred Russians in Lakewood alone with large families.
But we need to have more programs for the unaffiliated Russian youth in the second and third generations. This is a very important issue that has not been given a lot of attention by mainstream Orthodox Yiddishkeit. Perhaps their focus is on Americans, but the Russians are important too. With the proliferation of mosdos in America, there should be more money thrown at this. That might be wishful thinking, but you can always try…
Michael Pogribnyy is from Dnipro, Ukraine. He fled his home country with his wife, daughter and mother in law shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and currently lives in Zurich, Switzerland. Mr. Pogribnyy has a degree in law and worked as a project manager in Jewish communal affairs in Dnipro before the war.
Can you describe the conditions in Ukraine before Russia invaded, specifically regarding the Jewish community you lived in?
I lived in the city of Dnipro in Ukraine. Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky from Chabad built up a huge and beautiful Jewish community of approximately 700 -1,000 Orthodox Jewish families. He came from America in 1990, when Dnipro had no Yiddishkeit, and built up an empire from scratch. He developed institutions, including religious schools and yeshivos, housing, an enormous cultural complex called the Menorah Center, a Jewish medical center that served both Jews and non-Jews, and a highly regarded old age home. This past Chanukah, plans were authorized to build a Jewish hospital.
Rabbi Kaminetsky filled all the needs of the Jewish community and he is still in Dnipro, having chosen not to abandon the community. I have tremendous gratitude to him and daven for him and family’s welfare.
How many people ended up leaving from this community?
Approximately two thirds of the community left.
The Ukrainians have a long history of antisemitism. Did it affect you in Dnipro?
Yes, the Ukranians have a history of antisemitism, but they also have a history of helping some Jews. I once asked Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, the famous refusenik, about Ukrainian antisemitism. He replied that he thought it was half and half in terms of their people. There were some terrible instances, but today it’s different.
I didn’t really feel antisemitism — the opposite. The Jewish community helps many non-Jews — the sick, orphans, impoverished, handicapped. Because of that, the non-Jews try to befriend the Jews. Before the war, the Jews had a positive image.
What difficulties did you encounter when you fled?
First of all, I had to leave my parents behind. They are in their seventies, and it was too hard for them to leave. It’s a war. The Russians didn’t get to my city as of now, but there are bombings and drone attacks.
When the war first broke out, I was working as a mashgiach on a dairy farm, and bombs burst out right nearby. Everything was black and smoky. The women working there became hysterical. I thought it was because of the immediate danger, but it became clear that they were terrified that their husbands and sons would get conscripted into the army. That’s when I decided that we had to leave.
I got my driver’s license 12 years ago but never used it. My wife got her a month before the war. She ended up driving us 2,000 kilometers from Dinpro all the way to Zurich, initially stopping in Hungary.
Ukraine declared martial law and prohibited men ages 18-60 from leaving after the Russian invasion. How has that affected the situation in Ukraine?
Fortunately, I was able to get out. I couldn’t let my wife and daughter and mother-in-law travel by themselves, so I had to leave with them.
But many view this law as yet unconstitutional, and it still needs to be determined whether or not it will be upheld and how. Because now if these men try to return, they will be held in contempt of the law. Also, Ukraine doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. If someone has two passports, for example a Ukrainian and Israeli, and uses his Israeli passport to leave, he can possibly be arrested upon return and have his property confiscated. It’s a very big problem from both a legal and human rights standpoint.
Why did you choose to come to Zurich?
We fled Ukraine to Budapest. The Shabbos we arrived, I went to a shul there and davened to Hashem to send me to a good place where my family and I can settle. Right after, I was approached by an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen in over six years. He told me that he was relocating to Zurich and asked if I was interested in going too.
Switzerland is a beautiful place, and I knew that its Jewish community is a beautiful and cohesive one, which is very important to me. So we agreed to go. I was put in touch with Rabbi Menachem Mendel and Rebbetzin Debora Rosenfeld from Zurich’s Chabad community, and they helped me tremendously.
How many Ukrainian Jews came to Zurich?
Around 70 people. Not all from Chabad.
How are you and your family coping with the many new challenges you face?
We are receiving a lot of help. I have a lot of hakaras hatov for Rabbi Rosenfeld, who helps me with everything, including finding an apartment. I am also grateful to Rabbi Chaim Moshe Levy, the Rav and head of the IRG community in Zurich. Rav Levy treats me like family, and I have developed a very positive relationship with the community in the short time I’ve been here. The Jewish community here, which is very special and has a unique achdus among its members, has gone out of their way to help us.
What work did you do in Ukraine and will you be able to continue in Zurich?
I was involved in communal work within the Jewish community — kiruv, educational projects, lectures, shiurim and hashgachah. I can do work in hashgachah here because I am certified and have experience. But first I have to learn a new language. I’m not in a position now to be choosy. Whatever Hashem offers me, I will thank Him for it.
Where did the Jews from your community flee to?
Some fled to Vienna, Amsterdam, Berlin, and of course, to Israel. They are starting to build mosdos and schools for them there to develop and maintain their Yiddishkeit.
What kind of future do you see for Dnipro? Do you think that people might return if conditions permit after they have put down roots in a new place?
I don’t know what the future will bring. Everything is determined by Hakadosh Baruch Hu. But it would depend on the circumstances. During the Holocaust, my grandmother saved her family in Ukraine during the Holocaust by fleeing the Nazis to Russia and to Kazakhstan. Now Ukrainian Jews are fleeing from the Russians to Germany.
But we are obligated to believe in Hashem and rely on Him. We have to acknowledge that ein od milvado and daven a lot to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. We saw many miracles in the past and hope to see many more in the future.