December 27, 2000
Igor and Svetlana Kunin: 'Despite everything, I want to make aliya becuase I want my children to have a future.' she says.
(Photos by Elli Wohlgelernter)
By Elli Wohlgelernter
(December 27) - In the former Soviet Union, Elli Wohlgelernter learns why some 5,000 immigrants looking for a better life are expected to arrive in Israel this month, despite the recent Palestinian unrest --
At the meeting of Jewish Agency professionals in the former Soviet Union 2 weeks ago in Minsk, one unanswerable question hovered over the proceedings: what effect will the current situation in Israel have on potential immigration? Are the shots fired at Gilo in Jerusalem going to scare off some of the approximately 5,000 a month who are coming now?
At this point it is too early to tell, experts say, because the immigrants coming this month are already so far into the pipeline that to delay their trip would be an incredible hardship.
What can be said for certain is that only 14 people who were scheduled to come in December have called a time out, postponing - though not canceling - their aliya. The rest of the 5,000, as agency officials and emissaries discussed and as some of the immigrants themselves said, are still eager to arrive.
"The reports they [potential immigrants] get from their families [in Israel] are not suggesting to them to delay," said Jewish Agency chairman Sallai Meridor. "We should not rule out the potential that if the situation continues, it will [impact the situation]. So far there has not been an effect, and if there was, we have been able to overcome it."
What Meridor is alluding to is the natural concern that has been openly expressed by those who are taking the Hebrew and Jewish identity classes that are given by the agency throughout the FSU.
"They ask if I can explain what is going on," says Baruch Camil, head of the agency operation in Belarus, "what this struggle is about - 'what do they want, and what haven't we given them already,' and so on. So we go around to classes and we talk to them. We tell them 'we've already been fighting in Israel about 100 years, and there is a lot still to do, and not all the problems have been solved.'
"Until now not one of the olim [in Belarus] has returned his plane ticket and said 'I want to stay and fly another time.' Nothing has changed in the plans. I think they understand that the situation with the Palestinians is not new. One told me that even with what is happening in Israel, they are safer there than, for example, in Pushkin Square in Moscow."
INDEED, conversations with new immigrants, just days before they were to arrive in Israel, showed a strong identification and little hesitation with their purpose.
"I am not afraid because for 50 years Israel has had this struggle with all the enemies from the outside," says Yuri Rukshtein, 30, on his way to Tel Aviv. "And they always defeat them. I am sure that Israel has enough military strength in order to stand up against the whole coalition of Arab countries in the Middle East - even without the US."
Rukshtein does admit that his mother is afraid of his going to Israel, but that fear is tempered by his brother already living there and very happily adjusted in the army.
David Yehuda, 24, has already shaken off his Russian name of Ivgeny before he arrives in his new home in Jerusalem.
"I heard about the attacks in Jerusalem, and I have some feelings of fear," he says, a week before taking off on his first plane ride. "But despite everything, I am coming to Israel because I am a Jew, this is my motherland, and I want to live in Israel with all the Jews. I am not prepared to give anything to the Arabs."
Igor Kunin, 38, comes from Latvia, where he was an officer in the navy. "The situation in Belarus and Latvia is as bad as in Israel," he says.
After meeting Svetlana, 35, in Belarus, where she works for the phone company, Igor converted and the two were married, and are looking forward to a new life in Herzliya.
"Despite everything, I want to make aliya, because I want my children to have a future," says Svetlana. "I'm not so afraid, though my mother is."
Meridor tried to explain what it is that motivates the immigrants, despite prevailing conditions. He said it was worth noting that in the years 1990-91, during the Gulf crisis and the subsequent Gulf War, even with Scuds raining on Tel Aviv and thousands evacuating the city, 333,000 immigrants came to Israel.
That year was also the first that Jews were allowed to freely leave the Soviet Union, after decades of protesting for the right to do so.
"Maybe people here have lot of confidence in Israel, and regardless of the way it is being perceived in the media, they trust the strength and future of Israel," Meridor said. "Secondly, to the extent that the conditions here that influenced people's decision to come have not changed, those conditions may be forceful enough to convince people to come [now] regardless of the situation."
Karol Ungar, as head of Jewish Agency delegation in Russia, Belarus and the Baltic states - which includes 50 emissaries working in those countries - has his finger directly on the pulse of every aspect of the Jewish Agency's operation there.
Until now, he says, "Aliya has been going the way it was going before [the Aksa intifada] started. The real answer [of its effect] I can only give in January or February, because if the events continue it may have some influence on the aliya. But now it is very hard for someone who has already left his workplace and sold his house to stop the process. So the aliya is continuing."
The only effect he sees so far is a slight drop in the number of people who are coming to agency offices for their initial consultation about the aliya process. The consultation visit with the agency is the third step of the process, after the potential immigrant has opened a file with the Lishkat Hakesher [liaison office] to see if they are eligible, and after they have received their documentation from the Israeli consulate.
Nevertheless, Ungar says, people are asking a lot of questions about the situation in Israel, and whether there will be a new war.
"You see pictures on CNN, you cannot not ask questions," he says.
"But I don't feel a real panic. And not one of the people who came to ask questions asked to bring his child back from youth programs in Israel. And a few of them decided to make aliya now when the situation is difficult in Israel because they say they have to be there now with the people in Israel. Not thousands of them, but there are some."
MEANWHILE, the Jewish Agency proceeds with all its activities, maintaining its aliya and ulpan classes as if nothing is happening. To help the agency employees in their work, a conference is now held annually - last year's first such gathering was held in Vilna - to monitor and execute the policy for 2001 and to review what happened in 2000.
The numbers for this year will show a substantial drop from 1999, but still more than in 1998. Through November, 46,817 new immigrants had come from the FSU, while 66,847 came in all of 1999.
Chaim Chesler, treasurer of the Jewish Agency, attributes it to the situation in Russia, a region which accounts for a significant drop this year - 17,631 through the end of last month, compared with 31,000 last year.
"This year we have slightly fewer immigrants then we expected because of the stability in Russia," Chesler says. "Russia has a new president, monetary stability, political stability, and that's why you see fewer people coming from Russia. But otherwise, from Ukraine, Belarus, central Asia and the Caucasus, and the Baltic communities, more or less [we expect] the same numbers as we predicted."
Chesler predicts similar numbers for 2001, "although the trend of fewer immigrants coming from Russia will continue. As far as I can see, I still believe that for the next two, three, four years the trend of immigration will continue from this part of the world, because I don't see any dramatic change here.
"But as time passes, and as the reservoir is getting smaller, and as the reservoir of those who know they are Jewish or are newly aware they are Jewish will be smaller, we have to put more attention and energy into Jewish identity [classes]. I believe in five years' time we will see a dramatic change."
Chairman Meridor was more optimistic, telling the assembled delegates that another half-million people eligible under the Law of Return can be brought to Israel over the next 10 years.
The amount of people eligible in the FSU, he explained to the Post afterwards, is estimated between 1 million and 1.5 million.
"I assume if we work hard, and circumstances are inviting, we will be able to bring in the coming decade close to half a million Jews to Israel," he says. "I think it's feasible, I think it's not just throwing around numbers - you know, they talk about a million, three million, whatever. No. I think it's based on the number of people that are in the FSU today that are eligible for emigration.
"It may be a little bit ambitious, but I don't see anything wrong with being somewhat ambitious. That's a goal that we need to set. I don't think it's a fantasy. If we work hard, and we do what needs to be done, we should achieve it."
But the big question mark remains: will continued tension in the Middle East scare off the potential olim?
"If it will be worse, and there will be more fighting, I think it will affect the aliya," says Ungar. "And people who only started the process will stop and wait to see what will happen. But if the situation will be better, I think we will have a new wave of aliya."
There are still students learning in the building of the Mir yeshiva in Mir, Belarus, studying each day from 9:30 to 2:30. They do not, however, argue the complex points of talmudic logic, as they did for 125 years, but rather the simple ways a tractor can best make a U-turn.
The two-story building, sitting in the middle of three dunams with a tree-lined backyard, is now a 220-student trade school. From six neighboring villages, teenage Belarus boys come to learn how to drive cars and tractors, and girls - girls! - are taught how to sew, or train to become nurses and kindergarten teachers.
It is hard to imagine that here once stood one of the great yeshivot of Europe, in a town among a handful whose very names symbolized the epitome of Torah scholarship in prewar Europe.
It is not hard to imagine, however, how they lived, for this town of 4,000, an hour west of Minsk, still survives exactly like what we once called a shtetl. It is a place where water flows not just from pumps that line the streets, but also in wells from which you draw the old-fashioned way, cranking a bucket up and down.
The houses are built from stone or wood, lining roads paved with mud and stone, or side streets that are just mud. Outhouses sit in the backyard next to toppling sheds, and townsfolk work the land with horse-drawn plows.
Outside the general store, a Tevye-the-milkman has his horse and wagon parked, with two metal milk cans standing in the back. Indeed, to say this village is a live backdrop for a theatrical performance of Fiddler on the Roof would modernize the ambiance.
Ten meters from the trade school is the building which once housed the beit midrash (study hall), where nearly 500 students sat and learned. Today it is a local bank branch. The building across the road that was the dormitory - and where you can see through slits in the windows what appears to have been a mikve [ritual bath] - is all boarded up.
The school's administrator, Vladimir Gavina, says the classroom building, which is heated by coal- and wood-burning furnaces, is now a state-protected landmark. Almost every week, he says, Jews come here to visit, mostly from Israel and America.
"We are trying as best we can to keep the flavor of the place," Gavina says, but there are no signs of anything Jewish. There are no posters at all, in fact, except one hanging over the back door: "If you live in a village, you must master technique."
Two blocks away from the school is the building that was once the town synagogue. Today it is divided, one half a post office, the other the town's electricity and phone center.
If there is any indication that Jews once lived here - a 1921 census showed they comprised 55 percent of the town's population of 4,000 - it is of course the cemetery, but that too is vanishing.
Surrounded by a 150-cm. stone wall and measuring three football fields in length, the earth here grows wild, except in the corner closest to the street, which shows evidence of once having been a vegetable garden.
By climbing over the wall and walking across the middle of the field, one can see faint Hebrew writing on some headstones; and those that are even visible have only a few centimeters left before they too will be buried by time.
An hour north from here is a bigger town, which in its prime - the 19th century - included the greatest yeshiva in the world, Volozhin. The yeshiva building, built in the 1860s, still stands, and a plaque by the entrance in Hebrew, English and Russian tells you that this was once the Etz Haim Yeshiva, named after Reb Haim Volozhin, who founded it in 1803.
It was the mother of all yeshivot, the breeding ground for great rabbis and teachers, and dynasties like the Soloveitchiks, where 400 students learned Torah 24 hours a day. Prospective students were required to be fluent in three tractates of Talmud, and unlike other yeshivot, which concentrated on just seven tractates of Talmud, the teachers in Volozhin would give classes in all 63.
Before the war there were 3,500 Jews who lived in the town, over half its population, but the yeshiva building, now locked, is all that remains of what was once Jewish, except for the cemetery in the middle of town.
There, along its inside border, there is garbage strewn about, having been tossed over the wall from the surrounding streets; but there are many gravestones that still stand straight, with the common names of Jews that can easily be read: here is Pollack, here Ginsburg, there Rogovin, and Kagan.
There are many graves of the Persky family, relatives of Shimon Peres and Lauren Bacall. There is a memorial tombstone to the Jews who died in the Holocaust, and in the middle of the field stands the grave of Reb Haim Volozhin.
And that is all that remains. Throughout Europe, in villages and towns like Mir, Volozhin, Telshe, Slobodka, Kamenetz, Grodno, and Baranowitz, the story is the same: the souls of buildings once synonymous with Torah have been gutted, though their shells may still stand. But their spirit yet lives, transferred to places like the Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem, the largest in Israel, which today boasts over 3,500 students.
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