Remaining Jews in Russia and Ukraine are ‘proud to be Jewish’

The Jews remaining in Russia and Ukraine are proud of their Jewish identity, but nearly half feel there is no need to identify with Zionism. They fear assimilation, but see nothing wrong with intermarriage. Most believe that what determines their Jewishness is their subjective feeling, not the fact that one of their parents was Jewish. These are among the findings of a first-of-its-kind study conducted among the Jews of Russia and Ukraine over the last year by the Institute for Jewish Studies in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States).

The institute, headed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, runs a network of informal Jewish education programs in the former Soviet Union. Its study, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of New York, surveyed 806 adult Jews in Russia and Ukraine, about half of whom are active in some official Jewish framework.

The survey found that the Jews who remained in Russia and Ukraine following the massive wave of immigration to Israel in the 1990s do not feel a very strong connection to Israel and Zionism and do not attach much importance to observing religious commandments. Nevertheless, most expressed great pride in their Jewish identity and said it was very important to know about Jewish and Israeli history. Only a minority were worried about anti-Semitism in their home countries

According to official statistics, there are currently some 230,000 Jews in Russia and another 104,000 in Ukraine. But most Jewish organizations active in those countries believe that the true number is much greater, if Jews are defined as anyone eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return meaning anyone with one Jewish grandparent.

Most of the Russian respondents in the survey estimated their country’s Jewish community at somewhere between 400,000 and one million people. Their definition of a Jew, however, is more expansive than the criteria of the Law of Return. Some 13 percent said that a Jew is someone with two Jewish parents and another 18 percent said anyone with one Jewish parent. But the largest number, 33 percent, said that anyone who considers
himself a Jew is one, while another 16 percent said a Jew is anyone who conducts a Jewish lifestyle or observes Jewish tradition.

Only 18 percent thought it imperative for a Jew to marry another Jew. But 70 percent said a Jew must remember the Holocaust and 50 percent said a Jew must not hide his Jewish identity.

Some 61 percent said it was vital to try to prevent or reduce assimilation, and about half of this group said that everything possible must be done to achieve this goal. Yet many who said so are themselves intermarried.

Even many Jews who were not active in any Jewish framework displayed a strong sense of Jewish pride: Some 55 percent of this group said they would have chosen to be born Jewish, while 45 percent said that they define themselves as “Jews” rather than as “Jewish Russians” or “Jewish Ukrainians.”

Of the total 806 respondents surveyed, 75 percent said they were proud to be Jews, and this pride was especially strong among respondents under age 30.

In contrast, attitudes toward Israel could best be described as ambivalent. Only 9 percent thought it essential to accept the principles of Zionism, while 37 percent deemed this desirable. But 42 percent said that belief in Zionism was unimportant.

Despite this, a large majority deemed it desirable or even essential to learn about Israel and its history.

David Palant, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Studies in the CIS, said that the survey results “teach us first of all that we need to approach the Jews of the former Soviet Union with great humility. All the organizations that operate there come with an agenda Zionism, Torah and mitzvot (religious commandments), family values, and more. But in effect, the Jews there are telling us: ‘We have pride in our Jewish
identity, but we’ll set our own agenda.’ We can’t set it for them; at most, we can help them by providing tools. But only they can do the work of building a Jewish community. And we also have much to learn from them.”

The study was published in advance of a conference on Jewish identity in Russia and Ukraine that the institute is holding in Jerusalem Tuesday.

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