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Exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union

The Jewish Humanist, December 1990, Vol. XXVII, Number 5

The exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union continues.  It is one of the most dramatic events in Jewish History in modern times. 

One hundred years ago the majority of the Jews of the world lived in Eastern Europe, especially within the old Russian Empire.  Although oppressed by the Tsarist government, they constituted a vital national entity.  Reinforced by Yiddish and Ashkenazic culture, they saw themselves as a distant ethnic group.  Antisemitism made their national yearnings all the more powerful. 

But this community was undermined by three historic developments.  The opening up of North America to mass immigration allowed the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe to flee antisemitism and to find refuge in a culture of freedom and opportunity.  Hundreds of thousands of Russian, Polish and Romanian Jews abandoned their homes and rushed to America.  The Bolshevik Revolution, which initially was identified with the liberation of the Jewish People and which had recruited thousands of idealistic Jews to its Marxist standard, turned against the Jews, Zionism and Yiddish culture.  Cut off from the rest of the Jewish people by Stalinist isolation, Soviet Jewry ceased to function as a Jewish community.  The rise of Nazi fascism and the Holocaust which it created, destroyed the heart of the Ashkenazic homeland.  The critical members of Yiddish speaking Jews no longer existed outside.  Outside of a few major cities Eastern Europe had become a Jewish wasteland. 

The present exodus of the Jews from the Soviet Union is the final stage in the dissolution of the Ashkenazic nation.  If, as predicted, one million Jews choose to leave the Soviet republics, the aging and indifferent Jews who remain will not be able to constitute a significant community.  For all practical purposes, the Ashkenazic nation, which lasted for over one thousand years, will be dead. 

Why is this exodus taking place especially now when the Communist tyranny has collapsed and the Jews are free to be what they want to be? 

The reasons are not difficult to find.  The economic chaos in the Soviet Union has totally demoralized the population, both Jewish and non-Jewish.  Most Soviet citizens have no hope that the severe economic problems will be solved in the near future.  Since Jews are allowed to leave and have a place to go, they choose to leave.  Only patriotic masochists would choose to stay. 

The major reason for Jewish flight is the terrifying re-emergence of overt antisemitism.  Under Communism antisemitism was controlled for state purposes.  Jews suffered discrimination but they were not generally exposed to violence.  Today, with the chaos of the new freedom, violent fascistic antisemitism is again part of the Russian scene.  Newspapers, rallies and public political figures denounce the Jews for corrupting Russian life and for both inventing and destroying communism.  Violence and threats of violence are increasing.  In this environment even Jews who had no interest in Jewish identity and who had never contemplated immigration for themselves are clamoring to leave. 

What does this dramatic exodus mean for the Jewish people? 

It means that the character of American Jewry will continue to be altered by the arrival of Soviet Jews in the United States.  Several hundred thousand Jews, distributed throughout the major centers of American Jewish life make a difference.  Their needs and their culture will help to shape the future of the American Jewish community. 

It means that Jewish life in Western Europe will be altered by the arrival of thousands of Soviet Jewish refugees.  Unable to secure entry to North America and unable to survive economically in Israel, many Russian Jews will seek to go where economic opportunity beckons.  Even restrictive immigration policies will not deter them.  They will slip through the cracks.  They may even be responsible for the revival of a significant Jewish community in prosperous Germany. 

It means that Israel will be strengthened by the arrival of nearly a million immigrants.  The security of the state demands more Jews.  But Israel will also be changed.  The secular forces in the Jewish state will be enhanced because Soviet Jews are overwhelmingly secular.  As long as the Labor party continues to abandon its socialist heritage (and Soviet Jews are overwhelmingly anti-socialist) it should benefit from the Russian arrivals.  The ultra-Orthodox are worried and should be worried.  Ashkenazic hegemony will also be restored.  One million Ashkenazi Jews will be a powerful balance to the growing Sephardic and Oriental presence in Isaeli life. 

What does this new exodus mean for us as Humanistic Jews? 

It means that we have a large new community of Jews in the Soviet Union, Israel and America who would be “turned on” by Humanistic Judaism, if they knew that it existed. 

Many Soviet immigrants are indifferent to Jewish identity.  Others are trying to find their roots in the religious revival, but many of them have a reawakened Jewish consciousness which they cannot fully express in the conventional Judaism which they have encountered. 

But we cannot reach these prospective Humanistics Jews through English and English speaking “missionaries”.  We can only reach them through Russian and Russian leaders.  The Orthodox missionaries are already working full time to seduce the “newly awakened” to traditional Judaism.  They have millions of dollars available to them to publish literature, produce videos and establish schools to broadcast their message. 

We cannot match their resources.  But we need to match their zeal before we lose one of the most important opportunities to bring confused secular Jews to Humanistic Judaism. 

On Monday, December 10, Nikoli Solovyev, a leader of Soviet Jews in the state of Israel, will be our speaker.  He is a member of the Israel Association of Secular Humanistic Jews.  He has contacts, through his work, with thousands of Russian Jews in both Israel and the Soviet Union.  He believes that the message of Humanistic Judaism is exactly what most Russian Jews need and want, if only they knew about it.  Come and hear how we can respond to this unique exodus in Jewish history. 

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
All texts, photos, audio and video are © by the Literary Estate of Sherwin Wine, whose custodian is the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism – North American Section. All rights reserved.