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Russia beckons Jews who fled

Lured by political changes and a booming economy, thousands of Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel to flee Soviet repression in the 1970's, 80's, and 90's  are now returning to Russia. With President Vladimir Putin's trip to Israel on Wednesday, NBC News' Preston Mendenhall reports on the new political influence of Jews in Russia.
/ Source: NBC News

Watching over rambunctious children at a central Moscow Jewish school, a four-story building filled with brightly painted menorah motifs, Sofia Savinikh says it’s sometimes hard to remember why she left home in 1991.

The Achei Tmimim Day School, run by the local Lubavitcher community, educates nearly 200 students in the Jewish faith. It’s one of about a dozen schools with dedicated curricula and kosher cafeterias in Moscow — facilities unheard of during the Soviet Union, when state-sanctioned anti-Semitism barred Jews from many jobs and schools.

Four months after returning to Moscow from Israel, 47-year-old Savinikh, a daycare provider, says the land she left 15 years ago is a changed place.

“It used to be that being a Jew was nothing to be proud of. Now I say I’m Jewish without fear.”

Lured by political changes and a booming economy, thousands of Jews like Savinikh — part of a million-strong wave of immigration that fled Soviet repression for Israel in the 1970s, 80s and 90s — are returning to Russia. The growing clout of Russia’s Jewish community was underscored on Wednesday when Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel for the first trip by a Russian or Soviet leader ever to the Jewish state.

“I could say it’s a miracle,” said Avraham Berkowitz of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia. “Jewish life here has come back with great force and vigor.”

Home from the Holy Land
Jewish community leaders estimate some 57,000 Jews have come back to Russia from Israel, and perhaps thousands more keep a foothold in both countries, taking advantage of lucrative trade between their homeland and the Holy Land.

That success is reflected in the mirrored façade of Moscow’s seven-story, $20 million Jewish Community Center. Inside, the draw of a computer center, a theater, a Jewish literature library and a fitness club (one major donor is a fitness club magnate) has breathed life into a nondescript northern Moscow neighborhood.

“Jews were quitting the country, saying they will never set foot here again, never come back, because they were never given the opportunity to be Jewish and to live a normal kind of life,” said Rabbi Berl Lazar, Russia’s chief rabbi. “Today, they're coming back, and they see actually their future here. It says a lot about the changes that have happened in Russia.”

‘Hurdles’ for Jews
The changes are at all levels of Russian life. Gone are the official ban on public worship and discrimination at the workplace. Passports no longer designate ethnicity — once a barrier to a good job or education.

“The moment you mentioned ethnicity, immediately hurdles appeared,” says Savinikh.

Yet the Savinikhs — Sofia’s husband, Evgeniy, is still in Israel but planning on joining his wife and twin daughters at the end of the month — found life in the Jewish state also had its hurdles.

Sofia Savinikh held down jobs in a toilet paper factory and banana laboratory. Evgeniy Savinikh found that every company he worked for seemed to go bankrupt, as Mideast violence took its toll on the Israeli economy. They say they were fortunate not to be “cleaning floors,” Sofia Savinikh says. Many highly educated Soviet Jews who emigrated to Israel only found menial jobs.

In the end, the Savinikhs say, Israel never felt like home.

Anti-Semitism lurks
But even in the new Russia, there are hurdles, too. Though Jewish leaders say it’s too early to draw conclusions, the cultural renaissance appears to have sparked an anti-Semitic backlash.

In January, an Orthodox rabbi was attacked near the Jewish Community Center in Moscow. And a group of nationalist deputies in the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, published a letter that suggested banning Jewish organizations from Russia.

The letter was roundly criticized in the media, and in the wake of the resulting uproar President Vladimir Putin apologized at a recent ceremony at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland.

“Russia will always not only condone any such manifestations but will also fight them with the force of the law,” Putin said.

Rabbi Lazar calls the recent events “worrisome, because this could be the beginning of a new trend — people feeling free to speak openly against Jews, against Jewish community, against Israel.”

Even so, Lazar says the community is undaunted. “We’ve opened centers in Yekaterinburg, in Nizhny-Novgorod and in (Russia’s) Far East. These are statements that the Jewish community is here, we are back, we're back in the open and we're not going to backtrack, we're not going to go back in hiding.”

A foot in both countries
The Israeli government — with one eye on economics and the other on a rapidly growing Palestinian population — sees immigration as vital to the survival of the Jewish State. So far, the reverse immigration of Jews who came from the former Soviet Union is not seen as a threat.

“First of all, Israel is a democratic country. We don't have that problem which was in the Soviet Union,” said Natan Sharansky, enjoying a bit of irony as the Soviet Union’s most famous Jewish dissident. Jailed, tortured and long refused permission to emigrate, he’s now Israel’s minister in charge of immigration.

“Everyone who wants to go back to Russia has the right and the opportunity to do go. For those who leave, we understand it.”

Sharansky said Israel sees value in the “small” number of Jews returning to Russia, who can enhance links between the two countries.

He could be talking about Anton Nosik, who immigrated to Israel in 1990 and returned to Russia seven years later. He keeps two passports and runs some of the most popular news Web sites in both countries.

For Nosik, the decision to return to Russia was made for economic reasons: Russia’s population and bigger online audience holds the key to bigger profits. Yet Nosik credits Israel with giving him the foundation to succeed in business.

“I had extremely useful schooling in Israel. I learned many things related to business administration and the free press. I learned capitalism and how to operate in a competitive environment.”

“Now I can work in Russia, because the country is no longer a concentration camp.”