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September 25, 1987 - Image 31

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1987-09-25

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Untapped Resources

Older Russian immigrants face adjustment
problems in the U.S., but have much to offer

Two Russian immigrants enjoy a quiet game of chess this summer at the Butzel Conference
Center at Camp Maas.

"It's the language barrier:' says
Tanya Polskaya, age 69, who. arrived
Special to The Jewish News
seven years ago from Moscow. "And
the dramatic change in culture. In
I da- Khinchuk came to the
United States from Russia Russia we were used to attending
when she was 55. In Kiev she cultural events like opera and plays
worked as an electrical cost and we would use public transporta-
estimator. Today, at age 62 and tion. We can't do that here. Everyone
an American citizen, she has no job. needs a car and we dearly miss our
theater and music."
"I came to the United States
The last several years have been
when I was older and it was hard to a learning experience, not only for the
adjust," Ida explains. "Everything older Russian immigrant but for the
was difficult and I still remain an Jewish community, the Jewish agen-
endless student."
cies and for the Russians' American
The impact of moving from one cohorts — those older Americans
country to another, especially when either born in the United States or
the countries represent different long settled in this country.
cultures, is probably unimaginable
Everyone agrees that bridges
for most of us. To older adults, whose must be put in place to help the older
values, attitudes, mannerisms and Russian immigrants more comfor-
even senses of humor are firmly con- tably adapt to American culture. A
nected to the culture and country of particularly important bridge that is
their birth, the shock and stress of sometimes overlooked is the one that
such a passage is often overwhelming. crosses the gap between the
Regardless of the attempts to American senior citizen and the Rus-
assist them by social and state agen- sian senior immigrant.
As the number of Russian im-
cies and the Jewish community, many
of the older Russian immigrants set- migrants increased from 1973 to
tling in Detroit during the past ten 1980, various programs for the recent
years or so found adjusting to Russian emigres were expanded and
American culture a painful new ones initiated at the Jewish Com-
munity Center and at other agencies.


"Soon after the Russian Senior
Adult Program moved to the Jimmy
Prentis Morris Branch from Maple-
Drake several years ago, the older
American adults began to express
some resentment;' explains Joanna
Berger, director of the English
language department at the Jewish
Community Center. "We began to
hear such resentful comments as:
`When we came to the United States,
nobody helped us. Why are you
teaching them English? What are
these vocational services? No one
helped us to get a job! Often the older
Russians were ignored or even
ostracized by the American seniors.
They stayed in their separate groups,
seldom mingling."
Berger feels that most of the pro-
blems were due to a lack of understan-
ding. As an example, she describes
one incident which occurred during a
lecture. One of the immigrants
understood English better than the
others and acted as translator. The
problem was that the translation was
going on while the lecturer was
speaking. The American senior adults
were very upset about this behavior
for they felt the Russian who was
always talking was very rude and
disruptive, not realizing that transla-
tion was taking place.
"Then the Russians in my
English language classes would ask
my why the American Jews dislike
them so," Berger continues. " 'All we
want is to come to the United States,
go to school, and contribute to the
community, they would say. These
were very productive people in Russia
— psychiatrists, attorneys, engineers.
They thought they could come here
and work, but no one is hiring a 55-or
60-year-old engineer, let alone one
who doesn't speak English very well."
Berger calls the immigrants aged
55 to 65 "the lost generation.".
"They're not ready to be put out to
pasture, yet they've been forced to
retire and they resent that."
The Russian Advisory Committee,
formed several years ago to deal with
the many problems facing the Rus-
sian immigrants, continued to work
very hard to put together additional
programs to help the older Russian
immigrants adjust to American

culture. Nevertheless, small events
which emphasized the differences bet-
ween the Russian elderly and the
American elderly continued. The
Americn elderly had established their
place in the community and some
were wary of interloping Russians.
More important, however, was their
lack of understanding of what the
older Russian immigrant had ex-
perienced — the Bolshevik revolution,
Stalin, two world wars and the
degradation of being a refusenik.
During the summer of 1985 the
schism between the Russian elderly
and their American peers came to a
head at one of the summer vacation
weeks for seniors at the Butzel Con-
ference Center at Camp Maas in
"There was a complete breakdown
in communication," reports Miriam
Sandweiss, director of the senior adult
department at the Jimmy Prentis
Morris Branch of the Jewish Com-
munity Center. "The Russians felt
completely polarized. They were
unhappy. They felt that their
American peers expected too much
from them. The Russians stayed
together and isolated themselves. The
camp staff was unable to understand
why they felt this way and could not
mediate the situation."
Today, Sandweiss strongly feels
that what happened at camp was a
blessing in disguise because it clear-
ly pointed out a situation that re-
quired change. The Russian Advisory
Committee worked with community
agencies to arrive at some possible
Committee members Sandweiss
and Berger; Lydia Kuniaysky, reset-
tlement worker for Jewish Family
Service; Dr. Luba Berton, director of
the Russian Acculturation program at
the Center; and Prof. Zvi Gitelman,
consultant and professor at the
University of Michigan, concluded
that the Advisory Committee had two
immediate responsibilities: first, to
assist Sandweiss in developing pro-
grams for Russian integration at the
Center and, second, to form strong
associations with the Russian corn-
munity so that there would be con-
tinuous feedback from the Russians.
As a result of these efforts, the



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