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April 21, 1989 - Image 20

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-04-21

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The gates of emigration are
opening wider in the Soviet Union,
but America is allowing fewer Soviet Jews in.
The result: a human logjam
in transit camps in Italy.
A first-hand. account.




"We were slaves to Pharoah in
Egypt, but the Lord took us out
from there with a mighty hand and
an outstretched arm." •
The Passover Haggadah

Ladispoli, Italy — In small, over-
crowded classrooms, in a makeshift
school in this seashore town near
Rome, 500 Soviet Jewish boys and
girls last week were studying — and
living — the story of Exodus.
For even as the youngsters who
had emigrated with their families
from the USSR in the last several
months were reading the dramatic ac-
count of the Haggadah, they were ex-
periencing their own personal
Passover, having been rescued from
oppression and brought to the path of
But they are not yet free. Halfway
through the emigration process,
thousands of Soviet Jews are here,
stranded, awaiting U.S. visas. What
is most distressing is that the wait is
growing longer — an average now of
at least three months — and the


FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 1989

chances of their being allowed to -
come to the United States are grow-
ing slimmer.
Jewish officials are deeply con-
cerned about the increasing human
logjam; the transmigrants, as they
are called, are becoming frustrated
and fearful and are filled with despair
at their ambivalent status.
Meanwhile, though, the children
come to class each day and learn what
it means to be a Jew.
"These children have virtually no
Jewish background," explained Uri
Ben-Tzion, an Israeli representative
of the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee, the interna- .
tional Jewish relief organization
charged with caring for the more
than 8,500 Soviet Jews here. "When
they come here, they only know that
they are Jewish because it's stamped
on their passport."
During their stay, the children
divide their school days between
secular subjects and lessons in
English, and classes in Jewish

history, culture and the Hebrew
In one cramped classroom, 17
fourth and fifth graders studying the
Haggadah with Rabbi Hirsch Rabin-
ski, the Lubavitch representative
here, talked of looking forward to
their first Seder this week. "My gran-
ny remembers the Seder," said one
girl, in English, "but for me it is
something new."
Rabbi Rabinski, an emigrant
from the Soviet Union, noted that the
children were eager to learn and ab-
sorbed their studies quickly.
It is their first exposure to formal
Jewish education — and perhaps
their last.
"We try and do as much as we can
with them to create a positive impres-
sion of Judaism," said Shmuel Pin-
son, director of the school, "because
ironically, for many of them, this may
be the last formal bit of Jewish school-
ing they will ever receive."
It is but one of many ironies that
abound here.


Much as Israel and the American
Jewish community would prefer that
the Soviet Jews now emigrating
would choose to settle in Israel, the
hard reality is that only a handful do.
The emigrants leave the USSR on
Israeli visas — their ticket out — but
more than 95 percent are seeking en-
try into the United States, to join
relatives there or simply start a new
life in the land of their dreams. And
if recent history is any indication, the
majority who come to the United
States will quickly assimilate into the
culture at large and never fully ex-
plore their Jewish heritage — a fact
most American Jewish organizations
have neglected.
Rescuing Soviet Jews who have
suffered persecution because of their
religion and bringing them to
America where they become lost as
Jews is only part of the paradox of the
Soviet Jewry saga today.

Perhaps the ultimate paradox is
that the United States, which has
spearheaded the human rights move-

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