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August 31, 1990 - Image 40

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1990-08-31

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

CLOSE-UP

RECLAIMING
RUSSIA'S LOST JEWS

Soviet Jews are eager to learn about American life, but the language barrier has been particularly difficult for older immigrants.

MICHAEL POUSNER

Special to The Jewish News

The subtle
effort to
introduce the
new immigrants
to American
Jewish Life

he blond-haired,
flat-cheeked woman
tightly grasped a
candlestick and
lighted a Sabbath
candle at Atlanta's
Beth Jacob Syna-
gogue one recent
Friday eve.
The woman, who
had just arrived in Atlanta from Ladispoli,
Italy, on her way from the Soviet Union,
was being introduced to Jewish customs at
a Shabbat service sponsored by a scholars'
group called Kollel.
Slowly, under the direction of a vol-
unteer worker, she mumbled the blessing
in Hebrew.
Later, a Soviet immigrant who came to
the United States a decade ago addressed
her and other new arrivals in Russian. He
cautioned them not to rush into the
auditorium to grab spots at tables.
"They've just come out of Russia," a
volunteer later explained. "They're used
to fighting for everything."
Within a few moments, the immigrants

Michael Pousner is associate editor of our
sister newspaper, the Atlanta Jewish Times.

40

FRIDAY, AUGUST 31, 1990

consumed a gefilte fish and broiled
chicken meal, complete with the washing
of hands and the blessing over bread.
While those newcomers were tasting
Judaism and American-Jewish cuisine in
Atlanta, Soviet emigres in communities
from Brooklyn to San Francisco and from
Jacksonville, Fla., to Kansas City, Mo.,
are also getting their first sampling of the
religion and culture they had so long been
denied.
Although the Soviet immigrants' im-
mediate concerns are jobs, a place to live
and financial security in America, local
Jewish communities believe it's impor-
tant the newcomers learn something of
the Judaism that is so foreign to them.
"Why take them out of the USSR if not
to make them, and especially their chil-
dren, Jews?" asked one fund-raiser.
Thus the goal of the American Jewish
community is to provide the newly arriv-
ed Soviets with a double acculturation —
to both American and Jewish customs,
holidays and celebrations.
A member of Chicago's Task Force on
Resettlement, himself a former Soviet
immigrant, said recently: "We're not just
resettling Soviet Jews here to be warm
bodies. We want them to be part of the
Jewish community."
Despite one recently released study
which shows that Soviets from a decade
ago have broadened their Jewish identity,
many Americans involved in that earlier
wave of immigration feared the Soviets
were lost to Judaism in their rush to as-
similate to U.S. culture.
"There's the perception that they didn't
become properly Jewish," says Zvi
Gitelman, a political science professor at
the University of MiChigan at Ann Arbor.
"So acculturation — exposing them to ed-
ucational, spiritual and cultural customs
— is much more important now."
Just how important depends on the
community. Some programs have stellar
records in abetting the acculturation of
the immigrants while others, newer to
the field, are just beginning to con-
template outreach efforts.
One inherent problem for federations is
making the newcomers authentic Jews
without having the central Jewish com-
munal organization endorse any par-
ticular branch of Judaism.
One of the most intensive Jewish ac-
culturation programs in the country is
run by an organization whose philosophy
is Orthodox. Operating in Brooklyn,
where more than half the Soviet immi-
grants who come to America live, the

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