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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Jewish Emigration to Israel Surges




JERUSALEM -- For years, Eduard Vayndroyk scraped by on his wits. Cheerful and charming, he supplemented the meager monthly salary he earned as a physician in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk by selling shoes from a small shop with his wife, Olga.


But Russia's economic crisis and the collapse of the ruble last August quadrupled the dollar-denominated rent for his shop and sapped his spirits. In June, he and Olga packed their bags, kissed their friends goodbye and joined a new flood of Russian Jews who are emigrating to Israel.


"It just wasn't worth it anymore,'' said Vayndroyk, 29, who arrived at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport recently on one of several daily charter flights for Jewish immigrants. "In Israel, I expect I'll be able to live a normal life and practice medicine."


Already this year, some 12,000 Russians have arrived in Israel, more than double the number who had come by the same time last year. Driven by the crash of the ruble, dim job prospects in major cities and a nasty resurgence of anti-Semitism, nearly 100 immigrants from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok arrive on flights every business day.


"Welcome to Israel!" says a sign in Russian at Ben-Gurion's immigrant arrival hall, where nearly all of the 36 officials manning computers, coffee machines and clipboards are themselves more or less recent immigrants from Russia or one of the other onetime republics of the former Soviet Union.


The spike in Russian immigration to Israel this year is the first since the colossal influx of Soviet Jews in the early 1990s. That wave of immigrants, many of them highly educated and almost none of them religious, altered the demographic face of Israel, reconfigured the political map and fueled the country's high-tech boom.


About 1 million Israelis - roughly one in five Jews in the country - now speak Russian, and the vast majority of them have arrived since 1990.


As the decade wore on and Russia's economy seemed to right itself, the numbers of Jews leaving tapered off. Still, about 46,000 immigrants arrived in Israel from former Soviet republics last year, and this year the number is projected to soar to 60,000.


"The increase is from every region of the Russian Federation," said Emma Trahtenberg, an analyst in the former Soviet department of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which shepherds most of the immigrants through the process.


Religious Israelis and older immigrants from North Africa in particular see the Russians as a threat to the long-term cohesion of Israel's already Balkanized society.


Others believe they will further the cause of Israel as a country free of the Messianic and exceptionalist ideology characteristic of previous waves of immigrants.


The Russians themselves tend to be seeking nothing more complex than a better life for their children. But this year, nearly one-third of the immigrants surveyed mentioned an additional reason for their decision - rising anti-Semitism in Russia.


Many immigrants cite the narrowing of their own opportunities to make a decent living and lead what they call a "normal" life.


"I felt that everything had died in Moscow," said a 24-year-old woman who arrived in Israel last week and gave only her nickname, Pulheria. "My friends didn't want to do anything. I felt no sense of possibility. Most of them wake up at four in the afternoon, spend the evenings drinking tea and thinking of what to do. Mostly they spend their days at home."


A computer designer, Pulheria said she did have some job prospects in Moscow. But after spending several months in Israel touring and studying Hebrew, she detected an energy and sense of purpose that was distinctly lacking in Moscow.


"It wasn't strictly about economics or politics," she said of her decision to leave Russia. "But there was just a loss of spirit."