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Jews find home again in Russia

More leave Israel for Moscow, spurred by economic opportunity and a decline of anti-Semitism.

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It can't be described as a flood, but the surge of reverse migration has raised hopes among some community activists that the historic Jewish presence in Russia may not be ending after all. At a 2002 Kremlin meeting, Russia's chief rabbi, Berl Lazar, told President Vladimir Putin that "Jewish life is once again on the rise in Russia.... Jews are discovering that they can stay here and live at the same level as anywhere else in the world," he said.

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Israel's "Law of Return" stipulates that anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent may claim Israeli citizenship. By that criterion there may still be millions of potential immigrants on former Soviet lands. Israel still officially courts Russian Jews in hopes that a continuing influx might stave off a demographic crisis in which Arabs could outnumber Jews in Israel and the occupied territories within a few decades.

The outflow slows

But the outflow, which saw as many as 100,000 Jews leave Russia annually in the '90s, fell to 10,000 last year, says the Israeli Embassy in Moscow.

The Jewish Agency, an arm of Israeli government whose main job is to promote immigration, says that just 5 percent of ex-Soviet Jews have chosen to return, and many of these may not have done so permanently. "There is a hard economic situation in Israel, and the intifada has lasted for three years now," says Semyon Dovzhik, Jewish Agency spokesman for the Russian media in Jerusalem. "Some families may have decided to stay in Russia for this time. It's not a big problem."

Many of those returning are attracted by opportunities in fields where native Russians lack experience, such as marketing or the Internet. Oleg Ulyansky left Donetsk, Ukraine, in 1990, and like most Jewish emigrants was forced by the Kremlin to relinquish his Soviet citizenship as he left. Living as an "Israeli expat" in Moscow with his family for the past two years, he says the economic crisis in Israel and the intifada were considerations, but mainly he came for the rich job pickings in Russia.

"Here there's a great demand for people who have Western experience but speak native Russian," he says. Mr. Ulyansky presently works as a top marketing executive for a leading Russian insurance company. "In Israel it was difficult to compete with native Israelis for jobs like that," he says.

Traditional Russian anti-Semitism remains a worry for some, particularly older returnees. "There is no official anti-Semitism in Russia anymore, but the daily anti-Semitism here will never cease," says Yevgeny Arenzon, a poetry expert with Moscow's Institute of World Literature, who spent two years in Israel in the 1990s. "The frightening thing is that at any moment it can rise to the level of state ideology again."

But Gurevich, though he remembers what things were like in the old USSR, says he hardly gives anti-Semitism a second thought in the new Russia. "Right now in Moscow, people want to work in a Jewish company," he says. "They think that if a Jew decides not to leave, but to build his business here, he must know what he's doing."

Says Rabbi Kogan: "Maybe in 10 years the Jewish community in Russia will double." And, he adds, "we have to get used to the idea that people can now move between Israel and Russia almost as easily as between two metro stations. It doesn't matter where you live, it matters how you live. Wherever we are, we must go on being Jews."