Israel Absorbs Half-Million Soviet Jews With Ease

Government job training, language lessons, and housing subsidies enable ex-Soviets to blend into Israeli society

IN the Soviet Union, he built bridges for the workers' state. Today Mark Kritz is designing the highways of the Jewish homeland.

He is one of the 540,000 Russian Jewish immigrants who have arrived in Israel since 1990. And despite obstacles of language, training, and culture, recent statistics show that the newcomers are making an unexpectedly rapid integration into Israeli society.

''I only wish I had come sooner,'' says Mr. Kritz, a former Soviet highway engineer who left a job managing a large state-run building firm in Siberia just four years ago. ''I believed in the communist ideal with all of my heart, but now I realize it wasn't our home. Anti-Semitism is rampant there. My home is here.''

Since 1990, when political instability and economic woes in the crumbling Soviet empire triggered the mass exodus, Israel has absorbed a group of immigrants equal to 12 percent of its population. ''It's as if the United States were to integrate 30 million immigrants into its population and work force,'' says Amnon Beeri, spokesman for Israel's ministry of absorption.

At a time when other Western countries, including the United States, are cutting back on aid and support to their own domestic populations of immigrants and refugees, a thick cushion of Israeli government social benefits has helped ease the transition for the Russian arrivals.

The average family of four receives more than $10,000 in cash grants in their first year in the country. Retraining, Hebrew lessons, and medical care are offered virtually free. Mortgages to new immigrants are subsidized. Salaries of new scientists, engineers, technicians, and professors -- are subsidized for up to the first three years of employment.

While in the early days of immigration, the Israeli press was rife with stories of professors-turned-street cleaners, scientists-turned-plumbers, today, about 40 percent of the newcomers have found work in their fields.

That's despite the fact that the arriving professionals included 60,000 Russian engineers -- more than three times the number of native Israelis working in the field -- and 13,500 Russian doctors compared with 12,000 Israelis.

Today, unemployment overall among Russian immigrants stands at 13.2 percent. Among Russian males it is 7 percent -- and that figure includes a continuing stream of 80,000 new arrivals annually.

Meanwhile, some 70 percent of the new arrivals with children have purchased apartments.

Kritz and his wife have found work in engineering firms. And they are now planning to start up their own business.

Two years ago, the family purchased an apartment for $53,000 as an investment. Soon they will be selling it for double that amount in order to purchase a villa on the Israeli coast. They own two cars and are living in a pretty rented suburban home overlooking Jerusalem.

Although five years ago, average Israelis predicted that masses of the new Russian immigrants would eventually push on to the US or Canada, the American dream seems to have lost much of its sheen. New immigrants are opting to remain.

Kritz recounts the story of a Russian cousin who emigrated to California in 1989 and went into the jewelry business. ''It was burned down by his competitors, and his money was lost. Now he is working in an office -- not in his profession,'' he says.

''My impression is that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel have not fared any worse than those in the US -- and perhaps they are faring better,'' says Sergio Della Pergola, chairman of the department of contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Socially, Israel also has proved more attractive than the US to many of the newcomers.

''My American colleagues offered me fellowships in the US. The Russians tried to keep me in Moscow. But I chose Israel,'' says Hebrew University demographer Mark Tolts, who left a respected academic position in the Soviet Union to come to Jerusalem.

Dr. Tolts says that the stream of Soviet Jewish immigrants to the US is declining annually while numbers heading to Israel hold steady. ''I think the possibility of adaptation here are better,'' Tolts says. ''Israel is a small country, social contacts are easier and more comfortable for Russians. And this is a very important part of our culture. If I had emigrated to Chicago and had friends who emigrated to Los Angeles, how often would I see them?''

Despite continuing political violence, the crime rate is lower in Israel than in any major American urban center, adds Tolts. And that, too, plays a major role in the immigrants' calculations.

''Israelis are living today in better conditions than middle America vis-a-vis security. That's a real part of quality of life,'' he says.

Of course, the transition process still remains a painful one. An estimated 25 percent of the new immigrants have not found employment in their professions or related fields, government statistics show.

And despite their reputation as hard-working and well-educated, hard feelings toward the newcomers occasionally simmer. Kritz's 12-year-old daughter, Julia, recounts that on occasion she has been taunted by calls of ''Russian'' in school.

But the petty displays of prejudice don't disturb Julia's achievement-oriented parents, who also recall many instances of aid and kindness from veteran Israelis.

''If kids call her 'Russian,' it's not the end of the world,'' Kritz says. ''She should know that she has to study hard to get ahead -- not everything will be handed to her on a silver platter.''

The intense politicization of Israeli society also has come as a shock to the new immigrants. ''Everyone in Israel would like to know your religious, political, and financial status,'' Tolts says. ''Even the soccer teams carry party labels.''

And the new immigrants have encountered serious problems winning acceptance from the country's Orthodox Jewish religious establishment, which says that an estimated 20 percent of the incoming citizens are not Jewish according to religious law.

Since Orthodox rabbis control procedures for marriage, divorce, and burial, the problems of this community are likely to amplify over time, says Mr. Della Pergola.

''There are virtually no graveyards in Israel for non-Jews who are not Christian or Muslim Arabs,'' Della Pergola says. The Orthodox establishment has made it difficult for spouses or children in mixed Jewish-Christian marriages to convert to Judaism -- even though the immigrants are granted Israeli citizenship.

Still, Della Pergola foresees a gradual assimilation of non-Jews into the Jewish Israeli majority. ''My impression is that most of the non-Jewish immigrants want to belong and to be like everyone else. And since Israeli society is very pluralistic religiously, the new immigrants can find all shades of Jewish identity here.''

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