Jewish Agency targets St. Petersburg kids for aliyah

ST. PETERSBURG — Moti Paz, director of the Jewish Agency office here, is a rustler of sorts. Whenever he can, he rounds up Jewish teenagers and herds them off to Israel.

Paz, a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Force, then sees to it that the kids get education and jobs in the Jewish state. In return, he demands they surrender their Russian citizenship and officially become Israelis.

"I'd like to see even more Jewish people leaving," he readily admits after detailing Russia's economic woes.

His wily plan is to let the kids lead their parents to the Promised Land.

"Those who are 35 to 40 are afraid to go, afraid they won't find jobs," Paz explains. "But they let their children go, believing for the children there's a future."

The relocation process is comparatively easy.

Paz and his four Jewish Agency cohorts sponsor a Jewish youth club, where activities are free. There, and at other facilities a recent Jewish renewal has spawned (including a summer camp the Agency has programmed for 1,000), they corral receptive kids.

They test and retest them, "consult" with them, and, ultimately, spur them toward free three-year studies at an Israeli university (without the usual army commitment).

Parents subsequently are taken to visit the teens, "without any payment," in hopes that they, too, will make aliyah.

It's all straightforward and above-board, Paz says to critics who may decry the breakup of families. The Agency's mission, he explains, "is to take the Jewish people back to Israel."

Upwards of 8,000 kids between 15 and 17 have been sent on tourist passport-visas from Russia in the past 3-1/2 years, Paz reports. "At 18, they must change their status and become Israeli citizens."

Properly preparing the teenagers is a challenge, he says, pointing to the three levels of St. Petersburg's 100,000-strong Jewish community. "Those 55 to 60 and above know a little Yiddish, know a little bit about tradition, because they heard it in their houses. Those about 30, they still heard a little. The younger ones, they know nothing."

Jobs, meanwhile, are the main bones the Agency throws to adults, an appealing incentive given Russia's paralyzed economy. Paz imports recruiters from Israeli companies and facilities who promise positions to virtually any Jewish worker — except for doctors and musicians unwilling to do anything outside their fields.

Undiplomatically, he doesn't hesitate to voice strong doubts about Russia's future.

First sent to St. Petersburg in 1993, "just before the Second Revolution, when communism fell," Paz says that Boris Yeltsin's takeover shows how radical change can take place "in only a few weeks, a few months."

So the rise of ultra-nationalist and anti-Semite Vladimir Zhirinovsky must not be discounted, he notes.

But for now, he says, "we're not here, [we're] not there. The open market system brought foreign products — and fear.

"There are a lot of unemployed people, and the economics are very bad. You find a small group of very rich, and you don't have here a middle class. It's very dangerous.

"The average income is 200,000 to 250,000 rubles, which is $40 or $50 a month, and some have less. At the same time, prices are rising, going up from day to day. They have [multiplied] five times since I came here."

Conditions have grown so unstable that Russia has become a kind of lawless frontier, where young criminals park in their Mercedes outside the best hotels while law-abiding people must rely on their wiles to exist.

The main question, he says, "is how people can survive. But I find the Russian man is built to suffer, and they will continue. They are selling what possessions they have, growing and canning whatever food they are able to.

"After the June 1996 election, maybe everything will be changed. Now, everything is blocked, everything is stopped. Germans are investing here, but no one else, because it's an unstable country. Quick business is being done: Here's the product, give me the money.

"Communism, good or bad, it was a system. They changed it into what is not a clear system. That means laws and rules can be changed. But I must say everything is under control because those who were in power under the Communist system are still in power."

As for the Jews, their plight is no better — or worse — than other Russians, according to Paz. Although anti-Semitism is rising again, it has not targeted specific Jews, perhaps because "there is no ghetto, no Jewish quarter. The Jews are scattered all over."

For Paz and his Jewish Agency aides, the fantasy is to rein in Russia's entire Jewish population and relocate it to the Jewish state.

"Not all emigres are going to Israel," Paz says. "I'm very sorry about it. I believe they should go only to Israel."