For Russians, Israel becoming more than a one-way ticket

moscow | Nadezhda Gerzhoy splayed her jacket and plopped down in the middle of the verdant park, taking in the bright blues and whites of Israeli flags fluttering around her.

At a recent Israeli anniversary celebration, thousands of Russian Jews milled about as the soft strains of “Hava Negillah” floated over the largest gathering of the community in recent memory.

A 25-year-old interior designer, Gerzhoy was weaned on the first incarnation of Russian Hillel programs and first sampled Israel through a subsidized Birthright Israel trip earlier this year. On some Saturdays she prays at the Chabad-run Jewish community center, Moscow’s largest.

“I don’t know,” Gerzhoy, 25, said while contemplating a move to Israel. “It would be nice maybe in one or two years, for one or two years. I’ve thought about it, but not hard.”

Even as migration loses steam, Russian-speaking Jews living a dual life across both countries are anticipating the establishment of a visa-free exchange that could shift the way the two countries see each other.

The flow of aliyah from Russia has slowed to a trickle and even reversed course. The Israeli Embassy has said tens of thousands who immigrated to Israel are returning to Russia for economic opportunities or out of a desire for cultural familiarity.

Steven Schwager, the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, believes this is good news for Israel that Moscow can now be counted on as another pillar of the world diaspora.

Russia’s Jewish community today projects even more monolithic support for Israeli policies than the U.S. Jewish community, said Baruch Gorin, a spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities, Russia’s largest umbrella organization and another event sponsor.

“They believe that they can help Israel as much as Israel can help them,” Gorin said.

The momentum and energy has shifted Russia’s perception of Israel, which in the past provided a haven for millions of Jews to escape the rubble of the collapsed Soviet Union.

“Ten years ago, or 15 or 20, to support Israel openly was something very rare,” Gorin said. “That’s why only in their kitchens and in their flats, Jews here were all Zionists.”

Ksenia Kuznetsova, 72, remembers the closet Zionism, but at the recent celebration she openly waved a balloon and Israeli flag from the comfort of a lawn chair as pop music flowed from the main stage.

“Today, I am proud, very proud,” she said. “I know that we have a strong people, but this is the first time I’ve seen it like this, out in the open and under the skies.”

Like millions of Russian Jews, Kuznetsova has family in Israel — a daughter and two young grandchildren. She said her daughter is contemplating a move back to Moscow because the family misses Russian culture.

For a segment of the Russian-speaking community, the Israel-Russia decision is not so black-and-white, said Motya Chlenov, the head of the Moscow office of the World Congress of Russian Jewry.

“It’s like New York and Florida,” he said. “I think Israel now is thought of as a second home.”

The free flow of people between Israel and Russia may become even more pronounced if, as expected, visas are no longer needed to travel back and forth. Chlenov says this could shift the perception of Israel even for non-Jewish Russians.

If a visa-free regime is established, he said, Israel would be the most prosperous country to which Russians could travel without a visa.

Israel’s ambassador to Russia, Anna Azari, said recently that she hopes Israel’s parliament could iron out the details of a new agreement on visas by the fall.

“For the momentum of Russia-Israel relations,” Chlenov said, “that would be as important as anything that has happened in the last 15 years.”